First, what was bad about the day? For a start, there was far too much packed into the programme. I lost count of the number of contributors and contributions, but it must have run into dozens. Inevitably, therefore, the programme slipped behind time, and I must confess to leaving halfway through the concluding communion service. But by this stage it was 5.50pm and I had an evening meeting at 8.30. By the look of it, a considerable number of people had made the same decision, and Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was left facing a rather emptier auditorium than had been the case first thing in the morning.
Undoubtedly the biggest problem, however, was the domination of the Conservative Evangelical culture over the others FCA is intended to include, in particular the Anglo-Catholics. Most of the presentations (including my own on video) were from this wing, as were most of the platform speakers, and this despite substantial Anglo-Catholic involvement in the event’s organization and presence on the day.
Indeed, one could go further and say it was the Conservative sub-culture which was on display. The one truly working class voice from this group stood out like a sore thumb in the videoed interviews. The rest were nice, middle-class, and a hundred percent white.
The other big problem was the lack of time to ‘mix and mingle’. During the very brief breaks (made even more brief by attempts to catch up on the timing), I saw many faces of people I would have liked to greet and talk with, but it simply wasn’t possible. I also felt very sorry for those who had set up stalls which people did not have enough time to visit.
Above all, this meant there wasn’t the opportunity to reflect on what was happening. Instead, there was a whirlwind of input covering everything from the situation in North America, via the problems for Christians in the Sudan to the inter-denominational ‘Passion for Life’ mission next year.
So what was good about it? At one level, I am tempted to say, ‘All of the above’. There was much about the presentations that was thought provoking and excellent. There was just far too much of it for one day. The attendance should also have come as an encouragement (and indeed a relief) to the organizers. Also, despite my criticisms, there was a genuine attempt at a breadth of churchmanship. And (despite both the expectations of some and the reporting of others) this was not —or at least not just —an exercise in knocking the Church of England.
Of course, quotable quotes were offered from the platform, on which the ladies and gentlemen of the press have duly seized. In each case, however, these were personal views. There is no ‘FCA’ line, as yet. But at the same time, there were disturbing accounts of interference, opposition and manipulation from Anglican officialdom of the kind with which, sadly, most of us are familiar. If peace is to break out within the denomination, it will involve honesty on both sides about past and present wrongs which have created what Richard Coekin called ‘churches on the edge’ —congregations which have arisen within Anglicanism, whose members would happily be ‘Church of England’, but which have been marginalised by officialdom.
One of the real problems in the Church of England at the moment is the difference in perception between those who say there is nothing essentially wrong and those who feel we are in deep crisis, between those who feel the institution is basically ‘getting it right’ and those who feel the institution is in its own ‘Babylonian Captivity’. It is, by definition, impossible for these two sides to agree, but it is surely not too much to ask that they each recognize the existence of the other’s point of view.
The big question after the event, however, is where we go from here.
First, it seems to me we must acknowledge that the situation in England is entirely different from that prevailing in North America, and somewhat different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom. To begin with, England is the home of Anglicanism. But more importantly, things are done differently here than elsewhere, both for better and for worse. In particular, the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-nine Articles, which, thanks to the Jerusalem Statement and Declaration are central to the FCA ‘platform’, are legally binding on our branch of Anglicanism in a way that (as I understand it) they are not elsewhere. This gives the whole institution an ‘inertia’ —a resistance to movement —which does not exist elsewhere and which protects it from the worst excesses of ecclesiastical mavericks.
The Church of England is thus unlikely to slide into the theological ‘off with the fairies’ land that seems to afflict sections of TEC. Our inner tensions are undoubtedly real, but the frustration with the way things are is mutual to both Traditionalists and Revisionists.
One might be tempted to think that this is a good thing and likely to remain so. This, I believe, is the attitude of many who trust the institution and enjoy the status quo. However, we face problems which are not faced in North America (or at least, not in the USA) and which will, I believe, force the issues for us, whatever part of the Church we belong to. These are: the cultural acceptance of homosexuality, a totalitarian and coercive understanding of government, and the growth of Islam.
