A Plea to Save the Church of England

The Church of England is dying, and the process is being hastened by a process of managerial euthanasia overseen by its episcopal leadership.

Almost as bad as this is the fact that our (not-so) slow death is only the second stage of a process which will first see us transformed into a set of charismatic quasi-nonconformist wannabe ‘megachurches’ that totally reject traditional Anglican doctrine and practice. We won’t even be allowed to die with dignity.

We have to do everything we can to stop this. We have to save the Church.

Coming to the Church through tradition

My path to the Church of England was unusual. I was bought up in a home that wasn’t so much anti-religious as one in which religion played no role whatsoever (well, the secular religion of Marxism did to some extent, but certainly not Christianity). It was just never really mentioned. Until quite recently, I was a secular humanist, and if you’d told me that I’d end up a (I hope) devout Anglican I’d have thought you were quite mad.

What brought me to the Church? Well, many things. Partly because I had a total collapse in my confidence that any kind of meaningful moral framework could be sustained without God and gradually I came to see smug liberal secular humanism as a totally incredible intellectual edifice which was an awful lot less believable than the historic creed of the holy and apostolic catholic church. Partly I converted due to a process of reading more and more theology and apologetics and becoming increasingly convinced in the power, truth and coherence of the doctrines and faith of the Church. Partly the help and love of my wife, who was baptised a few years before me. Partly a hundred other things.

As part of this process, I read a lot of historic Anglican divines. The luminous devotional prose of Jeremy Taylor; the spare intellectualism of the judicious Hooker; the sacred simplicity of the poetry of George Herbert; the inspired sermons of John Donne. I read John Jewel and E.J Bicknell and Charles Gore and many Anglican writers across the centuries. I became increasingly convinced of the authority of the Church of England, a church Catholic and reformed, based on ‘one canon, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period’, centred around preaching the word of God and administering the sacraments: the visible body of Christ on earth.

I then looked around and saw that this country has the richest physical and cultural testament to this spiritual inheritance imaginable, an aesthetic heritage that is everywhere around us. Thousands of beautiful Churches and many sublime Cathedrals. Hundreds of choirs working to sustain our historical choral traditions. A literary canon underpinned by the deep faith of so many subtle, intelligent Anglican lay writers, from Jane Austen and W.H. Auden to Wordsworth and Laurence Sterne, not to mention Christina Rossetti, Barbara Pym, John Betjeman and many others. I had a spiritual awakening that became an aesthetic one too.

At the heart of all this are the glorious cadences and rich, sonorous tones of the Book of Common Prayer. My road to Christianity began, I think, because I came across, when I was volunteering in a second-hand bookshop, a very old, very tiny copy of the BCP in the store room at the back. It was too battered to sell and stock that was not sellable we were allowed to take home. I slipped it into my pocket and read it surreptiously, feeling like an apostate to the Church of Secular Humanism. It felt like a little shard of my dormant ancestral faith – and my heritage as an Englishman – piercing through my shirt into my side when I felt its dainty bulk through my jacket. I started going to Church and meeting a very kind, very erudite priest who prepared me for my Baptism.

But gradually, the reality of the Church of England of the 21st century began to dawn on me.

Painful realities

The Church that me and my wife attended – I was just starting, she’d been going for a few years – is a down-at-heel Highish Church in our home city. It is a truly beautiful building on the inside, and the (unpaid, semi-retired) priest who kept the show on the road was a true Christian who did her best in trying circumstances. The congregation was small and generally elderly. It was a shame that it wasn’t BCP, but I had that for morning and evening prayer and it celebrated the Eucharist in a dignified and moving fashion, using some BCP language for canticles and similar. It became a sort of home for me.

But gradually, the problems became clearer and clearer.

Firstly, as it was a team ministry our habitual priest did not always take the services. I noticed increasingly that the sermons that most of the other priests gave were, more often than not, either banal, irrelevant, or heretical.

Most common was the party political broadcast (always for the Lib Dems) dressed up very scantily as a piece of preaching. We had sermons against Brexit (Christ was a Remainer, essentially), endless ones about Climate Change, others about any fashionable left-wing cause under the sun. I sometimes agreed with the politics of the sermons, sometimes disagreed, but I wondered whether I’d stumbled into the wrong building of a Sunday. Was this a local Greenpeace meeting? Had someone neglected to tell me that I’d accidentally joined Amnesty International?

