A tale of two mothers
Inevitably, we tend to see the Church of England from a very Anglican perspective. In fact, it is quite easy to be lulled into that seductive idyll where we imagine that the Church of England really is as we perceive it to be. Furthermore, we convince ourselves that others must view us in exactly the same flattering light in which we view ourselves. So sometimes it is helpful if someone brings us down to earth and administers a sharp dose of reality – as a friend did to me earlier this month.
It was a few days before the big funeral and one of my friends thrust under my nose Richard Littlejohn’s column in the Sun. ‘Our Mother who art in heaven’ proclaimed the heading. Readers of New Directions would, I presume, have been as surprised as I was at the sight of such a strident theological statement in such an unexpected place, so I read on.
‘The Church of England will be on its best behaviour at the Abbey next Tuesday,’ the piece began. ‘It will be almost as if the C of E still matters.’ Clearly, I had arrived at the seat of the mockers and scoffers, but I was intrigued. What was driving Mr Littlejohn’s cynicism?
‘Most of the time the Anglican Church is so concerned about being ‘relevant’ that it disappears up its own cassock.’ Mr Littlejohn’s pen was now in full flow. ‘Half the bishops don’t even seem to believe in God and give the impression that they are more obsessed with gay rights and feminism.’
It appeared that we were now embarked on a flight of fancy and had entered the realms of hyperbole. Surely this must be no more than a classic unbeliever’s rant at all things sacred? But I read on.
Littlejohn continued, ‘Only this week an official C of E publication told clergy that in future, God should be referred to as a woman. On Whit Sunday, congregations should ‘pray the Holy Spirit will move amongst us and that we may recognise Her presence and Her work.’ God the Mother and God the daughter can’t be far behind.’
At this point I detected the hand of the Bishop of Salisbury and his Liturgical Commission launching some new (and unrequested) liturgy on an unsuspecting Church, so I made some enquiries as to the source of this novel liturgical material. It transpired that, on this occasion at least, the responsibility for instigating Mr Littlejohn’s outburst could not be laid at the door of the Liturgical Commission.
It appears that it was in fact a Northern diocese, which perhaps should remain unnamed, that was the source of this remarkable liturgy. I find it hard to believe that there was nobody in the diocese to have the gumption to perform an appropriate editorial function before this nonsense reached the public arena. I find it far easier to believe that nobody in the diocesan office had the faintest clue of the kind of mockery such nonsense would bring down upon the Church. It is not just mockery in one diocese – it affects the Church in forty-three other dioceses as well – not to mention the Church in Wales, the Church of Ireland and the Scottish Episcopal Church, because the Sun circulates there as well.
When David Jenkins was Bishop of Durham, he courted publicity with some of his zanier pronouncements, but he was working to his own agenda and he knew precisely what he was doing. He had a knack for getting issues into the public arena, which he did with consummate skill. In retrospect, one has to say that he was rather more successful in advancing his causes than the rest of us were in advancing ours.
The problem here is that some buffoon has fairly effortlessly made a laughing stock of the whole Church of England in the eyes of some three million plus Sun readers. That, incidentally, is three times as many people as were in Anglican churches last Sunday. How many of them will now be reassured that the Church of England is every bit as dippy and irrelevant as they have always supposed? How many of them are now even less likely to darken our doors than they were before?
Perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury will carpet the offending diocesan before more worshippers haemorrhage away in despair. One fears that this Northern bishop may not be the only one prepared to embarrass the rest of us in order to indulge his foibles.
It is interesting, though, to see how Richard Littlejohn sums up. Are we prepared to listen to voices from outside the Church? Are we prepared to accept that the world really believes the criticisms that it makes?
‘Why can’t the C of E realize,’ he asks, ‘that those who want religion want certainty, stability and ceremony, not an à la carte menu?’ Maybe he is right, maybe he is wrong, but are we taking any notice of the question? Or have we convinced ourselves that we know best how the church should proceed – and take the endorsement of the two percent of our parish who join us at worship each Sunday as overriding the voices of the 98% who don’t?
As it happens, I think Mr Littlejohn’s concerns over the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother were misplaced. There are some things that the Church of England does well and state occasions are clearly one of them.
As I watched the whole pageant unfold on the TV screen, I couldn’t help but breathe in the serenity and the dignity of the occasion. There was a seamlessly Christian theme to the whole funeral service, as befits the committal of a Christian lady whose faith shone out to all she met, if only they had the wit to recognize what they saw. As her styles and titles were read out it was not only clear that they were indicative of a completely Christian world view, but that those who had created them had intended precisely this outcome.
In years to come, as those who play the various roles in Church and State change, much of this cannot be taken for granted. For the moment, though, let us be grateful that this service, in the safe hands of the Dean of Westminster and the Archbishop of Canterbury, sought to do what every Anglican service should do, and kept Jesus Christ centre stage. I hope Mr Littlejohn noticed.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.