Christopher Smith has been reading the letters pages
Years ago, when I was a bishop’s chaplain, a great long document used to be faxed out every morning from, I suppose, Church House Westminster, with the day’s press cuttings in it. And they genuinely were cuttings, all with church-related news, clipped from the national papers. The whole thing ran to several pages, and cluttered up the office floor as it fell out of the fax machine. It has a successor, which comes in the form of a daily email from the ‘Comms’ department of the C of E comprising links to press stories. But it has become a shadow of its former self, with only half a dozen stories each day. They’ve recently taken to padding it out with links to the lead stories in each of the nationals, which is quite handy for me, since I went into hiding from radio and TV news over a year ago!
I mention this really to make the point that, the way we live now, establishment interest in church affairs is pretty limited. On the other hand, church folk are still engaged with the press. My eye was caught recently by a letter in one of the broadsheets from a churchgoer in a Hampshire village on the way from Winchester to Alton. She opened with something of a broadside: ‘Out-of-touch bishops are destroying an important element of village life’. She put a strong case for the role of the church—and its vicar—in those small communities, and lamented the fact that the benefice of eight parishes and ten churches in which she lives and worships is about to lose its rector to retirement and that he will not be replaced. ‘The Church of England must reduce bureaucracy and administrative costs’, she declared.
Literally, I suppose bureaucracy is government from the desk, and our correspondent, Mrs Lansdale, is right to criticise it. The Church of England is in real danger of disappearing down a rabbit hole of management structures, and each new non-parochial appointment takes it further away from the people of God. No archdeacon is going to give pastoral care to those parishioners in Jane Austin’s old stamping ground when their dog dies, or their husband becomes ill, or their kids get caught shoplifting in Southampton, and neither, I would imagine, is a full-time rural dean, which is a new tier of management misery being created in some dioceses. Ironically, these things are usually dusted with a coating of ‘mission’, as in the Diocese of Winchester’s recent (2013) website boast of wanting to ‘grow authentic disciples’ and ‘re-imagine the Church’. Appoint more middle managers, and people will flood in. Hmm… No wonder the clergy of that diocese are cross.
That brief but punchy letter is not the only sign that the folk in the pew are not impressed. It’s not just clergy being uppity with the hierarchy, and, in any case, the clergy don’t say much out loud because of the culture of deference built into church life. But we can see here something observable elsewhere, which is that, in the scramble for new followers, organisations feel it necessary to kick their existing ones in the teeth.
There has been much mumbling in recent months about the National Trust, an organisation that had something like six million members at the beginning of last year. It has recently gone ‘woke’, and decided that its core purpose, looking after historic houses and gardens on behalf of the nation so that members of the public can visit them, was nothing more than ‘the outdated mansion experience’. Their ‘director of culture and engagement’ produced a report called ‘Addressing our histories of colonialism and historic slavery’, and found a hundred ten-year-olds to write poems about how terrible Lord Curzon had been, and sacked the curator of Petworth House on the grounds that he would not be able to ‘attract new and different audiences’.
And there we have it. The audience for Radio 3 is too old, so change the style so much that the existing audience will switch off, but—guess what?—no youngsters will replace them. The Church of England is trying the same thing in a different way. Pastoral care? Old fashioned and time consuming. Parishes and the parish system? Waste of energy. Better to set up a revolving door of church plants and hose them with money, while your parish priest has to choose between paying the quota and fixing the roof. Teaching the doctrines of the Christian Faith? Arcane and irrelevant. Just Zoom in and hang out with people just like you.
Since this is my hundredth column under this title, would you allow me to quote myself from nine years ago? I’d started by contrasting Saint Paul’s clear teaching about the crown that is awaiting us in heaven—the imperishable wreath—with the Dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who declared that all shall have prizes, so that in the Caucus-race they ran around in circles, beginning and ending when they liked:
Clearly we need to recapture the sense that maturing as Christians leads us to a deeper understanding of the traditional faith of the Church. That doesn’t make us ‘fundamentalists’ in the derogatory way in which that word is now used. That makes us orthodox Christians who have seen the ‘winds of doctrine’ of the relativists for what they are: ‘trends of fashion and the latest novelty’. And that grown-up faith is what will unite the Body of Christ, while the lovers of novelty work to divide it. At the moment, it seems an uphill struggle, because the relativisers are in the ascendancy in the modern world. Childish things are given undue prominence in the cultural sphere as well as the theological. But what will endure? Schubert or the Spice Girls? Ratzinger or Hick? The Dodo, of course, was the ultimate relativist, and look what happened to him!