Julian Wheeler chronicles a sad decline
The Church of England now appears fully ecumenical. It is a boat in which there is a plethora of different colours, races and creeds. And by colours I am not referring to skin but to faith. Some people find New Directions difficult to understand. Well, here is a simple message that everyone can understand. This broad Church of England, this ark, this haven for anyone who wants to believe anything, just does not work. Like a sinking Titanic, it is breaking in two.
I write this after listening to a prospective candidate for a job talk about his faith. The job by the way is not as an assistant curate but as the Team Rector of a large team.
‘And how did you come by your faith?’ I asked innocently.
‘It was through the Protestant Moravian Church,’ he answered.
‘The Moravian Church, which is the direct continuation of the Bohemian Brethren after their renewal at Herrnhut under Count NL von Zinzendorf in 1722?’ I gulped.
‘Yes,’ he replied with some pride.
‘So do you believe in the priesthood?’ I enquired with an honest air of interest.
‘Well, no, not the same as you do,’ he responded honestly. ‘I believe in the priesthood of all believers.’
‘And the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist?’
‘Don’t be silly!’ We might have laughed together at this point, Of course, I was being silly.
‘You haven’t yet read the bishops’ document Eucharist, Sacrament of Unity?’ I asked.
‘No, not yet but I’d like to very much,’ he said eagerly.
‘Don’t you think it a strange thing if we both work together as Anglicans preaching completely different gospels?’ I doggedly continued.
‘No, I think it adds to the interest of a Church that there are people with different views. I’ve worked with Catholics before and, in principle, I don’t mind their views. But they don’t run the show. The Church of England is a broad Church and people should be allowed choice.’
With these words echoing in my ears I bid farewell. Choice is, of course, an ‘in’ word these days, a politically correct word. Yes, we must have choice! It reminded me of an article written by another parish priest in the local newspaper in which he was describing the workings of the Alpha Course. ‘It is wonderful’, he wrote. ‘You can ask any question you like and come away with any answer you like.’ And that is about the bottom line of it all.
So Forward in Faith must also be about maintaining standards of faith and practice. Where today is the bishop who will take an interest in the kind of priest applying for work in his diocese? A police record they check! Faith does not seem to be put under any scrutiny at all, as in the days when there were men like Phillpotts in the episcopacy.
Sadly, we have seen it all before. Saint John Vianney called the Church in the days of the French Enlightenment a carnival. We are living during another ‘enlightenment’ when what is reasonable is taking the place of what is revealed. The result is the same, a kind of carnival of conviviality and dressing up to make everyone feel good at the expense of the search for truth and holiness.
Recently I was walking around Westminster Abbey and on one of the memorials I read, ‘To the memory of Sir James Fullerton, Patron of the Catholic Church in the court of Charles II’. This set me wondering why the term catholic is so frowned on these days. The Church of England is catholic and it should also be holy and apostolic. So why should I be just tolerated in the Church where I have lived all my life because I describe myself as a Catholic? And why should a perspective candidate for the job of Team Rector describe himself to me as Protestant?
It is all very confusing to me and I am sure to the vast majority of people. The Creed of Saint Athanasius says nothing about the Protestant Faith and the bishops go to great pains to point out on every occasion that the Church of England is part of the Catholic Church.
On the occasion of my Silver Jubilee I am being nostalgic. Things did begin to change in the sixties, I know. I was a witness of the Woolwich experiment —all gone now thank God. But at what cost? Even when I was ordained there seemed to be some degree of order. We were given a faith to proclaim and all the priests in the area where I served my curacy were pretty well united in that proclamation. Within the last fifteen years this unity of witness has dispersed like snow upon the desert’s dusty face, and with it the congregations.
Ordinary Anglicans have been bludgeoned into silence, incredulous that the Magisterium could ever be so blind as to allow this state of affairs ever to get where it is today, although I would have to acknowledge the truth that ‘ordinary Anglicans’ is not a term that has much meaning these days. On the whole, the congregations that are left are woefully ignorant of the richness of the faith they are losing. This is obvious in talking to those responsible for selecting their parish priests. ‘He/she is a nice person,’ seems to be the best qualification for appointment to many parishes. There can be no test of orthodoxy in a Church that has become heterodox — too many people would end up being excluded.
Hubris and its fall-out
The title for this article is a quotation from RS Thomas’ poem RIP. Members of Forward in Faith have refused to lay down and accept this epitaph. Their fight is not so much about issues but about the standards of faith and practice that are fast disappearing from our national life. The Church of England has always been a Broad Church and for a national Church this has been an advantage. But as a Church faithful to its apostolic origins it has been an unmitigated disaster and has left the spiritual life in this country bankrupt. There will be no change, no amelioration, until faithful Christians get back their desire for holiness through prayer and the sacraments. Or until priests get back to saying their Offices, praying, visiting and preaching the Catholic Faith or until the Shepherds get back to shepherding their flocks outside of the committee rooms. We should not be afraid to proclaim that things are in a mess and that the Church of England needs Forward in Faith as the blind man needs a white stick.
Julian Wheeler is Honorary Assistant Priest at Abbotsham, Devon.