The Editorial Board of New Directions (which – let the reader understand -is not without its lighter element) has been known to fantasise. At the end of a long meeting dealing with the Church of England as it seeks to present itself – the serious Church of England of serious recommendations to the nation on the future of the family and serious episcopal initiatives to curb child abuse among the clergy – we have sometimes been known to turn our minds to inventing to imaginary news: news that, with justice, might be said to feed our traditionalist prejudices. What sort of news might that be?
Might it not be news of an ill-fated attempt to assimilate Christianity to the spirit of the age? If the attempt involved rock bands, bikini-clad females and dry ice, so much the better. If it had direct links with Matthew Fox (the ejected Dominican) and Starhawk (the Californian witch) so much the better. If the story ended with a well-intentioned Archdeacon piously hoping that a phoenix would rise from the ashes, all to the good. But truth is not only stranger than fiction: it hurts more.
We could not have dreamed up the Nine O’Clock Service; the slogans “Eat God!” “Swallow God!”, “God in your face!”; the involvement (by their presence) of the diocesan bishop and the archbishop of the province. And we could not have imagined the untold anguish of those abused, beguiled and misled.
The Church of England, in the aftermath of the Nine O’Clock Service fiasco, has a great deal of reappraising to undertake. For the very event is of a piece with all its recent self-understanding. The Church has, for soma time, been set on a course of determined rapprochement with secular culture which ha often expressed itself in a willingness to compromise traditional standards of sexual morality. All has been done in the name of shallow evangelism fuelled by an institutional neurosis about numerical decline.
When zeitgeist replaces heiligegeist strange demons are unleashed. The precise events n Sheffield are unclear, and will probably~ remain in decent obscurity. But behind the socio-speak of ‘abuse’ and ‘counselling’ lurl things more sinister – sin, heresy, idolatry an( apostasy – things for which the Church o England seems no longer even to have names.
Anglican traditionalists have an instinctive sympathy with those accused of abusing women – it is an accusation they have themselves long borne. They will pray for Christopher Brain, as well as praying foe those whose lives he has damaged. But they will pray the more earnestly for those (and they are many) in places of responsibility and influence in the Church who have allowed matters to crescendo in this damaging fashion. Theological college principals, senior diocesan officials, advisers in training and evangelism; the list is endless, of those which have applauded innovations and failed to grasp implications.
There is a terrible irony in what happened. It was all done, so its apologist affirm, ‘that the world might believe’, and so that a worldly and disaffected generation could drink at the pure fountain of gospel truth. The result, on the contrary, has been a public relations disaster of unimaginable proportions whose repercussions will not go away. All this is explicitly and precisely the sort of thing that gives religion a bad name; and the words of official spokesmen in dealing with it have not improved matters.
As always there are lessons to be learned. The eccentricities of the Sheffield group had been well-known for some time – indeed the Church of England Newspaper published expressions of disquiet over two years ago. It all looks like a disaster which was waiting to happen: the tragedy of a young man of talent who was alternately lionised and ignored by those older and wiser than himself, who should, instead, have been exercising a pastoral oversight which was firm, sympathetic and ubiquitous. An invitation to confirm a hundred adults at a sitting would, one might have thought, in the present condition of the Church England, have secured the abiding interest of any bishop; apparently not.
The first lesson, then, is about the increased degree of sympathetic pastoral care and oversight which spiritual experiment and innovation requires and demands. The second lesson will be harder to learn, for it will necessitate an admission of failure. The whole Church needs to accept what the secular press has known for some time: that the present leadership is for the most part not up to the job. The self-proclaimed chasm of our liberal leaders is ‘discernment of the signs of the times; and yet event after event shows them to be more myopic than far-sighted.