I’ve been lamenting for a number of years the loss of quality of life in the Church of England compared with my experience in the Diocese of Southwark and the Basingstoke team ministry in the 1960s and early 1970s. This was prior to ordination but the same stimulating environment continued when I returned to Southwark in the late 1980’s and 1990’s post-ordination. They were adventurous, exciting, imaginative, creative times for me. I was introduced to the work of theologians, prophets and mystics that has stayed with me and continues to nourish my faith. Where, I frequently ask friends, has that energy and risk-taking exploration of faith gone? Because gone it certainly has. How has this happened?
John Bowden’s unanswered questions
In his Preface to Jesus: The Unanswered Questions published in 1988, John Bowden wrote that twenty years earlier, in the 1960s, he wouldn’t have had to spend so much time justifying the asking of questions, questions that arise out of a personal search for truth, which he believed to be a search for God, and a response to what he believed to be the signs of and pointers towards God.
Nearly thirty years later, it has become even more difficult to ask questions in the Church of England, basic questions that arise from the search for truth. A lot of time and energy is spent arguing – about the place of women in the church (though substantial progress has been made towards resolving this question), and about the place of LGBTI people in the church (towards which huge levels of time and energy are consumed for very little progress compared with the transformation achieved in UK society).
In stark contrast, very little time and energy is given to asking questions about God and personal truth and the search for God. This area is almost taboo.
Bowden noted in 1988 that there were signs of progress and positive development – in the detailed knowledge that had been acquired, the acceptance of our ignorance in so many areas and the sparseness of the biblical material, and in the degree to which economic, political and cultural influences have made their mark on Christian thought.
He then noted that the life of the churches has “manifestly been moving in the other direction”. The level of theological and historical knowledge has fallen appallingly and attempts to ask questions are largely frowned upon. We are told, he said, “that there is a ‘turning of the tide’, and that there is nothing wrong with traditional beliefs (seldom defined in any detail), which only need to be restated with renewed conviction and faith.”
He notes that this claim is made at a time when the churches in England have never been so numerically weak. “It represents the standpoint of an embattled minority who make their point by drawing on a limited range of evidence and appealing to those who still have no difficulties with the churches as they are.” There is the growing number of people “who still cling on to Christian practice by the skin of their teeth in the hope that somehow, someday, things will get better.”
Since Bowden wrote this 28 years ago, the Church of England has experienced a further continuous decline in attendance, the embattled minority still draws on a limited range of evidence, and tries to appeal to those who have no difficulty with churches as they are. Why is it, asked Bowden, “that so many people one talks to are so dissatisfied?”
In 2016 I meet a small number of people who claim to have little or no difficulty with the church, but a majority who tell me they do not receive adequate spiritual nourishment in worship and prayer nor intelligent theological wisdom and vision in sermons and teaching. Among those who remain active, there are degrees of apathy, nostalgia and addiction - a yearning for something - but they have difficulty identifying what is missing.
I think knowledge of contemplative prayer and practice is lacking amongst the clergy, together with a lack of teaching ability and a naïve, illiterate level of theology which manifests in shallow sermons and really shocks me. This is not universally true, of course, but in general, the failure of many clergy to think intelligently and theologically and biblically depresses me.
The challenge facing the church and her clergy is magnified by decline in attendance, ageing congregations, and the decline in the number of clergy. Benefices are combined and clergy time is consumed by multiple Sunday services and duplicate meetings.
Bowden identified some of the practical problems. Nearly thirty years later the same problems beset the Church of England.
“Christian doctrine is still largely treated as the Bible used to be two centuries ago, presented as having such unique authority that it must have been made in heaven, rather than being the work of thinkers and negotiators at particular periods during church history, and therefore open to historical criticism and the problems of cultural relativism.”
Split between head and heart:
“Some generations of clergy, teachers, students with theological training have developed as it were split personalities, with little relationship between heart and head, recognising the existence of the findings of modern research with part of themselves, but then bracketing it off in their personal devotion and the life of the church to which they belong; others have found a way of simply dismissing the questions that the modern world poses to their beliefs.”
“[I]n Britain, there are those who, despite the evidence to the contrary, insist on maintaining that society is still Christian, rather than post-Christian or pluralist, and that a narrowly Christian attitude to faith and morality is the only way towards national salvation. Such attitudes almost rule out constructive debate from the start, or encourage retreat into an irrational and anti-intellectual fundamentalism, from which it is impossible that a healthier and more open society can develop.”
Addiction to certainty:
“The very existence of people who have doubts over what we can authentically say about Jesus affects the position of those who argue for certainty: the claim of the latter to certain knowledge where there is legitimate reason for doubt is a spurious one. [T]he only truthful answer anyone can make about what can authoritatively be said about the person, sayings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth must be, ‘In the end, we really do not know. Such a statement is not easy to maintain. There will always be strong pressures against it and those who make it, pressures exercised by the psychological need among many people for answers which will provide security in an insecure world.”
