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THAT WAS THE CHURCH, THAT WAS: How the Church of England Lost the English People by Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead

September 13, 2016

The book blames many of the problems of the Church of England on the ‘managerial voodoo’ introduced by George Carey. ‘Like a cargo cult, [the Church] assumed that if you aped the jargon and waved some of the symbols, success and prestige must naturally follow.’

A reminder of all my yesterdays and enough for me to ask again whether I should leave this seemingly doomed  organisation and its useless leadership.

I am pleased  to see that Carey gets lampooned but saddened to seer that Rowan doesn’t come out of it well either.

John Stott preached  a sermon in the  1960s where he urged people to be kind to their servants.

 ‘One high camp London church was burned down in an arson attack and another was attacked.’ I wish they’d named them.

Some terms are not explained e.g. the Philadelphia Eleven.- eleven women who were the first women ordained as priests in the US.

Nevertheless a gossipy page-turner. Initially, the publishers, Bloomsbury, decided to pull it. The book, it seemed, was a little too incendiary. Apparently there has been a legal action because of ‘a disputed passage about a Christian leader’. It sounded intriguing. But which leader? Is it the bishop who, we’re informed, ‘turned out to have had a conviction for cottaging hushed up’? Or the bishop who was the subject of an ‘entirely false’ rumour that he ‘attended gay orgies’? Or the bishop accused of faking his academic qualifications, also described as an ‘entirely false’ claim?


Cuddesdon: where the mild things are

got an all-clear from a retired bishop who came to College at Easter to dispense homilies and confidential advice. ‘I’ve fallen in love with a divorced man, she told him, ‘and he’s asked me to marry him: ‘Is his wife alive?’ the bishop asked anxiously. ‘No, the ordinand mumbled, she died from cancer last year: ‘Oh thank God for that!’ he beamed.

The Anglo-Catholics at Cuddesdon were the most likely to be opposed to women’s ordination, but they were generally more liberal about it than the ‘traditionalist’ Anglo-Catholics at St Stephen’s House. For the latter, opposition had become almost the defining mark of their party. Some of the handful of women unwise enough to go to St Stephen’s ended up being transferred to other colleges by compassionate DDOs, and the handful who stuck it out learnt to live with routine cruelties and humiliations. One year, at the end of their time in training, they sent the customary Petertide ordination cards to their brother students asking for their prayers, only to find them torn up into small pieces and returned to their own pigeonholes.

John Stott’s successor as Rector of All Souls, Richard Bewes, once gave communion to the Evangelical Group on General Synod, and when he came to the Peace, when members of the congregation are exhorted to shake hands, or even to embrace their neighbours, he stood very upright and said that since they were all brothers and sisters together, who knew each other’s fellowship, there was no need for anything more than a manly punch on the shoulder.

By the early twentieth century it had become clear that Parliament as a whole had lost its appetite for regulating the Church of England. The solution, which appeared in 1919, was a form of partial disestablishment. A new body, the Church Assembly (reconstituted in 1970 as the General Synod), would have the power to formulate church legislation that would then be submitted to Parliament. The bishops didn’t trust laypeople to use power responsibly, and fought successfully against the idea of giving them a vote. They proposed instead an arcane system which would give a semblance of democracy while allowing them to retain power. As Major Harry Barnes MP, speaking at the second reading of the Enabling Bill of the Church Assembly in 1919, said, ‘The fact that the organisation proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury is precisely the same organisation as has been adopted by Lenin is attributable to the desire of both to secure the same end … The real principle at the root of Bolshevism is a desire to combine a democratic form with autocratic effects, and that is what has taken place in this Constitution’

deanery synods, a kind of committee once defined as a roomful of Anglicans all wishing they were somewhere else.