Worse still were the sermons that even I (who hadn’t spent years studying in a theological college) could tell were heretical. The one where the Resurrection was said to be merely a metaphor and compared to Pokemon. The one where the Wedding at Cena was said to be the product of Christ’s skill in chemical engineering. And so on. It was some time before I realised that the fact that these priests had gone to theological college was often precisely the reason why they spouted heresy.

I was keen to get involved, try to change things. I joined the local DCC and PCC. I was desperate to offer my services and get involved. I rather wish in a way that I hadn’t, because it was unbelievably disillusioning.

What became clear very quickly was that all the meetings talked about were money and bureaucracy. If the discussion ever strayed onto anything to do with worship (let alone social action to help the disadvantaged or evangelisation), the Rector of the team ministry would say ‘that is my decision, PCCs and DCCs have no power over worship or services’ – or, it was implied, anything but coming up with ideas to help us pay our Parish Share. If anyone challenged her, the reaction was extremely defensive and brittle.

Other than moaning about being broke and failing to think of ways to deal with it, the only other thing that happened in meetings was the distribution of the managerial pronouncements of the Church at diocesan or national level, which usually were about nothing other than trivia, routine matters, things that seemed curiously irrelevant (my PCC spent more time talking about the transfer of responsibility for a very old graveyard to the local council for upkeep than it ever did about worship), or safeguarding, which is important but took up an amount of time that seemed ridiculous.

I have spent years involved in another voluntary organisation (the Labour Party, for my sins), and I know this sort of stuff is necessary. I have no illusions: boring stuff has to be done. Treasurers make their reports, nuts-and bolts stuff is arranged, agendas written and minutes produced. But the problem was that in this parish there was nothing else – other than worship on Sunday, a cake sale and a few other bits and bobs which were nice, but not really embodying the fullness of Christian duty and faith, shall we say.

Then came Covid.

Covid

I need not say, I hope, that I appreciate how difficult the past year has been for everyone including priests. I am sure that many priests have worked hard to do their best for their flock.

But it is no exaggeration to say that I have been deeply, deeply shocked by the Church’s reaction to Covid.

Firstly, at the level of my own Church. The Church was shut as soon as possible and for as long as possible, opening only for the bare minimum for private prayer. The precautions taken were extreme to the point of ludicrousness (the Lady Chapel was closed because of the risk of someone catching Covid from the seats!). No-one came for private prayer much because the Church (which is enormous) had been transformed into what looked like a cross between an empty supermarket and a testing room at Porton Down.

Once we were allowed to hold services again, our Rector…did nothing. Services were only allowed to happen again months after they were permitted nationally, and even then no-one ever saw her. They were only allowed once every three weeks at my Church. They were shambolic because the zoom audience at home was prioritised and no-one knew how to properly work the technology.

Nationally, I was incredulous at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s order that priests would not even be allowed to celebrate the Eucharist in their own church. The alacrity with which Zoom was not simply adopted as a last resort, but embraced eagerly by many priests struck me as deeply alarming. The importance of the physicality of the sacraments, of the importance of bodily community, was brushed aside. Indeed, it became very clear to me that the priests who adopted the majority position – liberal anti-traditional evangelicalism – and even more so their more charismatic and emotionalist allies showed little or no interest in the Eucharist. My books had told me that Holy Communion was an ‘effectual sign of God’s grace’, a channel of grace and mercy, a key means of conveying to the faithful Christ’s spiritual power and love. My eyes showed me that only a tiny fraction of the Church’s actual priests thought the same.

The Church was instead obsessed with showing that it was an efficient albeit small part of the voluntary sector-cum-welfare state – noble, but proffered without any reference to any of the rest of its mission. Many priests fled indoors and abandoned their flocks. Distracting zoom services bedevilled by technological cock-ups and their inherent flatness became the be-all and end-all.

Perhaps worst of all, most priests embraced a safetyism which seemed to belie their (supposed) belief in eternal life. Fear, chiefly of death, became the dominant, almost the only note in the Church’s rhetoric. Bare life with little or no spiritual enrichment or saving grace became the priority. Death had sole dominion.

I left my Church and found one that deigned to open and seemed to value the Eucharist.

