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Farewell, Church of England? - by Peter Mullen

Farewell, Church of England?

By Peter Mullen
The New Criterion
September 2005

As we prepare for our Harvest Festival Services, we see that what's left of the English Church is indistinguishable from a lunatic asylum.

Everywhere you peer inside this once refined and educated, lovely and lovable national institution, there is only a mania for self-destruction.

How else can you account for church services that compete with pantomime for dramatized idiocy? For example, I recently attended a conference for clergy at a beautiful medieval church in Oxford. It was supposed to be a choral Eucharist but there was no organ music-only some plinky-plonky stuff on an out-of-tune piano and mindless choruses in the Jesus Goes to Toytown fashion: interminable glum repetition of what was not worth singing once.

Then the Bishop came on and told us that at the laughably misnamed riot called "The Peace" he didn't want us merely to shake hands but to "hug one another"-and not just to hug one another, but to put our arms on our neighbor's shoulders and say three times, "You are everlastingly loved." When, with varying degrees of squeamishness, grown men fawned on one another in this way, the Bishop came on again in full pantomime mode and said, "Not loud enough! Again-louder!" Not one word from the Book of Common Prayer throughout the three-day conference or indeed from any source that might be identified as religious in the traditional sense. And that Bishop is now Archbishop of York.

They have thrown out the Book of Common Prayer and The Authorized Version of the Bible and substituted dumbed-down, politically correct prayers which sound as if they were written by a committee made up of Tony Blair, Karl Marx, and Noddy. I was at a synod for all the London clergy in All Souls, Langham Place. When it was time for the prayers, a female crooner came on the stage. Stage? Stage? But you thought this was supposed to be the church? Don't ask! She warbled syrupy phrases about "race relations" and "those who seek to bring signs of enrichment." Between each petition was the soporific chorus, "Remember, remember." That excruciating service was no anomaly. This is how it is almost everywhere you go in today's Church of England. But are we supposed to turn to these fools for spiritual guidance? And don't look to the next generation either: the giggling theological colleges are run like children's television.

When it comes to Christenings, Weddings, and Funerals, the Church has given up talking to grown-ups and instead produces the sort of touchy-feely guff used in adverts directed at moony adolescents. At the Wedding, for instance, the new official book for every parish, Common Worship, makes the priest pray, "Let them be tender with each other's dreams." I think there should be a rubric in the margin saying, "At this point the congregation shall throw up-bride's family's side first." At Christenings they have dropped the renunciation of "the devil and all his works" and there is barely a mention of sin. So what is Holy Baptism for? Only a sentimental prelude to the booze-up and the cake.

No "vile bodies" or "worms" are allowed to contaminate the new, euphemistic funerals. And instead of "Jesus wept" we are given, "Jesus was moved to tears"-as if he'd just watched the lovers going down in the film Titanic for the umpteenth time. None of this mealy-mouthed, evasive schmaltz is the slightest use to the bereaved, of course. Blessed are they that mourn-but not here. And, where the traditional Prayer Book's Holy Communion used to say those unbearably moving holy words "In the same night that he was betrayed," the new book says, "He had supper with his friends." I am not making this up. You couldn't make it up. This is the official worship book of the Church of England. In the face of such blasphemous idiocy, mere satire becomes impossible.

Unbelievably, it is supposed that congregations might experience difficulties in comprehending even this sort of baby talk. So the Archbishop's Council has produced an idiots' Guide to Common Worship which enables us to dumb down even lower than Saturday evenings on BBC1. "Compline" becomes "Night Prayer." In case we cannot understand, "O Lord, open thou our lips," the Guide suggests we print at the start of the service, "We say hello!" And "Confession" is retitled, "Doing the dirt on ourselves."

The way modern preachers talk down to congregations is bumclenchingly embarrassing. Last Christmas I heard one say, "Like us, Mary had to accept that her son would grow up." Is this insight, wisdom, or Woman's Hour? Recently at our church of St. Michael, for the City Service, we had three hundred senior bankers, liverymen, and the Lord Mayor of London in the congregation. Here was a wonderful opportunity for our distinguished visiting preacher to say something inspiring to the movers and shakers in the financial heartlands. All he could come up with was the usual, economically-holier-than-thou politics of envy combined with a vast ignorance of what actually goes on in the Square Mile.

He said, "Money is important-but it's not all-important." Really, the men were too polite to stand up and jeer: their eyes merely glassed over and they dozed for the duration. Afterwards a Master of one of the top twelve liveries came up to me and spoke vehemently, "We know that! Why didn't he take the trouble to find out that we spend 2 percent of our income on wining and dining and the rest of our time in boring meetings deciding how we're going to give the other 98 percent away?"

The whole institution is like a psychotic kindergarten. To this is added a myopic, self-righteous arrogance which allows modern clergy to mistake their failed parroting of 1960s corporatism-taxation, intervention, regulation-for prophecy. When they get the opportunity to broadcast, the result is flabbergasting: the other week a Christian minister devoted the whole three minutes of his Thought for the Day to a defense of voodooism. Thought for the Day is regularly used by Anglican bishops and parsons to denigrate the very tradition that has given them their status.

As might be expected of an institution that is intellectually catatonic, its practical policies aren't up to much either. So the C. of E. is on the verge of bankruptcy and can no longer afford to pay clergy housing costs. It's well known that the Church Commissioners lost £800 million at the end of the 1980s, but even that was only part of a far greater loss. A generation ago, the Diocesan Boards of Finance were given permission by the Commissioners to sell off thousands of fine old vicarages-many of these in extensive grounds-at the bottom of the property market and to re-house the parochial clergy in inferior houses on the new estates of the Seventies and Eighties. The result, of course, is a huge devaluation of the Church's property portfolio. This squandering of historic resources amounts to colossal mismanagement and a betrayal of trust.

