Sunday, December 30, 2007

Two cheers for the CofE. If it's not too much trouble and you feel so inclined

It's very easy to sneer at the C of E for being wishy-washy and vague, but that doesn't mean it's wrong to do so. Not when confronted by an article about Anglicanism, in this case by The Rev Canon David Meara, which, amid the bleating and the hand-wringing, argues that this is its main strength.

"Thou hast set my feet, O Lord, in a large room," says the psalmist, and I give thanks for the large room that is the Church of England, in which those who seek meaning and purpose can be welcomed, whatever stage of belief or unbelief they have reached.

In other words, belief in God is optional. So why bother attending a church which has no idea whether or not its doctrines are true? Apparently things would be worse if they weren't.

People come to church because they want a story to connect with, a guiding narrative that helps them make sense of human existence, and because they have found that unthinking multiculturalism and rampant secularism don't satisfy and don't work.

Hmm. This to me suggests that the Christian story is just that. A story, a fable, a fairytale and that the willing suspension of disbelief will make as feel better about ourselves; a grown up version of the excitement children get from awaiting Santa's visit. It also seems akin to an argument I've heard a few times that we need to have values derived from religious beliefs (even it those beliefs are patently absurd) because otherwise we will all do unspeakable things to each other all the time and degenerate into soulless automatons. (It won't be long before you'll hear the argument, again, that people go shopping because their lives are empty. I think it's bollocks).

I'm sorry if I appear to the most frightful Calvinistic bore; but it does rather matter to me whther or not that guiding narrative is true or not. If the latter, I would not use it a basis for "making sense of human existence". Otherwise we could perhaps try a thinking form of secularism and multi-culturalism.

But let us not be too harsh. David Meara is, after all, the cannon of St Bride's, the journalists' church. And anyone who is charged with caring for the immortal souls of Her Majesty's Press deserves a large deal of sympathy and compassion.

The cannon is right that Anglicanism's ability to tolerate different viewpoints is its great strength. Elizabeth I's idea of creating the proverbial broad church, to which different sorts of Christians could subscribe, helped avert a great deal of religious strife. True, there was still a series of civil conflicts in which religion played a part, a good deal of persecution and so on.

Yet the Church of England also alleviated the worse effects of religion in a different way, by placing minimal demands on its adherents and by a benign neglect of much of its flock. I've said before that the English never took, entirely, to Christianity and since the time of the Reformation, at least, there has always been a large substratum of society which never really went to church.

By the late Victorian era the situation is well described in Michael Burleigh's Earthly Powers (I assume the echoes of Burgess are deliberate). I don't have the book to hand, so forgive me the following paraphrase which is made from memory. Essentially, the Church of England was presided over by a priestly caste of Oxbridge-educated vicars who tended to the spiritual needs of the rural gentry, the respectable middle classes and the establishment. Fortunately, their spiritual needs were not over-exacting. At the same time, it become utterly disengaged from the urban working classes (one reason for Methodism's appeal was that it understood and could communicate with the working classes) and some sections of the intellectual and artistic worlds. During the First World War, most army chaplains were hopelessly out of touch with the concerns of the men fighting in the trenches and provided poor consolation to them. (The Catholic priests, drawn mainly from the same stock as their charges, faired much better). This disengagement has since continued.

It has been said that High Church Anglicanism is the gentleman's atheism. It may be a back handed compliment, but the best tribute we can pay that institution is to thank it for doing its job by cooling things at time of religious tension – oh and giving us the Book of Common Prayer and King James bible – and send it on its way.

Certainly, we shoud end the absurd pretense that it's the state religion. If the tolerance and open-ness is such a good selling point, let the CofE compete with other sects and religion on equal terms. Although it may not be quite what David Meara would like to hear, I think this is the best legacy the Church of England has given us. It allows use to construct our own "grand narrative" and "make sense of human existence" in our own way, without the heavy-handed presence of a religious institution insisting it is the way, the truth and the life, and we must follow it or else.



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