Thrones and Dominions

George Austin on a fresh start

The day before Rowan Williams’ enthronement, The Times published a thoughtful article by its former editor, Simon Jenkins. He is always readable, whether in his masterly survey of English Churches, for which he has a passionate affection, or in his frequent contributions to The Times.

He compared the Church of England to the Conservative Party and the BBC – ‘overcentralized, overwrought and losing market share’, and who would question that? It need hardly be said that New Directions has often criticized the behaviour, extravagance and proliferation of bishops and bureaucracy, while never suggesting, as Jenkins does, that there is no need for either. ‘Like hereditary peers, episcopacy has had its day,’ he writes. ‘Above all, distribute what funds the Church has to spare to parishes and clergy, not to offices and committees.’

He criticizes the Church for keeping its vast supply of churches empty and unused for much of the week, and for the proliferation of churches and chapels of other denominations. The new archbishop can ‘campaign to encourage all Christians to use the same roof, to pool their resources in one House of God. He can lead them to enjoy the greatest creation of English Christianity, its now desperate parishes churches.’

At the parish pump

And the situation is desperate. The other Sunday, I took the service in our village church, which I do sometimes when the vicar is on holiday. It is a beautiful building – a medieval tower with a light and bright seventeenth-century nave. The vicar is a caring, faithful evangelical pastor and no one could work harder, among young and old, to spread the gospel in the five parishes he now serves.

About 50 people attended – not at all bad by comparison with some villages of a similar size, and a very friendly, welcoming congregation. But less than ten were younger than my wife (her age is a state secret, but the state kindly pays a monthly amount into her bank account). The village is popular with parents as a catchment area for one of the best secondary schools, but although there is a Sunday School and a good church primary school, there were almost no teenager worshippers. So what does the future hold for the thousands of parishes up and down the country where there are simply no children or young people at all in church?

Not Dibley

The TV series, A Country Parish, brings back many memories for me of my first incumbency 40 years ago, and I feel for Jamie and his wife still facing criticism for doing no less than what the job demands. Nothing changes. I recall nurturing a young mother who had come to me to be prepared for confirmation, and encouraging her to bring her new baby to church with her. On the first Sunday, an elderly member of the congregation approached her and in a kind voice said, ‘We don’t really like children at our service, dear.’ We had our own son a few weeks later, and woe betide anyone who had said that to us.

Melting-pot or melt-down?

But does Simon Jenkins have the answer? Would it be right for the various denominations simply to forget their differences and get together in what would probably just be a pan-Protestant unity? Of course the churches have over the years often come to see that what appeared to divide them was simply a difference interpretation of a jointly held truth. Certainly we could all use the one building, but organic unity is a different matter and would often require (as not a few proposals for unity have demanded) that truth be compromised in favour of an outward but spurious unity.

In a way that would be no more than a fulfilment of the effect of the thirty years of the liberal dilution of Catholic truth which has itself been the major cause at any rate of Anglican decline, and for which generations of seminary teachers will one day face a terrible judgement. Like a landlord who has systematically watered down the beer, churches like this are finding that the customers either go elsewhere or give up alcohol altogether.

And who can blame them when, as the Christian Research Mind of Anglicans survey revealed, so large a percentage of clergy (with the obvious exception of orthodox Evangelicals and Catholics) have abandoned belief in core doctrines – the virgin birth, the resurrection, the saving work of Christ dying for us on the Cross.

A place of communal holiness

But we do have too many church buildings, and the need to rationalize is urgent. And because they are not simply places of worship but a valuable part of the heritage of our nation, it is essential that their upkeep quickly becomes a national rather than just an ecclesiastical responsibility.

More than that, we should restore the medieval understanding of the church not simply as the focal point of the parish but rather as a place whose holiness is enhanced rather than diminished when it becomes a centre for communal activities rather than simply being confined to worship.

And Simon Jenkins is right that we have too many bishops and too many dioceses, though even I would not do as far as he does and suggest that we don’t need bishops at all. I know, I know, it is a tempting idea and we’d all like to go along with it. When we observe how many of our fathers-in-God deliberately choose to replace believing clergy with those who water down the beer, one has to wonder if some of them really have a death wish for the Church of England.

But forget some of the present occupants of the bench and think of what bishops are really supposed to be – defenders of the faith once delivered to the saints, pastors to the flock in their care, men who are ready live more simply than the present temptations to extravagance now allow them.

Fresh Start

Simon Jenkins suggests that there is ‘no greater window of opportunity for a new boss that when the firm faces bankruptcy.’ But sometimes that means a fresh start altogether, and maybe the present desperate situation faced by the Church of England requires just that: an opportunity for the thriving and growing churches, Catholic and Evangelical, for whom the faith is central to their teaching and their lives and where this is reflected in the support they receive, to be given a way forward that rids them of the burdens imposed by the fragile and dying liberal body of the Church-that-used-to-be. Is that what a Free Province could do?

I do have one niggle with Simon Jenkins’ argument: he wants the new Archbishop to blow the whole of the Church Commissioners £4 billion on the upkeep of parish churches. Watch it – that’s where my pension comes from!

George Austin reads The Times and watches television in Yorkshire.