One of the freedoms of retirement, at hours when my parish church is not functioning normally, is the ability to visit some of the dissenting conventicles within walking distance, of which there are several. I rarely come away unwelcomed, unblessed, or uninstructed. But I remain unreconstructed in my allegiance.
I took a while to register one extraordinary feature – or is it? – of such wanderings from the pathway. When with the Baptists I often hear how specially good the Baptists are. Among the Methodists, how good and vital is Methodism. Members of the Society of Friends address one another and me about the goodness of Quakerism, while the Pope’s obvious goodness is a not unknown theme among the Romans.
I never found out the summum bonum of the URC; in most of the varied parishes I have inhabited it has either gone underground or been prematurely raptured. But sometimes all these good denominations highlight their own worth by comparing it with their less worthy neighbours. I dare not suggest of which parable I am reminded.
By contrast, what can the Church of England offer? Not much, except that they (we) somehow manage to celebrate the goodness of God. A cheap riposte? You try it. We must not now turn all this on its head to prove that we are better than they – the very fault which tends to irritate when I am exposed to the rest.
But if Anglicanism in general, or the CofE and its bishops and synods in particular, merit a mention in your average parish church, they come with at best a wry smile, and at worst a ferocious Jeremiad. And no doubt a prayer.
Occasionally a Free Church eavesdropper on our Anglican self-flagellation will pick up one of the more eloquent self-inflicted diatribes and recycle it with glee, and (as the bard would say) with advantages. ‘Look!’ he or she is now able to say, ‘Out of their own mouths they stand condemned!’
To which an Australian friend once responded, ‘If this is how I see the communion I choose to belong to, just imagine what I think of the others!’