Let us take these in reverse order. The future of Islam in the UK is, I believe, likely to be parallel to that of Judaism in the Roman Empire. Then, the Romans discovered that is was not worth trying to coerce the Jews into behaving like everyone else. So, like any sensible authoritarian government, they passed a law to make it legal for Jews to be different. They made Judaism a religio licita, thus keeping control of the situation whilst avoiding the need for constant conflict. This is clearly what is happening with Islam in Britain.
Why, though, should that be a threat to the Church? The answer is because the Church of England, by comparison, has been a pushover. Instead of resisting cultural trends where they conflicted with its faith, the Church of England has sought ways to conform to them. The ‘marshmallow’ character of Anglicanism is legendary. By contrast, Islam, in the face it presents towards the surrounding culture, is firm and unmoveable. Thus the culture will make constant concessions to Muslims, whilst knowing that it can make constant demands of Anglicans.
This is particularly important in the light of my second point, that the prevailing philosophy of government is now, thanks to New Labour, totalitarian and coercive. The view of the governing classes is no longer that they should preserve the privileges and security of the citizenry, but that they may decide to the detail how people should live and legislate to ensure that they do. That they would dearly love to apply this to Muslims is clear from various ‘strategies’ to ‘improve’ the quality of Muslim clergy. That this will fail, however, follows from the nature of Islam. Christians, however, are another matter entirely.
That brings us to my first point, which is the broad acceptance of homosexuality. This would not be such a problem were it not for the fact that the government is determined to legislate that homosexuality should be accepted and, like the playground bully, will zero in on anyone who does not stand up to it. Thus Roman Catholic adoption agencies must be forced (force is the right word) to comply, despite the fact that this is totally unnecessary. And comply they have. Yet could one imagine a Muslim adoption agency doing the same? Perhaps they have, but I am unaware of it, nor do I think it is likely.
The crunch will come in this country, therefore —indeed it has already come —at the point of social opprobrium and legal penalties on the practical issue of same-sex relationships. It will be as Christians are confronted at this point that the Church, collectively, will have to decide whether to stand up and be counted. Jesus’ words, “I was in prison and you visited me,” will be the test of true faithfulness. It is here, also that we face some of the intellectual challenges of which Archbishop Jensen spoke, both with respect to society and to ourselves.
It is over against this situation and these pressures that faithful Anglicans have to decide what they stand for and how they will organize themselves. The question, then, is not how one understands the crisis in the Church but how one sees the Church in relation to the crisis overwhelming our society.
A friend of mine has in his possession a book of the minutes of a local Parish Council (a branch of local government, not to be confused with the Parochial Church Council), kept during the Second World War. What he says is remarkable about them is the sheer energy and attention given to utter trivia, when all the time the great issue was whether German paratroops might be dropping on the village green any day now.
This is somewhat how I think we might imagine the Church of England. There are those who really cannot cope with copes. (Trust me, they are very heavy but they don’t turn you into a Catholic.) There are those who believe that society is ‘just waiting to hear about Jesus’ —it isn’t, or rather it is, provided you don’t mean the man God has appointed to judge the world in righteousness. There are others who believe the collective body doesn’t matter, provided their own bit is working (what might be called, in the light of the above, the ‘Dad’s Army’ approach —provided we can defend Walmington-on-Sea, that’s what matters.)
The trouble is, all of these approaches are understandable and none is adequate. What is really needed is to equip the Church as a Church to address the real problems. We need a Churchill. Sadly, what we have more resembles the 1939 government of France, weak and demoralized in the face of an obvious threat, but simultaneously convinced of their ultimate security.
Will the FCA fill the gap? Frankly, at present, I doubt it. But to complete my analogy, it perhaps represents the current ‘General de Gaulle’ —aware of the problem, yet powerless truly to address it. Still, I would rather go down fighting than be overwhelmed whilst insisting ‘Peace, peace’, where there really is no peace.
Revd John Richardson
7 July 2009