What on Earth is the Church of England up to? | Ewan Gillings

It’s a strange old time for the Church of England. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and the most senior cleric in the organisation, has decided that this is a great time to announce he fancies a holiday next year – why focus on dealing with the aftermath of the most disruptive event of modern history when you can have some fun in the sun? It is very rare for The Telegraph and The Guardian to agree on much, but both have published articles this week expressing exasperation at the Archbishop’s decision.

And the unwanted announcements from the Church don’t stop there. The recent publication of ‘A Vision for the Church in the 2020s: Christ centred and Jesus shaped’ by Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York, is a quite extraordinary step. The first issue is with the title – how can a Church not be ‘Christ centred and Jesus shaped’? Does this desire to create such a church not simply imply that the Church up until now has, indeed, not been focused on Christ? If this is the case, why was this not remedied earlier? Interestingly, there is no desire from the Archbishop to return to a previous state of ecumenical organisation or set up – instead, there is simply this bizarre promise that going forward the Church will try and do a better job of remembering what exactly their primary purpose is.

The Archbishop goes on to say how this “new” focus will bring about a church: ‘of missionary disciples’; ‘where mixed ecology is the norm’; and ‘which is younger and more diverse.’ The first of these points is a welcome one; but it is no more than a rehashing of pre-existing doctrine. The Bible repeatedly calls for Christians to share the gospel; indeed, the reason why the story of a man from Palestine two thousand years ago came to shape the history of an entirely different continent for the past two millennia is testament to how effective missionaries of the past have been.

It is the other two points which are more worrying. Firstly, this call for a church ‘where mixed ecology is the norm.’ Here, the Archbishop writes that ‘in the diverse smorgasbord of the different cultures and contexts which we serve in England today we will probably need a greater and more diverse expression of church life.’ This is a deliberately vague and ambiguous sentence, but it would not at all be surprising if this meant the establishment of new churches of various and differing theological views. The Church of England is already far too broad – any establishment that counts groups as far ranging as Anglo-Catholics and new-age Evangelicals amongst its number is clearly struggling to pin down its underlying beliefs and values. It makes the ‘broad church’ of the modern political parties seem positively exclusionary. For example, amongst Church of England beliefs, it is possible to both believe and not believe in: the intervention and veneration of saints; the form in which communion is taken; the type of music used and how it is used in service; the imagery and icons used in churches; the role of Mary in the service – and many more. This is not even to touch upon more basic theological teachings and debates such as the position on homosexuality. The last thing that the fragmented, disjointed, and divided Church needs is ‘fresh expressions’ – what it needs is to be firm on its doctrine, and unapologetic if this is ‘unpopular’, ‘too modern’, or ‘not woke enough.’

This other point about the need for a church which is ‘younger and more diverse’ is equally baffling. The average age of church attendance has been steadily climbing for years; this is not something that has snuck up on Welby and his chums whilst they’ve been ironing their vestments, so why have they not addressed this in a meaningful way far earlier? There is also no tangible plan for how this will be done, no idea of the methods that will be utilised to draw younger people into the Church. Then there is the topic of diversity – in a separate joint address to the General Synod, which has just finished its sitting, Archbishop Welby said in no uncertain terms that racism was embedded in the history and even the foundation of the Church of England, and Archbishop Cottrell argues in his publication for a Church in which ‘black lives matter… [and] a church for people with disability.’

Of course, it is no coincidence that the phrase ‘black lives matter’ was used in the way it was; if there Archbishops were keen to put across a point about wanting to see a more diverse church, why choose to frame it using such a divisive message? The Church knows that the overwhelming majority of its congregation are elderly and white, so why do they side with a radical movement that stands in opposition to many of the things which these congregants know and believe in? This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the desire for a more diverse Church – but this political framing risks alienating more than uniting. What is particularly interesting is that Cottrell writes of the ‘great biblical vision where every tribe and tongue and people and nation are gathered together.’ Really? This reference to Revelation 7:9 may seem innocent enough; it is important to remember, however, that the events of Revelation come about because God brings them about, not because of human action. Indeed, if one were to search for an example of people gathering together on their own accord, without it being initiated by God, then the story of the Tower of Babel seems more fitting…

I would like to end on perhaps the most incendiary and troublesome part of this whole release. In their joint address, Archbishop Welby stated:

Let us be clear there is no possibility of changes in society failing to have a profound effect on the shape, calling and experience of mission in the Church. Institutions that do not adapt to new circumstances are condemned to extinction as are institutions that adapt wrongly, in a way that does not reflect their history, their traditions and their values.

I cannot overemphasise how much this fills me with dread. The Church is perhaps the only institution in this country which was steadfast in its beliefs and its values, and as a result of this it persevered. The same Book of Common Prayer which was used in the 16th century was still being used in the 20th. That is not an indication of irrelevance, it is a sign of authority and perseverance. The Church should be the building on which the weather vane is placed; unfortunately, it has become the weather vane itself. Perhaps Welby should take from G. K. Chesterton…

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