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The Church of England: Has it got a prayer?

The institution that has been a central feature of English life for centuries is increasingly sidelined and ignored. Its very survival looks uncertain

Image: The New European

The Church of England rarely makes a noise in the wider world beyond its own doors these days. This is not surprising, even for an institution that has been a central feature of English life and history for centuries, one which once wielded immense influence over the country, its customs and practices and spread its doctrines across the old British empire.

Nowadays, when its leaders speak in public the response is often ridicule, when it is not indifference. In years gone by, when the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke he was listened to; now he is more likely to be told, none too gently, to shut up. It is one reason why the church leadership’s utterances today are often so anodyne.

When Justin Welby, the current incumbent, ventured to suggest in a sermon last April that the government’s plan to send illegal migrants to Rwanda was, well, a bit unchristian – “the principle cannot stand the judgment of God,” he argued – Tory MPs and newspapers turned on him for his temerity. They told him to mind his own business.

The Daily Express, never sensitive to nuance or indeed history, described his sermon as a rant. “Commenting on government policy is not his job”, snarled the justifiably obscure backbencher Ben Bradley. You could be forgiven for thinking it was precisely his job, especially in a sermon on Easter Sunday morning.

But this is all symptomatic of a wider problem for the Church of England: getting its word out and being listened to when it does. Too often it is obsessed with internal problems and its own internecine conflicts, which these days just seem arcane and irrelevant to outsiders.

A cathedral dean wrote to me recently: “The problem for Justin is that he wants the English to believe the myth that it is all going OK. But that is not even believed inside the church, let alone outside the C of E. Clergy are expected to get behind the message that we’re going strong. But they find it an increasingly wearing and alienating mantra; the added problem being it isn’t true.”

While it is of central importance to its regular congregants, they are ageing and diminishing in numbers. Some people still turn to it at times of personal crises, family landmarks: christenings, weddings and funerals, and it still hosts great national occasions. Nearly half of the country’s Grade One listed buildings are church properties – the great cathedrals, abbeys and minsters, symbols of the religious devotion, piety and awe of earlier generations over centuries – but it struggles to maintain them and its thousands of historic and crumbling parish churches, which don’t receive state aid unlike, for instance, churches in France. Yet it is still the state church, with the monarch as its secular head, supreme governor and defender of its faith.

Welby may well preside over the change of monarchy before he retires in four years’ time when he reaches 70: the next big church and state occasion, for which the C of E has been quietly rehearsing for many years. The Queen’s funeral and her son’s coronation will not only show the Church of England at its stately best, but will also be a period of maximum danger for its long-term future.

Elizabeth II has been a redoubtable and devoted member of the church – more than many of her predecessors – “she really believes in it, you know,” a bishop once said to me – but Charles III will be a less certain proposition. Hard to celebrate a man who has been an adulterer and has well-known if arcane religious views. If the monarchy stumbles, where does that leave the established church? Britain is the last country in Europe where monarchs are supposedly divinely anointed during a religious coronation; mostly the rest swear allegiance to their country’s constitution.

But while the monarchy remains popular, the church is much less so. The institution seems hollowed out, defensive and diminished. Although it strives to remain relevant in today’s society, still with a notional presence in every parish in the country and with bishops sitting in the House of Lords – only Iran also has religious figures as part of the legislature – it is these days pretty marginal to most people’s lives. Fewer than 700,000 people darken its doors to attend services in any given week, little more than 1% of the population, and nearly 80% of them are middle-aged or elderly: a third over 70.

It even struggles to maintain a share of the weddings market as more couples choose non-religious ceremonies. In 2019, the last year before the pandemic, it conducted 31,000 weddings, about 15% of the total in England and Wales – perhaps not surprising, given that some churches now charge upwards of £500 for the one-off use of their facilities. Why marry in church if you’re not religious? Christenings and funerals are also in sharp decline.
At the same time, while it strives for inclusivity it tells gay couples who might actually like a church wedding, or at least a blessing, that it wants as little to do with them as possible – even as Anglican churches in Wales and Scotland move towards welcoming them. All this despite the fact that a sizeable, though hidden, number of the clergy are themselves gay – so far in the closet they are almost in Narnia as the joke goes – and in the sort of relationships of which the church disapproves. The church rule is that they can live together so long as they are celibate. Yeah, right.

The Church of England’s constipation over issues of sex and particularly homosexuality are compounded because it is the mother church of the worldwide Anglican communion of separate national churches established across the English-speaking world, mainly former colonies. The 70 million believers it claims make Anglicanism notionally the fourth-biggest Christian denomination, with its strongest growth these days in sub-Saharan Africa, but many of its provinces are in countries where homosexuality is still illegal. Their laws usually date from the colonial era and are reinforced by the churches’ evangelical character (itself a legacy of Victorian missionaries).

Trying to keep such disparate views together is all but impossible: liberal American Episcopalians who can’t see why we can’t all just love each other and African bishops who regard gays as an abomination. Welby managed to maintain the fragile unity at the recent meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops in England by maintaining that homosexuality was indeed a sin, but he wasn’t going to expel the liberals. Even so some African bishops stayed away.