Wider issues

I am still a relative newcomer to the Church of England, and so my knowledge of its structures and policies is imperfect. No doubt I’m not right on every detail.  But even so, after I started reading the Church Times (itself largely a mouthpiece for the liberal evangelical establishment) and various other blogs and articles – as well as reading some of the documents sent to me as a PCC member – a number of wider issues became clear.

I had always been under the impression that the parochial system – whereby everyone in the country is in a parish and (if they wish it) under the pastoral care and spiritual guidance of their local Priest – was the jewel in the crown of the Church. And yet it was clear that the Church centrally sees it as a drain, a bore. It talks sneeringly about the burden of funding poor parishes. It actually squeezes money out of the local churches through the Parish Share, while relying on an army of often unpaid older priests to keep parishes (just about) going. It is now talking about a whirlwind of sackings, of gutting the parochial clergy altogether.

I thought to myself – well, the Church of England must have some money. And it is a fair point that much of it is tied up in pensions, paying employees and maintenance of buildings. But it became clear very quickly that its remaining money is being poured into grand ‘strategic development funding’ projects that sound suspiciously like either a) white elephants or b) means of shifting all the funds to grandiose evangelical propaganda projects (or both). Not only that, but such projects seem to be picked not according to any evidence of their effectiveness for revitalising the church, but purely for fitting in with the ideological and theological idiosyncrasies of the Welby agenda.

But that’s not all. It became clear to me that the liberal church Establishment doesn’t, as I assumed surely anyone would, see our heritage of churches – from exquisite Suffolk churches dating back to the Middle Ages to grand Victorian edifices, from those built around the time of St Augustine’s mission up until the apogee of the Oxford Movement – as a gift and a precious tradition. They see them as horrible burden, a pointless money pit that is totally unnecessary because ‘the church isn’t its buildings’.

But the poverty of the church leadership’s aesthetic sense, its total refusal to understand the power of the ‘beauty of holiness’, the great gift of those wonderful architectural, musical and literary heritages that most national churches would be absurdly proud to cherish and guard, doesn’t stop there. Suddenly I noted story after story in the Church Times about plans to close down the Church’s choirs, the backbone of its justly famous choral tradition. I found the casual cultural vandalism involved, the heedless desire for ‘change’ and innovation for its own sake or to satisfy the greedy importunities of the secular culture and ‘woke’ politics that the Church slavishly tries to follow, to be as shocking as it was disgraceful.

This was all the more shocking when I began to regularly read the jobs pages in the Church Times. While plans to sack more and more parish priests, to cut and cut and cut, where either announced or hinted at in the main pages at the front, in the less read pages at the back of the paper the Church was advertising to create a baffling army of ‘change enablers’, ‘diversity consultants’ and ‘missional archdeacons’ – an enormous tier of middle management with no function other than spouting jargon, diverting funds away from the parishes and completing the management consultant-isation of the Church. Whereas no money can be found for parishes, or to prevent priests being sacked, or to sustain choirs, endless money apparently exists to be funnelled into a Kafkaesque tangle of obscure bureaucracy.

I also began to hear stories about how some Churches were generally not living up to their requirements to provide the basic services that they are required to by Church law. A traditional set liturgy, participation in the Holy Eucharist, and the celebration of principal holy days is being set aside in many places – most usually observed in the most perfunctory way at 7am in the morning when no-one will attend –  in favour of the formless emotionalism and often heretical pronouncements of ultra-Evangelical groups, who have no respect for the traditional beliefs or formularies of the Church that they treat like a dying host, to be sucked dry for its buildings and resources (if they even need old-fashioned things like ‘buildings’).

I know these people. They were the ones who drove me away form any chance of conversion to Christianity when I was a student. They formed the core of ‘CICCU’, the strident group of happy-clappy bigots and fanatics who put off generations of Cambridge students from the Church for good by their shallow screeching and lack of intellectual engagement. They think that the Lambeth Quadrilateral is a brutalist tower block building in South London and that Apostolic Succession is a concept taken from the study of Social Anthropology. Most pertinently, they are not Anglicans – from no discernible Anglican tradition, not Low, Broad or High. They are Dissenters who are feasting on the corpse of the Established Church – and the Established Church is writing a menu with its own name as the main course while serving itself onto a plate.

What to do?

