Does the Church of England Want You? | Daniel A. French
Nothing is more enticing than an organisation which is hard to join or mysterious from the outside. Groucho Marx famously said he refused to join any club that would have him. Even the rabbis are known to employ reverse psychology. A postulant would have to do a lot of knocking at the synagogue door before they were taken seriously for conversion.
By contrast inclusiveness has been the hip buzzword in the Church of England for thirty years. Everything has to be ‘inclusive’ and more recently the archbishops opined for how they longed for ‘radical inclusiveness’ – presumably inclusiveness on steroids . Yet for all this jolly openness, Anglicanism and its mainstream liberal Protestant cousins remain in freefall. Perhaps it’s time to rip up this tired and worn out mission strategy and put it into reverse gear.
Is the opposite of an inclusive Church an exclusive one? Maybe there is a type of exclusion, or elusiveness, which the Church could learn to find its own “reverse psychology?” By this I don’t mean a church for the rich, white and educated. Anglicanism has already cornered the market for the middle classes. The Episcopal Church in America for all its woke fanaticism and quasi-new ageism, remains the preferred choice of the upper establishment. No, the kind of exclusiveness we should work toward is along the lines of personal holiness. A faith that demands nothing bar “niceness” and joining the tea rota is hardly compelling and magnetic, compared to a saint making factory that is tough and bruising. “Many are called, few are chosen.” Matthew 22.14.
In the fictional TV series The Young Pope, Pius XIII, Lenny Belardo (aka Jude Law) opens his unlikely pontificate with, “And anyone who wants to know us has to find out how to get through that door. Brother cardinals, we need to go back to being prohibited. Inaccessible and mysterious. That’s the only way we can once again become desirable.” In styling himself as a papal Banksy, elusive and hidden, Lenny exhibits the frustrations of many GenerationXers in the church who rebelled against their Boomer parents insufferable progressivism, the churning out of crap hymns, tearing up of creeds, and the boiling down of religion into social activism.
Had the script writers cast Lenny as the young Archbishop of Canterbury, I should imagine his stinging inaugural sermon would surely pick up on comparable frustrations, including importantly the loss of spiritual endurance, what we term asceticism. Somewhere in the soul of British Anglicanism (unlike say its ever expanding African counterpart), a capitulation to the Age has hacked away its former sense of grit. The 1662 Prayer Book’s call to daily penance, mortification and self-examination might as well have been composed on Mars. Lenny could rip into the reality that contemporary seekers of Anglicanism are now offered no mountain to climb and no ark to build. It’s the pilgrim’s regress, not progress. In the revisionist worldview sin means pointing finger not inwards but outwards, namely to those judged beyond the pale, “the deplorables”, or to put it more bluntly: Daily Mail readers.
Wrongdoing and our spiritual health is now to be redefined within the spheres of new theologies, namely critical race theory, queer theory, and environmentalism. The usual bogeymen – Trump, Boris, Brexit, and Israel – are tossed to us from the pulpit to distract us from examining our own misdemeanours. Yet for all their baulking at the free markets and consumer capitalism, the progressives within Anglicanism are just as sensitive to consumer resistance as any modern woke multinational. This is why during the pandemic the government manufactured gospel of safetyism was such an easy fit for most churches. Safety long ago replaced salvation in our churches.
Before the moral panic of absolute safety from Covid there was a growing obsession with safety from anything deemed spiritually challenging. Like a helicopter parent Holy Mother Church in her Anglican guise was already in overdrive ensuring none of her adorable children were ever tested.
Nature abhors a vacuum; so what Anglicanism has dropped, the national narrative of the Second World War has swept up. Outside metropolitan liberal circles we remain a nation enthralled with War heroism and its mythos. Just look at Captain Tom. Vera Lynn’s lyrics and Churchill’s messianic promise of nothing but blood, sweat and tears raises our spirits skyward. This quasi-religion is impenetrable to woke rainbow warriors since “her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering.” In my parish on Remembrance Sunday four to five hundred people turn up to an outside service even if it’s downpouring. Everyone stands in their Sunday best or uniforms, young and old. The forty minute liturgy is identical year on year. Any rumours of changes, like dropping a hymn results in a delegation knocking at the vicarage door. It’s that serious. ( Maybe the key to growth in the Church of England is having Armistice service every Sunday? )
My deep unease is that in its zeal to be woke, politically correct, and all inclusive the established Church that I love ends up painfully trying to appeal to a tiny proportion of the population. Most of them, say young social justice warriors, who cannot stand churchgoing and loathe Christianity even if it were garnished in oodles of radical politics. But, like all pigheaded revolutionaries, there is no appetite within many movers and shakers in the Church of England to depart from that which is in effect student politics. To them the reason for churchgoing apathy is rooted in the revolution not having been pushed harder. Diametrically opposed to Lenny Belardo’s vision they cry out for more and more “inclusion” (aka cultural Marxism). I am waiting for an awful day when the liturgy includes reparations for eurocentric patriarchal heteronormativity. Kyrie Eileson.
The irony is that since the pandemic there has been a wave of ordinary individuals suddenly taking a second look at Christianity. My guess is that they exist in vast numbers but for various reasons remain shy of churchgoing. However, even though they may be in the order of millions this is not the constituency that the Church appears to want to welcome or show any energy towards as they are mostly culturally conservative. For many in the upper echelons of the Church the idea of becoming once more the Tory party at prayer is their nightmare scenario even if that resulted in doubling of numbers and a tripling of the coffers. They would rather perish on the altar of progressivism.
As someone who is writing and podcasting I now find myself as a makeshift agony aunt to thousands of enquiries. I’m averaging two or three a day. It doesn’t take a statistician to appreciate this is the tip of the iceberg. There is a commonality to their story. They are hungry for a religion that is going to stretch them, not one that hands them a tambourine and parish magazine that reads like the Morning Star. Post-pandemic they grasp that Christianity is the only mechanism for stopping everything falling apart. Some even feel that society itself is demonically under attack. “This shit is real,” as one emailer began. These are people who never have dreamt of seeing the world like this but something deep nudged and unnerved them in 2020. Many until last year were atheists or nominal Anglicans. From the questions thrown at me I would guess they are generally well read and intellectually ready to devour any wholesome Christian teaching thrown at them.
Sadly, having approached their home turf church some receive a rebuff usually from incumbents who are clearly thinking to themselves, “Not another religious nut!” I have spent many hours on the phone listening to these tales of inhospitable vicars, hours and hours. It’s a good thing there isn’t a TripAdvisor platform for churches. These tales of poor reception reminded me of the riposte sung by the student revolutions to the confused lovestruck Marius in Les Miserables, “Who cares about your lonely soul? We strive towards a larger goal.”
I am reminded of the wise words of Evelyn Underhill in her seminal book, Mysticism. Though a century has passed since publication it seems ever relevant and timely for a Church that has yet to grasp how it may once more become (to quote the Young Pope) “Desirable, because that’s how great love stories are made.”
“The Church wants not more consecrated philanthropists, but a disciplined priesthood of theocentric souls who shall be tools and channels of the Spirit of God: and this she cannot have until Communion with God is recognized as the first duty of the priest. But under modern conditions this is so difficult that unless our fathers in God solemnly require it of us, the necessary efforts and readjustments will not be made…. God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend Him. We ask the bishops . . . to declare to the Church and especially its ministers, that the future of organized Christianity hinges not on the triumph of this or that type of churchman’s theology or doctrine, but on the interior spirit of poverty, chastity and obedience of the ordained. However difficult and apparently unrewarding, care for the interior spirit is the first duty of every priest. ”