Dark days for the Church of England?

Love and Faith in God | Think Missionary

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The Archbishop of Canterbury resigns.
Equal civil marriage hits the headlines and the Catholic Archbishop speaks out against it.
Sunday trading for the Olympics sparks fears of Sunday no longer being special.
It’s been a bit of a big week for the state church in England, you might say.

And I don’t often get a chance to legitimately use the word antidisestalishmentarianism in a blogpost, so it was too good an opportunity to miss to post something.

So I’m a member of the Church of England.  Not clergy, not even local church leadership team.  My Sunday role comes down to supporting the occasional Sunday school class, making the coffees, singing loudly, praying with my home groups, doing some of the readings and the intercessional prayers.  But I write this blog. As you may have read, I’ve met Rowan Williams, thought a bit about women bishops and whether faith and feminism can fit together, and posted various other Christian-themed articles. It’s my little outlet for sharing thoughts and ideas and engaging with others in faith, about faith.

Why does faith matter?
Even though “CofE” has a sort of tepid, bucktoothed spinsters, old men in dresses and rebuild-the-church-roof-by-holding-a-fair-on-the-village-green reputation, taking an interest in your faith is not just a question of the social side, that is performing rituals and going to the services.
It’s also about actually doing things for others, supporting each other emotionally, being a community, giving to the foodbank – the religion for atheists stuff that Alain de Botton talks about.  But it is not just that either.
Because if Christianity is true – if Jesus was who he claimed to be and did what those who witnessed it claimed he did – then this stuff really matters and explaining about Jesus to others, serving others and trying to live as if you are actually forgiven and part of God’s kingdom becomes the most important thing that anyone can do.
In brief, this stuff matters for every single one of us.

To put that into some context, Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law, that is, the rules for living given by God to the Jewish people.  He explained that we could never live up to God’s standards, but with his help we do and we’re good for God. Not withstanding this, we can – and should- try to be the best that we can.
So that’s why stuff that seems pointless to people on the outside is the stuff of such intense debate inside the church: women leaders? Divorce? Gay relationships? Euthanasia? Abortion? Stem cell harvesting?
Suddenly, if viewed through a prism of what is perfect in the eyes of someone that is the arbiter of what is good, it’s vitally important to try to get it right if we can.

Of the establishment, but not in control
At the moment the CofE is not making this case coherently.
It may not be in a place to do so – because it is the state church.  It has to deal with not being able to be the radical voice of good because it is also part of the voice of the establishment.
But I would say it is of the establishment, but it is not the establishment.
Not any more.
Everyone knows the origins of the Church of England if they know their British history – Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife who had not produced a male heir and could not do so as a Catholic. In establishing himself as Head of the Church, as well as head of the State in a pre-democratic age, he linked the church and the state in a way that has continued (even despite the English revolution). This is about as establishment as you can get.
But it  is clear that the world is changing.
I suspect that it is neither the issue of same sex civil marriage nor Sunday opening that will ultimately change the role of the Church of England as a part of the establishment.
It is not really With our Queen as the head for sixty years, this has been maintainable.  But Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, has said he doesn’t want to be known as Defender of the Faith (the title taken by the Head of the Church of England) but as Defender of Faith. Does that mean he doesn’t intend to be Head of the Church of England?  And is it a requirement that the titular Head of the Church is a person of strong faith? What if they were not?  And if these things happen, is it disestablishment by default? There are almost certainly answers to these things being thought out in the church and by constitutional experts, but sometimes, as a member of the church, it’d be nice to know a bit more about where the hierarchy is leading us.

While some people seem to want to make the continued existence of faith schools the totemic issue (seemingly without really asking themselves why parents are happy to send their children to these schools and fight to do so rather than campaign against them), if the church was really such a strong voice in determining policy from the House of Lords, surely there would be no abortion act, no concept of civil marriage (the people not the church apparently owns that concept).

