The battle for the soul of the Church

As the dust settles people are beginning to realise that more was at stake in the debate over women bishops than breaking the church’s glass ceiling? According to Linda Woodhead, ‘the vote for women bishops strikes a blow against sectarian ‘male’ Christianity’. Woodhead, who is President of Modern Church, has emerged as the leading proponent of an ecclesiology that emphasises the need for the Church of England to remain a national Church, in tune with the values and beliefs of a large number of its members who are not active churchgoers. Research undertaken by Woodhead suggests there are four types of Anglicans: a small group (five per cent of her sample) she terms the ‘God-fearers’ who attend regularly and are orthodox in belief; the ‘church mainstream’ (put at 12 per cent), regular in attendance but not so orthodox in belief; ‘non-churchgoing mainstream’ (50 per cent) who share the liberal beliefs of the church pentecost_news1338041413mainstream but rarely attend; and the ‘non-churchgoing doubters’ (33 per cent) who are less orthodox in belief and rarely attend but still claim to be ‘Anglican’. Woodhead would like the church to listen more to its nominal members and not think its mission is to turn everyone into a God-fearer. She claims that, first under George Carey and then under Rowan Williams, the church moved in a ‘sectarian’ direction and tried to emphasise its distinctiveness from secular society. In the 60s and 70s the Church of England was travelling in a broadly liberal direction in tune with the rest of society but the extension of equal rights to women and gay people was hard for the Church to swallow. She hopes the vote on women bishops signals a change although she confesses to worries about Archbishop Welby’s stand on gay marriage and assisted dying. There is a good deal of truth in this analysis of the current situation facing the Church. One of the troubling aspects of the debate about women bishops is that some bishops were apparently ready to introduce the measure into Lords if it failed in General Synod and push it through with Parliamentary approval. After the measure failed in Synod in November 2012, we heard anguished cries from bishops about the future of the establishment and threats from politicians like Frank Field that they would take matters into their own hands. It is interesting to compare the situation with the 1928 vote on the Prayer Book. Then, as now, liberals in the Church were keen to preserve the link between church and nation. So, too, were the evangelicals who did not scruple to appeal to what they saw as a ‘Protestant’ nation over the head of a Church too much influenced by Anglo-Catholicism.

Only the Anglo-Catholics were ready to support the independence of the Church against the state. Today conservative evangelicals have no illusions about the danger of control by a secular Parliament. They have discovered ecclesiology and see the need for a theology of the church that underpins its independence. A much-diminished band of Anglo-Catholics remains faithful to the teaching of the Oxford Movement and they are joined by a small but theologically very creative group who call themselves ‘Radical Orthodoxy’. Rowan Williams is close to this movement, which is why Woodhead puts him in the sectarian camp although she unfairly ignores his emphasis on dialogue with the wider culture. Behind the debates over sexuality and assisted dying lies a battle for the soul of Anglicanism between liberals like Woodhead and those who want to see a Church faithful to gospel and tradition and speaking with a distinctive voice. The same battle is raging elsewhere. In Australia liberals have scored a victory and made a big concession to secular society with the General Synod ruling that the secrecy of the confessional does not apply to serious crimes (including cases of sexual abuse). As one Catholic commentator pointed out on the ABC ‘Religion and Ethics’ site, this undermines the priest’s role as the minister of God’s forgiveness and the church’s calling to be what Pope Francis called ‘a field hospital for sinners’.

Woodhead sees Fresh Expressions and other forms of missionary outreach as attempts to boost the God-fearers. She puts her faith in both the churchgoing and non-churchgoing mainstream. There are several problems with this strategy. With admitted exceptions, clergy tend to be recruited from the committed. As numbers shrink, it becomes more difficult to recruit able candidates, especially able young candidates. Studying American evangelicals, Christian Smith has suggested, teaches us that churches thrive when they have a distinctive message but remain in dialogue with the secular society. What is crucial is that Christians choose the right issues on which to make a stand. Woodhead ignores signs that the number of those who claim church affiliation but are not active members or believers is in decline as more claim to be ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’. Woodhead herself has studied this pattern in Kendal. One move would be to make the Church more welcoming of spiritual seekers and turn clergy into what the NHS already terms ‘spiritual care givers’. Questions need to be asked about how far the Church can go in this direction and still be Christian.

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