Remotely wishing you a Merry Christmas

Woefully out of touch and with falling congregations, the Church of England faces a crisis of leadership and theology

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Three state security vans pulled up outside the church. Officers got out and began pounding on the door, threatening to break it down. Inside the pastor knew they’d come. Church gatherings had just been made illegal in his country but pro regime neighbours had spotted people entering and had informed the authorities, to the applause of government media.

Elsewhere Christians met more discreetly. One church gave the location of services only to trusted people by word of mouth. Once assembled, hymns were sung, the Bible was read and prayers were offered to God. More unusual was the location: the worshippers sat on hay bales in a barn, the service occasionally interrupted by livestock.

These are not examples of the underground church in China, but from Britain last year. Wade McLennan, who came to the UK from America in the 1990s, leads the New Hope Community Church in Cardiff. He had initially closed his church in March 2020, when the whole UK went into lockdown, but by May he’d opened again despite the ban on religious services still being in place. He said: “We don’t deny there is a virus and we’re grateful that we haven’t been deeply affected by it, but we’re not focused on it and we’re not scared by it. Pastorally we felt we couldn’t just abandon everybody.”

Wade Mclennan’s Church service was broken up by Welsh police

The farmyard church is in the east of England. The Pastor, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, said that as far as he knows, theirs was the only church in the area that met during lockdown. He said “we disobeyed the Government because we believe that the State does not have the authority to interfere with the worship of God. Jesus Christ is the head of the Church, not Boris.” Both Church leaders said their congregations grew hugely over the period. 

But civil disobedience doesn’t come naturally to British Christian leaders. Despite pockets of resistance, the vast majority of churches complied with the lockdowns ordered by Downing Street and the devolved governments. And, inevitably, the Church of England entirely justified its establishment status. In March 2020, Archbishops Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell, told clergy they could not broadcast internet services from their churches (an edict that The Critic columnist, and Rector of St Bartholomew the Great, Marcus Walker ignored). 

When lockdown first began it took the atheist Simon Heffer to argue that the pandemic required a spiritual response beyond the limits of a politician. But, he complained, the Archbishop of Canterbury was not providing it: “Given we were being warned of a possible death toll that would remove a higher proportion of our population than at any time since the Great War, did the Almighty’s Anglican vicar on earth have something to say? He did not.”

Following, not leading

While the hierarchy of the Church of England remained in lockstep with the Government, Christian leaders in other denominations slowly began to organise. Pastor Ade Omooba MBE, who co founded Christian Concern and oversees several Pentecostal Churches in the UK, said he had repeatedly tried to arrange a meeting with the Government since March 2020, without success. 

In frustration he assembled a group of like minded church leaders to prepare for a Judicial Review: “We had the head of the Caribbean denominations and other ethnic minorities who minister to some of the poorest communities in the country joining us. It was a fantastic representation of Christians from different denominations.”

By May 2020 it was legal to go to a bike shop, Homebase and a dry cleaner, but not to receive communion or pray quietly in church. As the Church of England was silent, it fell to African, Asian and Afro Caribbean church leaders to cite Magna Carta as a constitutional basis for Church autonomy. 

Their legal letter argued that the forced closure of churches was disproportionate and also interfered with Article 9 of the European Declaration of Human Rights. So all our totemic moral reference points were hit. 

Within minutes of sending his pre action letter, Omooba was taking calls from Special Advisors in No.10. Later he found out there had been a regular meeting between the Government’s Faith Minister, Lord Greenhalgh, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Roman Catholic Church. “Eventually,” he told me, “we got ourselves invited and began to have very frank conversations — sometimes heated. We kept going round in circles but eventually they began to understand we were not going to back down on things like sacraments, singing and worship.”