In fact, while it has been pooh-poohed in the press and I’ve found the comments of Lord Carey and others a bit too strident at times, it does seem to be getting harder to be a Christian in the UK.  Not because of the government – check out the warm words mentioned on Left Foot Forward‘s article on being a Christian country.
But more widely the stories making the press are those of Christians being told that it is not a requirement of their faith that they must wear crosses under their uniforms at work (it isn’t, but although there is undoubtedly something I don’t know about the case, replace this with turban or headscarf and think again about implication of the outcome of the ruling), that it is not a necessary part of the Christian faith to go to church on a Sunday (um, more tricky but thousands of years of practice suggest that this is as near to a requirement as we get in Christianity).
There is a careful balancing act going on in society, balancing the freedom of expression in the practice of one’s faith with the freedom to access goods and services without discrimination and it’s the evangelical Christian foster parents, the B&B owners that are finding out where the new boundaries are.  But recognising that it is about finding out what sort of society we are and how we want to treat each other, it is difficult to see people who are sincere in their belief that something is wrong, being held automatically held up as bigots if they are not immediately comfortable with the new normality.
So even though there are prayers at the beginning of the parliamentary day (although not now in Bideford (Devon)’s town council’s meetings) are 26 bishops eligible to sit in the House of Lords (Lord Spiritual) by right, there are also representatives of other faiths and people of no faith in the House of Lords appointed by the government of the day. , Britain is really no theocracy.   Far from it.

A public voice for faith
There are three complexities for the Church of England in acting as a public voice for faith in the UK.
Firstly, there is no unified Christian view of all the issues on which the gentle moral guidance of a faith which sees every individual as a valued child of God could legitimately play a role.  We shouldn’t worry about this – debate has always been part of faith (I recommend “God’s Philosphers“, a book on scientific thought in the middle ages and a brilliant explanation of how the world really was to anyone who thinks it was all brutal Papal suppression of thought and inquisition) and careful intellectual consideration of difficult subjects has actually been something that the outgoing Archbishop encouraged.
And in the twenty-first century, Christianity is not the only faith group with a view and a wish for a voice – if you can’t guarantee a single Christian view on an issue, imagine trying to get a view representing all people of faith.
The third problem is that, just when an inspired, calm and positive engagement is needed with the issues of the day there is a serious public debate in this country about whether religion should have a voice at all in the public sphere.
Richard Dawkins tried to define what being Christian meant, and claimed that as people in Britain didn’t live up to his definition, they shouldn’t self-identify as Christian and more importantly shouldn’t be taken into account when making public policy.
A view that Britain should be secular is presented as if this is a neutral position, that having faith communities involved is indulging publicly and unnecessarily favorably something that should only be part of private life.
But as I’ve set out above, if you believe it is true, then faith is who you are, it is how you live your life, it is part of being in the world not an add-on.

Some countries, like France, seem to manage to keep faith and state separate.  And yet, in a country with as determinedly a secular constitution as the USA and which has had serious court cases to uphold this (e.g. to ban prayer and Bible reading in schools in 1963), no one has yet become President without professing their faith.  Winning the Tea Party/ Conservative Christian Evangelical/ Southern Baptist vote looks to be a big challenge for the (Mormon) likely Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney. Even when you separate state and religion, it has a way of making itself known.

What’s the future for the CofE?
As you may have gathered, I don’t think that gay civil marriage will directly lead to disestablishment of the Church of England.  After all, while marriage in the sense of a love match in front of God and the communmay be a Christian concept, the joining together of two individuals in law has long pre-existed this in England (although these days there’s fewer dowries and daughters used as peace tributes).  And I don’t think that extended Sunday opening during the Olympics will be the end of the church either – indeed, I think that the CofE’s line on this should have been about safeguarding the right to go to church on a Sunday morning rather than necessarily about questioning the 24 hour society that we’ve become.

But what about finding a new Archbishop?  I think Rowan Williams has been a good and subtle leader.  But then opinion on Rowan Williams seems to fall into three camps:

  • he is a weak leader unable to contain the woolly Western liberals or the ardent Africans;
  • he is a wise diplomat maintaining the broadness of the Anglican church and whose legacy is the ordination of women bishops some time in the next twenty years; or
  • he is a wonderful thinker and theologian but that’s not the same as being a great manager of a big organisation.

Being head of the world wide Anglican community, a role that does not claim to be God’s representative on earth by right, the leadership of the church is a real challenge. I hope that they find the right man for the job.  And in twenty years…

But it is important to have someone speaking with the authority of scripture and the common sense to communicate in a way that is heard and respected.  So much wrong has been done in the name of God that now, more than ever, getting it right matters.

Finally, the pray for Fabrice Muamba campaign is one of those rare opportunities for the press to put faith in a positive light. To collapse at his age, in his seemingly amazing physical condition, on the pitch in front of all the fans was shocking.
If you have time, and there are of course many things that need prayer in this world, spare a prayer for him. In so many different ways, I wouldn’t want this to be the prayer that failed…