To celebrate its first hundred years the forward-looking diocese of Southwark has published a slim volume, Diocese of Southwark 1905-2005: A Centennial Celebration, by ‘Revd
Antony Hurst’ (who he, and why no definite article?)
Shrouded in a thin veil of social (or socialist) history, this is unashamedly the story of South Bank Religion, the failed Sixties attempt to make Christianity ‘relevant’. The hero, of course, is Mervyn Stockwood. A single sentence will tell you all you need to know about Hurst’s book:
‘Without doubt Mervyn Stockwood was one of the most charismatic and flamboyant churchmen of the twentieth century and, though his period in office coincided with a catastrophic decline in church attendance, he probably did more than any other single person to hold the decline in check.’
It is hard to know where to begin. Flamboyant Mervyn undoubtedly was. But his wilful encouragement of the cult of personality was ultimately destructive. This is a man who terrorised his domestic chaplains (see comments by David Hutt and Donald Reeves in Michael De-la-Noy’s biography A Lonely Life).
But ‘one of the most charismatic churchmen of the twentieth century’? Alongside John XXIII, Billy Graham, John Paul II, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer? And there were bigger fish even in our own little pond: Michael Ramsey, George Bell.
And did Stockwood really hold decline in check? If so, what, in God’s name would it have been like without him? I cannot find, on any website, the means of calculating the percentage numerical decline of the Church of England since May 1959, when Stockwood was enthroned. I do know that since 1992 it has declined by 18%. On such figures it will have disappeared completely by 2052.
It does not look, to me at least, as if the thirty years from Stockwood’s enthronement to the ordination of women to the priesthood (of which he was, at least latterly, an enthusiast) arrested anything but the proclamation of the Gospel.
But see how these liberals love one another. In the words of the lovely (and undoubtedly charismatic) Marlene: ‘When will they ever learn?’