In the Church of England the matter of male homosexuality had a further twist. Among the imperial classes, it had been customary for 150 years for their sons to be educated in single-sex boarding schools where opportunistic sexual predation was a constant possibility. So the ideas of decency, purity and cleanliness, which were in any case central to dealing with sex, might take on a particularly homophobic tinge where adolescent sexual rumblings were concerned. At Marlborough, a school founded for sons of the clergy, sexual aggression was part of the normal repertoire of bullying at least until the early 1970s. Unpopular boys would be hunted down and have their genitals ritually smeared with boot polish. Really unpopular ones could be gang-raped anally with a broomstick. It was a part of the character-building process.

There is always something deeply sexual about Pentecostal religion even at its most fraudulent: the effort, the ecstasy, the concentration. But this was Pentecostalism without the props. There was no organ, no darkness from which the audience could gaze at a lit stage, no one waiting for a miracle. Instead, there was a ring of journalists, and some of them started to giggle. This was partly because of the tall and unfeasibly handsome blond from a television company who kept trying to get a story he could understand. He pushed his microphone between the two men and asked, ‘Gentlemen, do you think there is any room for compromise on this issue?’

In the basement of the Catholic chaplaincy an enormously fat priest from Dallas — a man so large you could have fitted two of the stouter English traditionalists inside him — presided over five computer screens from which streamed endless messages of encouragement, and anathemas against liberalism. This was the start of the phenomenon of devoted conservatives roaming the ether like lost cats all year round, eager to pounce on godless liberals. A certified public accountant in Tennessee named Deidra Duncan was particularly exercised about the fate of the Church of England. Before the Conference she had sent Andrew an email (`Dear Father Brown’) asking for spiritual guidance when she learnt he wrote for the Church Times. Andrew explained that he wasn’t able to supply the spiritual counsel she desired. Examining her home page on the web, he found a link to a man in Colorado who had proved from the Bible that Prince Charles is the Antichrist. She also rang a vicar in an Essex village, asking for comfort when her cat ran away. Of the five screens in the basement, three carried messages from her.

the retired bishop of Ely, Stephen Sykes, became indignant about the use of the word ‘spirituality’ in relation to Kendal, remonstrating that it was a Christian concept which belonged to the church. When it was gently pointed out that this was how people were using the word, he retorted that they had no business doing so.

Burgeoning popular forms of spirituality were regularly dismissed in sermons and theology as flaky at best, narcissistic at worst. But this wasn’t what the team found in Kendal, where most of the practitioners impressed as sincere and responsible. Their implicit theology was that divine Spirit was at work wherever there was healing, wholeness and honesty – and this wasn’t so different from what liberal Anglicans used to think too. Those who sought them out came from across the social classes, with problems which ranged from a bad back to terminal cancer, or from serious depression to a vague sense of life unfulfilled In many cases, they reported that they’d been helped. Some went on to set up stall themselves.

This luxuriant undergrowth of spirituality in Britain, of which Kendal gave just a glimpse, proved more threatening to the Church than angry atheism, other faiths, or bland indifference ­all of which had also been on the rise since the late 1980s. Rowan enjoyed debating with Richard Dawkins, and made alliances with other conventional faith leaders. Interfaith work was deemed a good thing. But the fact that ordinary people, particularly women, were doing spiritual things for themselves and others, completely independent of ‘religious professionals, was unpalatable, and the idea that they might even have something to teach the Church was totally unthinkable.

Ironically, Rowan was the very person who might have been able to reconnect such spirituality with the English church and its mystical traditions: with Julian of Norwich, William Blake, Thomas Traherne, Evelyn Underhill This was the time when Susan Howatch was selling stacks of novels about historic Anglicans with a spiritual bent. Rowan himself had a deep and attractive personal spirituality, and his writings developed a profound mystical theology. But he preferred the mysticism of Russian Orthodoxy to that of England.

‘… a theological and political middle way’. In the seventeenth century the Church of England was described as a ‘via media’ between ‘the painted harlot on the hill and the slovenly wench in the valley’ (George Herbert), or ‘the meretricious gaudiness of the Church of Rome and the squalid sluttery of fanatic conventicles’

“As the Church lost its grip over the provision of ceremonies, the English – always great ritual innovators – took to the task of reinventing them with relish.”

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