Covid is going to accelerate the long-term crisis that sees the Church of England’s numbers collapsing, quite regardless of the kamikaze policies of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Given the age of its congregation, sadly a sizeable proportion of its congregation will either die or never come back to Church. But these challenges will only become terminal if we fail in our duty to campaign to prevent our Church being made into a soulless cocktail of middle-management, woke race politics and heresy that is as bitter as it is icy cold. It needs to discover its strength in its traditions; its devotion to Christ, the Word of God and the Gospels; its sacraments; its rich liturgy; and its cultivation of beauty and spiritual enrichment and rapture in art, music and literature.

Such a movement will, I feel, have to come substantially from the laity. A large percentage of the leadership and many priests buy into the numbing jargon, secularist defeatism and knee-jerk liberalism that is becoming our new creed. The statement of good old Christian dogma, the revival of the traditional faith of our Fathers and Mothers, and the revivification of our heritage will only become from below.

This is because the episcopal establishment desperately wants the approval of these utilitarian, secularist, liberal times. They want to be loved by the atheist wreckers and the woke liberals who run our other major institutions. They want to marry us to the spirit of this age, but they don’t seem to understand that any Church that marries the spirit of the age will soon be left a widow. They fail to understand that what we stand for is profoundly counter-cultural in an age of relativism and nihilism. We should be a Rock of Ages, but they are throwing us as pebbles into the sea of doubt.

So I suggest that we set up a movement to save our church, uniting laity and those priests willing to help, bringing together traditionalists of High, Broad and Low church. If we don’t and our decline continues at its current rate, the consequences are clear. There will no Church left to save.

A sketch of our agenda

Here are my thoughts on some priorities

  • Open our churches as soon as safely possible, prevent a drift to online fundamentalism in the form of ‘zoom first’ dogma
  • Stop hiring endless new tiers of middle-management while our parishes suffer
  • Stop using meaningless management-speak and jargon that no-one understands. Speak in plain English
  • Re-resource the Parish properly and put the Parish at the heart of everything we do
  • Stop pouring money into SDF white elephants
  • Reject the intrusion of ‘woke’ race politics into our church – it is against Scripture, against tradition and highly divisive.
  • Evangelise on the basis of the dogmas of the holy and ancient (but reformed) catholic faith, our traditional formularies, and scripture. Get back to the basics of our beliefs and tradition, in which we should have confidence.
  • Put the sacraments, performed physically in person in our Churches, and a dignified, traditional liturgy at the heart of our Church and its worship
  • Save as many of our beautiful churches as possible for worship
  • Prevent any merger with the Methodists – who would form thousands of nonconformist allies for our Church leadership’s drive to make us into Dissenters
  • Emphasise the importance of beauty in bringing people to Christ
  • Stop cringing to the spirit of this secular age. Take on the cant and false orthodoxies of this liberal era
  • Campaign against heretical and in favour of dignified and orthodox preaching by the clergy. Keep to the theological orthodoxy of the historic Church
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4 thoughts on “A Plea to Save the Church of England

  1. mike Keulemans says:

    I agree heartily with much of this article, especially in its love of beauty in worship and the Book off Common Prayer. But you do wrong to equate liberal and Evangelical. Liberals think everything is up for grabs. True Evangelicals love Jesus, Holy Scripture, beauty in worship (including robes), the Communion and the Prayer Book, but Elizabethan language is a real problem for the young A good resource is BCP2020 – a BCP in modern English.

    • capellofft says:

      Thanks for this. To be clear – and I’m sorry if this was not made clear – it was not my intention to say that all evangelicals are liberals. Indeed, it is not my intention to criticise evangelicals as such. I was expressing my disquiet specifically at evangelicals who are liberals – liberal evangelicals – and specifically at their dominance and what it seems to me their lack of attention to the views of other wings of the Church, and their at best tolerance of and at worst alliance with some ultra evangelical groups that are expressly outside of the spectrum of belief that the Church of England has (and in my view can) accommodate. Traditionalist low church evangelicals were specifically not the object of my criticism. I have a lot of respect for the evangelical tradition within the Church. Some of our greatest Anglicans – Wilberforce, the Clapham group and the Earl of Shaftesbury come to mind off the top of my head – have been evangelicals. It’s not my wing of the church, but it is one I have a lot of time for.

  2. Alan says:

    I think if you check (I forget where) you will find that worship is the combined responsibility of the PCC and the incumbent. If they cannot agree then BCP services all round!

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