Archbishop Justin Welby talks a lot about Jesus as if using the name tells people everything. He talks with conviction and enthusiasm. But I don’t know who he is talking about. I don’t know what the content of Justin’s Jesus is, his teaching and ministry and vision of God. The construct of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is complex. The failure to understand the complexity is one reason why the church has endless arguments and conversations about sexuality. People pluck texts from various contexts and use them as proof texts on which definitive theologies are constructed, theologies which justify prejudice and the abuse of people, brother and sister Christians and people of other faiths and none. Christianity should be helping local communities and the global community to examine ideas and attitudes with great care and attention. Instead the church spouts platitudes, ignorance and prejudice.
That Was The Church That Was
In That Was The Church That Was published earlier this year Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead have picked up from where John Bowden left his 1988 analysis of the twenty-year decline from the mid-60s. Their narrative begins in 1986 when Andrew attended a meeting at St George’s House, Windsor, where conservative and liberal Anglicans had gathered “to thrash out their differences”. He and Linda have mapped out how, over the subsequent three decades, “The Church of England lost the English people” telling the stories of gays and evangelicals, women, George Carey and managerial voodoo, charismatic signs and wonders, global Anglicanism, and the Rowan vacuum.
Brown and Woodhead say there has been a drift towards the appointment of bishops of the ‘safe rather than sorry’ variety, managerially competent, and forever on message (well, all but one). Dissent and open debate dried up and the long line of colourful, inspiring Anglican bishops of my earlier years vanished.
The current College of Bishops is composed of men and women, many of whom are good people, performing well according to the current job specification, but never daring to step outside the set parameters to adventure into challenging spiritual and intellectual territory. No longer do bishops publish books exploring people’s dream of God from the apophatic, mystical tradition, or engage with the questions from three and five decades ago which have become even more urgent. They publish prosaic pot boilers, mostly, books that feature in the Church Times top ten list. They are not bad books, they just bear no comparison with books published by the likes of John Robinson, David Jenkins and Rowan Williams.
Like those of you reading this blog, I experience bishops and clergy at first hand. This year I’ve talked with a number of theological college principals and visited one college. Theological and spiritual resources and training in the Church of England are seriously inadequate to the times and to the challenges confronting the church.
Resources are being poured into strategies for survival in the hope that numerical decline will be arrested within three decades. The bishops have withdrawn into a safe enclave, bullied or subtly intimidated to toe the party line as if they were MPs being whipped. None of them dares break rank and they will lie to avoid confronting uncomfortable personal questions. Clergy are not receiving the training needed to nurture people with an authentic, inspiring vision of the Christ-like life that brings prophetic hope and courage to the twenty-first century global community. The Church Times guide to Theology Now produced in Lent was predictable and unimaginative. It failed to engage with the theological exploration pursued by many on the edges of the church and the books that are being written and widely read but largely ignored by bishops, trainers and clergy. Vision and energy has left the church and is being explored by a different set of people, some active in the church, many non-church, non-orthodox, some who have abandoned the deadly lack of courage and imagination of Christian tradition and orthodoxy.
In the final chapters of That Was The Church That Was, Linda Woodhead writes of the “luxuriant undergrowth of spirituality in Britain” which is proving more threatening to the Church than angry atheism, other faiths, or bland indifference. Ordinary people, particularly women, are doing things for themselves and others, completely independent or ‘religious professionals’, and this is unpalatable, especially when they might have something to teach the Church – as I firmly believe they do. Archbishop Rowan’s instinct that spirituality could save the Church was correct but, says Linda, he was “completely defeated by the Ministry of Magic – the bureaucratic machinations of church bodies”. There are, despite the Church structures, pockets of growth where people find a deep sense of connection with something beyond ordinary life. Tellingly, the silence of an empty church is one of the examples she cites.
I puzzle my friends, Christian and non-Christian, because I still attend church. Attend, and complain. I attend because it’s the only social network I’m connected with locally and because there are people with whom I have rich, energised conversations after the service has finished. The people and the conversations are why I go. I meet people who wonder why their spiritual desires are unmet. People take what is given. Few are aware that there are alternatives and that they have voices which could express their frustration. There is an incredible level of toleration of inadequate spirituality in church. Cathedrals win out because they have the resources to create beauty and transcendence. Parish churches could do it as well, but few have any clue how.
Paul Tillich wrote of The Shaking of the Foundations in 1949. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about religionless Christianity in 1943/44, published as Letters and Papers from Prison in 1953. Others followed their path. Their prophetic vision inspires still. John Bowden in 1988 and Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead in 2016 describe the downward trajectory of Christianity over the past five decades. Yes, Christianity flourishes in other parts of the world, but what kind of Christianity? Successful - but orthodox, prophetic, evolutionary? Orthodox in prejudice?
Living into God
If God is within everything, as I believe, then God is in the decline of western Christianity. The decline is intentional. The growth elsewhere also intentional. To me, it looks insane. But it isn’t. I am enthused and infused with a living faith, with energy and depth and love as I journey towards the eventual conclusion of my own life. But there is still so much to live for, so much that excites me, so much happening around me – just not in church services on a Sunday morning. The Spirit is always fully at work in life. But the centre of energy is shifting away from the orthodox, traditional patterns of church life and faith. Many of my friends are frustrated, but I have a core of friends who are really living, living into God and the future, energised and inspired. Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God are not the names that might easily describe the faith experiences of my friends, but I have no doubt they are being inspired by the same teacher and energised by the same Spirit and loved, intensely, gloriously, tenderly, unconditionally loved by the same God.