Mild, non-clinical depression is my principal reaction to a new survey which shows that, not only is Church of England attendance falling, but that its clergy seem to have largely given up on it.
It’s not the research findings – that less than a quarter of Church of England priests think Britain can be described as a Christian country today, that a third of them have considered quitting over the past five years, and 67 per cent believe efforts to reverse church decline will fail – which get me down. In one form or another, we’ve heard it all before.
It’s the attitudes that this survey sparks in its conclusive commentaries. It’s that we need to be relevant to current social mores and we need to be more popular. In paraphrase, we need to get with the programme.
I’m not a white-knuckled, old reactionary. But I don’t want to be relevant; I want to be true. I wasn’t called to be ordained in order to be popular. I don’t chase votes like a politician seeking election. I’m wholly interested in Truth, while knowing that I’m not the sole guardian of it.
So I don’t want Church doctrine decided by focus group. And I’m not interested in marketing. We’re not a club for the enlightened – I’d rather we were a guttering candle in the world’s darkness, as the gospel has proven to be so successfully throughout its history.
But this means being brave, and standing up for what that gospel means for us, as well as accepting that it means different things to other people. Unlike Roman Catholics, we Anglicans in the reformed tradition have no centralised, catechistic authority and that, in turn, means trusting (and investing in) very diverse and, in some cases, atomised parishes.
To do so is to fly in the face of polarised, entrenched and, more usually these days, fashionable opinion and rejoice in our plurality – and that includes embracing our secularism too. And that makes the Church of England, established in law, less of the socially well-to-do institution that it once was, still less “the Conservative Party at prayer”, and more of a resistance movement against right-think and cancel culture.
We cannot, as a Church, tolerate circumstances in which a local councillor in Northamptonshire, Anthony Stevens, was arrested earlier this month, then bailed, for an alleged hate crime after posting a video of the heavy-handed arrest of a preacher. Or the cancellation of Anglican priest Richard Fothergill, who accused Yorkshire Building Society of closing his account for objecting to its transgender promotional material.
Nor can we countenance the arrest of a Catholic priest from Wolverhampton, Fr Sean Gough, and his charity volunteer colleague, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, for praying silently outside an abortion clinic – charges that were thankfully dropped.
I may not agree with all of what these people have to say – or indeed with any of it. But I respect their right to say it peacefully in a free society.
At the heart of a lot of the reaction to the latest poll of Anglican clergy is an acceptance that there is a right way to think about social issues of the day. And, if we’re to go down that path, it starts to make the Church of England a dangerous place to be if you don’t hold an approved opinion. And that’s a form of oppression.
Read it all in the Telegraph