On the back, as it were, of this theological, liturgical, spiritual, moral, and financial dereliction, church leaders still contrive to offer us political guidance. I was at a clergy gathering on September 11, 2001, standing in front of a huge TV screen and watching the horror unfold. One senior clergyman turned to me and said, "I hope Bush doesn't retaliate. The West has brought this judgment on itself." I have since met hundreds of clergy who share this misperception, this knee-jerk condemnation of the civilization which has been the cradle of Christian culture for two thousand years. And now Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, effectually blames the West for the attack on New York: "We have something of the freedom to consider whether or not we turn to violence and so are rather different from those who experience their world as leaving no other option." We have heard the same excuses made by senior clergymen after the London tube bombings.

How did this falling off occur? In the early 1960s when I was a young man and a candidate for Ordination, the Church was enjoying something of a revival. The figures for Baptism and Confirmation were all rising steadily along with Sunday congregations. There were more men offering themselves for the priesthood than at any time since before the First World War. So how did the rot set in? There were three main causes: theological, liturgical, and social.

First, the 1960s saw the popularization of radical theology largely through the media of paperback books and television documentary programs. The biblical criticism of nineteenth-century theologians such as Strauss and Bauer and the more sensational "demythologizing" method of Rudolf Bultmann were widely disseminated through the popular paperbacks Honest to God, Soundings, Objections to Christian Belief and The Secular Meaning of the Gospel.

Bishop John Robinson previewed his book Honest to God in a front-page article in The Observer newspaper entitled Our Image of God Must Go. Robinson said, "In place of a God who was literally and physically 'up there,' we have substituted a God who is metaphysically 'out there.'" And so the cat was out of the bag-the idea was put about that traditional belief was no longer possible. God in the secular age was past his sell-by date. Rudolf Bultmann wrote, "It is impossible to believe the miracles and the resurrection in an age of electric light and the wireless." Few seemed to ask, "Why?"-preferring the radical chic of secular Christianity, a demythologized creed and what Paul Van Buren and Thomas J. J. Altizer described as "the gospel of Christian atheism."

These innovations and fashions may be seen as part of the general sloughing off of traditional habits and ways that characterized the 1960s. The flashy consumerism of the post-war boom at its height-the Prime Minister's assertion, "You've never had it so good"-and the widespread contempt for anything that was seen to belong to the old order of deference, respect, hierarchy, and authority-spread into the churches too. The anti-doctrinal, anti-metaphysical mood extended to Christian moral teaching, and the Ten Commandments were derogated as out of date in the climate of act utilitarianism, or "situation ethics," in which it was declared that "All you need is love"-which by coincidence was just what the Beatles were singing in 1963.

The liturgy was next to suffer. W. H. Auden referred to the Book of Common Prayer as the "good luck" of the Church of England and, in the face of its sidelining, asked, "Why spit on our luck?" But spit the authorities did, introducing new rites and ceremonies wholesale. This is not the place for a detailed criticism of the new services, except to draw attention to their main result: they were so many and various that soon no one knew any prayers by heart. The luck of the Church had meant that Anglo-Catholics such as Newman and Pusey, evangelicals and low churchmen like Kingsley and Charles Simeon and the broad churchmen Maurice and Inge had all been happy to use the Book of Common Prayer. At a stroke this cornerstone of Anglican devotion was removed and usage in the Church came to resemble a new Babel. Suddenly there were four or five versions of the Lord's Prayer. The result for Christian education, particularly of the young, was catastrophic.

Finally, the Church accepted wholesale the new social agenda of permissiveness. The Bishops supported the lifting of the ban on Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. Bishops and other leading churchmen urged their congregations to give support to the proposed new Parliamentary Bills to liberalize abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. In all these cases the coercive procedure adopted was the same: a perceived evil was identified, the "reforming" Bill was declared to be the remedy, and the predicted consequences were promised to be rosy. It is important to understand that here again were the same situation ethics which had lately become the moral code of the Established Church. The old belief that certain actions were prohibited by God's Commandments was simply passé-something that "modern man come of age" could safely leave behind.

In the case of the legalization of abortion it was argued that this would put an end to the sordid, life-threatening operations described as "back street." What was not envisaged-or at least left undeclared-was that the legalization and medicalization of abortion would lead to today's figure of 190,000 embryos, in Britain alone, ripped untimely from the womb merely as a form of contraception.

Homosexual law reform was said to be humane and necessary in order to prevent the criminalization and blackmail of men who shared a bed. The terms of the Act decriminalized homosexual practices "between consenting adults in private." "Between" meant two; "adults" meant twenty-one; "private" meant behind locked doors. It did not mean what it means now: hordes of screaming sexual exhibitionists with painted faces parading their sexuality like a carnival, homosexual "activists" themselves doing the blackmailing by attempting to "out" public figures-including a former Archbishop of York; the love that once dared not speak its name is now yelling at the top of its voice in high camp in the main parts of British towns and cities.

The depth of the pit into which the C. of E. has fallen is revealed in the fact that most Anglican lay people no longer recognize the modern Church as bearing any resemblance to the institution in which they were brought up. But the people in the pews are powerless against the torrent of ignorant and arrogant "modernization" thrust upon them by the uneducated new generation of clergy who are in thrall to the most tawdry aspects of popular culture.

Perhaps it is not altogether too late? The Church has been at death's door before. And the Lord did say that the gates of hell would not prevail. The gates of hell are having a damned good try. But it will take a miracle to revive the Church now. Perhaps at the Harvest Festival we might implore in the words of the Psalm, Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered.

Always remembering that the enemies are within.

--Peter Mullen, Rector of St. Michael's, Cornhill, is Chaplain to the Stock Exchange.

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