Amus­ing ob­ser­va­tions and sharp char­ac­ter stud­ies il­lu­mi­nate this study of the de­cline of the Church of Eng­land, finds Clive Aslet

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

That Was The Church That Was

Re­li­gion That Was The Church That Was An­drew Brown and Linda Wood­head ( Blooms­bury, £16.99)

What was it that drove a Church of eng­land (Cofe), epit­o­mised by bish­ops in their cathe­drals and old ladies bi­cy­cling to holy Com­mu­nion through the mist, to be­come—in Arch­bishop Carey’s mem­o­rable prophecy—‘a tooth­less old wo­man mut­ter­ing in a cor­ner, ig­nored by ev­ery­one’?

that is the ques­tion ad­dressed by That Was The Church That Was, its ti­tle aptly re­call­ing the satire gen­er­a­tion’s That Was the Week That Was and, in get­ting to the an­swer, the au­thors pull no punches. the first copies sent out for re­view had to be with­drawn on le­gal grounds. this story of mis­man­age­ment, ar­ro­gance, in­su­lar­ity and sec­tion­al­ism, shot through with vivid per­son­al­i­ties and eso­teric be­hav­iour, is a strangely com­pelling read.

the au­thors liken re­li­gion to a river: ‘very lit­tle of what mat­ters is vis­i­ble on the sur­face’. A pre­vi­ously placid, slow-mov­ing stream can sud­denly plunge into a froth and con­fu­sion of a water­fall. It’s the re­sult of the ge­ol­ogy be­neath.

For the Cofe, the cataract was caused by shifts in the so­cial land­scape over which it flowed. the end of pa­ter­nal­ism, the frag­men­ta­tion of fam­i­lies, Mar­garet thatcher’s ha­tred of the old es­tab­lish­ment, the fall of the class struc­ture, New Labour’s loathing of tra­di­tion, the new forms of spir­i­tu­al­ity that were so ev­i­dent af­ter the death of Diana, Princess of Wales: all the old cer­tain­ties that gave so­lid­ity to the riverbed fell away.

It used to be that the Cofe was a ‘so­ci­etal’ church, sup­ported by habit, duty and so­cial obli­ga­tion. Pipe-smok­ing, heav­ily be­spec­ta­cled, pub­lic-school-ed­u­cated bish­ops were part of the na­tional fur­ni­ture.

Now, its most ac­tive mem­bers are to be found in pock­ets of fun­da­men­tal­ists (that’s the Amer­i­can word—here, they pre­fer to be called tra­di­tion­al­ists): peo­ple who (un­like, fa­mously, David Jenk­ins, Bishop of Durham) really do be­lieve lit­er­ally in the Bi­ble, as well as the will­ing­ness of the holy spirit to make 21st-cen­tury con­gre­ga­tions speak in tongues. how­ever much they work towards their own sal­va­tion, they have ceased to be rel­e­vant to the pop­u­la­tion at large. Most Bri­tons now iden­tify as hav­ing no re­li­gion.

For decades, the Church knew about the sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion, one as­pect of it in par­tic­u­lar: a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of cler­gy­men were gay. An­glo-catholics were al­most in­sti­tu­tion­ally camp. how to ac­com­mo­date this fact of life caused a vi­ciously self-wound­ing de­bate, char­ac­terised by a scene from the Lam­beth Con­fer­ence of 1998, when the Bishop of enugu, Nige­ria, at­tempted first to dis­suade Richard Kirker, the gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Les­bian and Gay Chris­tian Move­ment, from ‘lust­ful car­nal­ity of man with man’, then to cure him of it by a lay­ing on of hands. (the Angli­can Com­mu­nion is a fel­low­ship, without any of the com­mand struc­ture that might im­pose unity on its dif­fer­ent churches around the world.)

Gay vic­ars stayed a long time in the closet, but got out even­tu­ally — to the hor­ror of evan­gel­i­cals. Nei­ther the gays nor the evan­gel­i­cals cared for the or­di­na­tion of women (although af­ter all the brouhaha, it’s re­mark­able to read that ‘by 2014 the to­tal num­ber who had “gone across” [to Rome] amounted to around four hun­dred’ —hardly the mass de­ser­tions that had been pre­dicted).

Amus­ing ob­ser­va­tions and sharp char­ac­ter stud­ies can’t hide the sad­ness of de­cline. Al­most wil­fully, the Church has man­aged to alien­ate many of its nat­u­ral sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing the ar­mies of women who could once be re­lied upon to or­gan­ise flower ros­ters, do char­i­ta­ble work and pass on the habit of church­go­ing to their chil­dren.

One missed op­por­tu­nity has been to use the build­ings of the Church to rally the com­mu­ni­ties amid which they are set. Many peo­ple who are not Chris­tians, con­ven­tional or oth­er­wise, feel warmly towards their lo­cal church. Per­haps it’s not too late to reach out to them, in a ges­ture that could form the be­gin­nings of a new covenant with so­ci­ety?

Days gone by: Rev John God­win Wright of Som­er­set, 1948

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