Here, it really doesn’t make much sense to try to keep open churches that have vanishingly small congregations. Since the church’s funding of its running costs largely depends on what is called the parish share – the annual financial support owed by each parish to their diocese based on size of congregation – if a particular church can’t meet its allocation, is it worth keeping going?

But people like the idea of their own local church even if they can’t be bothered to go to it very often, so removing parishes cuts at the heart of the C of E’s self-image and mission: if you are the state church shouldn’t you be available everywhere? How far can you expect people to travel to matins if they are old and reliant on public transport, or the church is locked when they finally arrive?

In many rural areas ,parish clergy have not one or two but nine or 10 churches to minister to, sometimes many miles apart. In urban areas, it can mean attempting to ram neighbouring parishes together even though they have different congregations and what the C of E calls “churchmanship”.
Since its foundation by Henry VIII, the C of E has had a theological and doctrinal breadth and flexibility, a reluctance to create windows into men’s souls, in Elizabeth I’s words. Today that means there are High Church Anglo-Catholics and Low Church Evangelicals, sometimes with differences in worship, practice and even belief so marked that they can scarcely bear to be in the same room together, let alone share communion. There are churches that embrace female priests and bishops and others that can’t countenance their legitimacy.

Think I am joking? When Rowan Williams, Welby’s predecessor, was booked to attend a conference of Evangelical Anglicans, the organisers arranged a separate room for those who regarded him as a heretic and could not bear to hear the archbishop lead prayers on the grounds that he was too liberal for their tender sensitivities. Williams is a charismatic, subtle and intellectual preacher, but “I wouldn’t allow him in my pulpit”, the rector of one City of London church told me. Most of the church’s evangelicals are not like that of course, but there are those who still don’t believe the 16th-century Reformation is over.

The C of E is notionally rich: the Church Commissioners who administer its assets have an investment portfolio worth £10.1bn and its income in 2020 was £924m, though that was a 15% reduction on the previous year because of the pandemic. But relatively little of that reaches the parishes: a large part goes on church bureaucracy, 126 bishops and their staff and on sustaining retired clergy, who tend to be a long-lived lot. The church spends more on pensions and pen-pushers than proselytizing.

Of the church’s 20,000 active clergy, 7,000 are over retirement age and the average age of serving vicars is 52.5. The church relies increasingly on non-stipendiary clergy: those who don’t get paid but serve out of devotion (full disclosure: my wife is one). The proportion of female clergy is growing: in 2020, 55% of ordinands were female, but 65% of female priests are in non-paid posts. If this seems discriminatory, the church is only slowly getting used to the previously closely contested notion of whether women could even be in holy orders. Richard Chartres, the former bishop of London, once told me gloomily: “I expect we shall have an Archbishop Sharon before too long.” He wasn’t looking forward to it.

Such actuarial and managerial difficulties might be sorted out, but there is one stain, common to many denominations, with which the Church of England is failing to grapple properly: historical (and indeed contemporary) accusations of sexual abuse by clergy. Nothing causes such reputational damage as the sight of religious institutions, supposedly founded on love and compassion, defending themselves against the indefensible.

The Roman Catholic Church has been crippled financially and morally by its failure, its name trashed in countries where its influence was strong, but the Church of England has been reluctant to admit its failings too, or to move beyond platitudes. The national safeguarding team it has set up has proved slow, bureaucratic and complacent in dealing with complaints compassionately and expeditiously. It is a running sore and will be for years.
If all this seems like an institution in need of professional management, the C of E thought it had found this in Justin Welby, who was an oil executive before he saw the light, partly in reaction to the loss of his baby daughter in a car crash in Paris. The clergy looked at someone who had business experience with awe. Welby – Eton, Cambridge and Shell – rose rapidly through the ranks and was expected to bring order following the blessed but bureaucratically challenged Williams.

Welby is certainly a man who can briskly, not to say brusquely, conduct a committee meeting, but the spiritual side is lacking. He’s not a great preacher, nor a theologian, though he is probably a better politician than the old leftie Williams. Critics say he’s too much of an establishment man. He has not inspired or arrested the church’s decline and his greatest strategic error may have been in acquiescing in the prolonged closure of churches at the government’s behest during the pandemic. Yet more people lost the church-going habit. Services on Zoom did not console.

Welby has said he intends to stay on until his retirement and there is no obvious successor: the current bench of bishops are a cautious, mediocre, uninspiring lot, all growing grey together. In the 1960s a former Archbishop of Canterbury, the otherworldly Michael Ramsey, was once asked by a journalist whether he thought the church would survive. “Well, you know, that is not certain,” Ramsey replied. “Not certain, not certain at all. It might easily, quite easily, just fall away.”

All Christian denominations are in long-term decline, but the established church particularly so. On current projections, Ramsey’s prediction may even come true within 40 years.

Stephen Bates is a former religious affairs and royal correspondent of the Guardian

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