After his series on the Church of England over the past fifty years George Austin looks to see if there is any discernible pattern or lesson to be learned from what has happened

Young men may see visions but old men dream dreams, often of a golden age where everything was better than it is today. When I began this series of reflections on each period of five years from 1950 until the present day, I had imagined it would start well and end with a request that the last person to leave would remember to put out the light.

This idealization of the past was shattered when I began to examine that period of the early Fifties when, as I had thought, the light had yet to fade. In reality I saw that one major factor in future decline had already taken root – the greater involvement of civil servants in the appointment of bishops, which was to be a move yet further away from the first clause of Magna Carta, that Ecclesia Anglicana shall be free from state interference.

At the same time it showed in contrast that the devastatingly critical report by Baroness Perry on the system of episcopal appointments published in the late Nineties, though it was not fully implemented, had at least made the system more open and honest.

Responses to conflict

Again the political developments in the Eighties, with the all-powerful opinion-makers of the British and World Councils of Churches uncritically supporting terrorist movements in Africa, caused the Church of England to cease to be the Tory Party at Prayer. With the swing to the opposite extreme, woe betide any member of the General Synod then who dared suggest that African ‘freedom fighters,’ who planted bombs in supermarkets or slaughtered political opponents, were to be condemned.

At a central level, the churches became dominated by the fantasies of the Far Left and it seemed that their opinion-makers had taken over the thought processes of the Church, so that the West – especially America and Israel – was bad, and the Soviet empire and African dictators good.

After a balanced debate on globalization in the July 2001 Synod and again in 2002 on the Israel/Palestine conflict, it did seem that with the balanced, expert and wide-reaching contributions these produced a new era had begun. The latter in particular included speeches naming evil by whomsoever it was perpetrated and was a valuable Christian contribution in the face of an almost intractable situation. A change for the better? Yes. But a permanent change or no more than a glitch in a continuing position?

Danger of silence

With the recent debate demanding disinvestment in Caterpillar because of the use of their vehicles by Israel to demolish Palestinian homes, one is forced to ask whether the same condemnation is to be extended to include the company making the similar vehicles used by the dictator Mugabe to destroy the property of his political opponents in Zimbabwe. Or is he even now above criticism?

Or what of the terrible news from South Africa, where it was alleged in the Sunday Times that in the past ten years nearly 2000 white farmers, mainly Boers, have been ‘raped, tortured, mutilated and killed in the past ten years’ and where ‘as the killing goes on, the police do nothing.’ That is an average of four every week. Has there been a whisper of criticism or condemnation from our own Province about this? If there has, it has been so muted as to be irrelevant. Or would criticism of black South Africa and support for Boers constitute racism?

Liturgical reform

Then there is the General Synod – repeated debates on ecumenism, genuinely seeking to bring the Churches together, yet forever apparently getting nowhere; endless hours spent on matters which did nothing for the mission of the Church of God; liturgical reform produced by committees and needing to be renewed after only a few short years.

We have certainly moved far from the triumphant relief of the preface to the Book of Common Prayer that the diversity of the past – ‘some following the Salisbury Use, some Hereford Use, and some the Use of Bangor, some of York, some of Lincoln’ – had now gone, so that ‘from henceforth all the whole Realm shall have but one Use.’

Even so, though the permitted variations are infinite in number, the shape of liturgy is more or less uniform within the various eucharistic permutations. The restoration of the Gloria to the 1549 Prayer Book position at the beginning, the confession and absolution placed just preceding that, the progression of reading God’s word, preaching the Gospel and then declaring one’s faith, the Prayer of Humble Access said immediately before receiving communion – all these can provide a sensitive and prayerful preparation for the receiving of the presence of Jesus in His Body and Blood.

The quality and resonance of words is another matter. Someone recently described the language of Common Worship as having all the charm of a Church Times editorial. That is surely unfair, for although it is true it often lacks the resonance of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, it does nonetheless represent the genuine and hard-working efforts of many experts dedicated to producing a liturgy for the twenty-first century. Our liturgy needed renewal and in the end those involved will surely reach their goal, even if that goal, at least in the beauty of some of the language, has yet to be achieved.

Reports on homosexuality

Sex in the Synod is never a pretty sight, especially today when the issue of homosexuality seems likely to cause a split in the Anglican Communion. With a change of secretary at the Board for Social Responsibility in the mid-Eighties, theology slowly began to replace politics as the primary driving force and a Commission was set up to consider the issue of sexual relations between people of the same sex.

It produced what became known as the Osborne Report but this never saw the public light of day. It is said that the House of Bishops feared being held responsible and had no wish to be associated with a document which was so unreservedly liberal in its findings.

Instead the House appointed three of its members to produce another report which was eventually published as Issues in Human Sexuality, still the foundation document for episcopal utterances on the subject. Its three authors, all bishops, consisted of one conservative evangelical, one liberal and one middle-of-the-road, the latter expected to keep the others in check.

He must have succeeded, for the report was able to be published with the agreement of all three, though with reservations, and was much more conservative and biblical than the more liberal contributor would have hoped. It did make a curious distinction between homosexual acts between clergy (not OK) and those between laypersons (more or less OK). Naturally liberal bishops have ignored any restrictions it imposed, and though Issues is assumed to have gained synodical approval, it has never in fact been debated.

Unfortunately the extremes of both sides of the argument damage the real issue – some by giving the impression that those with a homosexual disposition are consigned to hell by an otherwise loving God, and at the other extreme by seeming to imply that any and all activity should be accepted by the Church, from sodomy to cruising on Clapham Common for anonymous promiscuity.

Hope for the future

Over the whole period, church attendance has declined, drastically but never uniformly. Evangelical parishes often flourish and so do many orthodox Catholic parishes, and the fact that a firm biblical faith is taught and practised is part of the reason. That this is so means that the decline is much greater than the average in some other parishes.

It is sometimes argued that at the present rate the Church of England will have disappeared from the map altogether within the next fifty years, and some would say that this is no more than it deserves. But this overlooks one crucial fact: that it is God’s Church and that this is not the first crisis that it has survived.

The first decade of the twenty-first century will be decisive, and the issue of women bishops the crucial measuring point. If no provision – proper, adequate and most of all legally enforceable – is made for those who in conscience would be forced to leave the Church, the effects, both numerical and in financial compensation, will be catastrophic. And with orthodox Catholics out of the picture, what hope would evangelicals have when the next item of the liberal agenda takes the stage?

Nevertheless synod watchers point out firmly that the last General Synod elections, for less seats than before, did not produce an overwhelmingly liberal membership but rather the reverse, and that the liberal establishment is now on the back foot.

But God does work in mysterious ways. I began this fifty-year survey by commenting on the effect of a revised system of episcopal appointments and over that half century this has developed, been misused at times, has sustained devastating criticism in the Perry Report and undergone some improvement.

Work of the Spirit

I was a member for four years in the early Nineties, often helplessly infuriated at the abuses within the system. But two appointments I particularly remember: those of David Hope to York and Richard Chartres to London. On each occasion I left the meeting convinced that no power of earth could gain their appointment. I was wrong and decided that the Holy Spirit was indeed involved.

At this crucial time in the life of the Church, can it be that in guiding the search away from those steeped in the English Establishment and looking to Wales and Uganda for our two archbishops, there really is a new hope for the future?

It may be no more than a cloud the size of a man’s hand, but it could augur a rain to bring new life to the desert.