Archbishop Welby made it very clear they must not disobey the NHS’s teachings, as revealed by their prophet, SAGE

Whatever the roundtable was doing before Omooba got there, it wasn’t, it seems, sticking up for in person services. In his Easter message 2020 entitled “Our towns are closed but our hearts are open,” published in the Mail on Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury started by saying that in a crisis “we naturally turn to our leaders in Westminster” (Boris Johnson had left intensive care just three days earlier). 

He left just two lines for the elephant in the room: “Today, my Easter Sermon won’t be delivered from a pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral — it was recorded on an iPad in my kitchen with my wife Caroline. The closure of churches is extremely painful but the church is the people of God — not just a building.” Extremely painful, but obviously in his mind, not wrong. His instructions to his clergy made it very clear they must not disobey the NHS’s teachings, as revealed by their prophet, SAGE.

Discontented clergy

Justin Welby recorded an Easter message from his kitchen

By September 2020, as Justin Welby was planning a three month sabbatical for “reflection, prayer, and spiritual renewal” the drumbeat for a second lockdown was getting louder and 700 church leaders sent a letter to Boris Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford and Arlene Foster asking them not to close places of worship again.

They argued it “would cause serious damage to our congregations, our service of the nation, and our duty as Christian ministers.” One of the letter’s signatories, Presbyterian Minister Rev. Paul Levy, went further, telling The Times that it was his duty to break the law if ordered to close again. 

The signatures of the two archbishops were absent from the letter, but 150 Church of England ministers added their names, suggesting a sizable chunk of their clergy felt disconnected with the “Stay at Home” message swallowed and propagated by the Anglican hierarchy.

Days before the second English lockdown arrived on 5 November, as Muslim and Roman Catholic leaders voiced their anger about public worship being shut down, Welby and Cottrell seemed to briefly show a crumb of self reflection. 

In a letter to Church of England clergy, they wrote:

We are sure that some of you reading this letter will wish we had made other decisions during the period of the first lockdown, or even challenged the Government harder on the decisions it has made. You may be right … but in this second lockdown we want to encourage church buildings to remain open for private prayer wherever possible.

This was a very small ask, considering that meetings for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts were allowed to carry on in person, as were childcare groups and groups for gay and transgender people and other members of the elect.

“Challenging the Government harder” is, of course, not dissent and it will not surprise readers to learn that the differing responses of different churches were heavily influenced by theology. Frequently cited by Christians in lockdown was Romans chapter 13, in which the apostle Paul tells the Christian church at Rome to “be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God.” 

But others cited the book of Daniel when the King of Babylon passes a law prohibiting prayer to anyone except for himself for 30 days on pain of being thrown into the lion’s den, an edict which Daniel ignored.

Willie Philip, Minister of the Tron Church in Glasgow, is clear how he sees the apparent conflict in theology: “treating Romans 1 as if we must kowtow to the government whatever they say is utterly naive. It … has been abused by almost every miscreant dictator in history.” Philip, whose legal claim against the Scottish Government over church restrictions was upheld in court, points to the theologian Karl Barth, who argued that Romans 13 does not mean Christians should write their governments a blank cheque.

Barth was responsible for the Barmen Declaration, adopted in 1934 by German Christians which opposed state control of their Church — in opposition to the Deutsche Christen movement who had embraced Nazism. Philip adds: “we in the West have got so used to the Church and State being more or less on the same wicket, but people don’t realise that we are in a post Christendom world now and the older generation in particular don’t know how to handle that.” The
churches may have been baffled, but the state wasn’t.

The minister of the farmyard church agrees: “I believe Scripture commands us to meet physically together. The example we have in the New Testament is one of God’s people being present with each other. The Church today seems to have adopted an Erastian position, that the State has authority over worship. This position is completely unbiblical, and it makes Jesus subservient to the prime minister.”

Voluntary closure

There are, of course, obvious problems with a state church disobeying the state (I’m aware many would end that sentence after Church” and before “disobeying”). But as an example of how far from dissent the leadership of the Church of England finds itself, consider a letter written in January this year by the Bishop of Peterborough, Donald Allister, to the clergy in his diocese.

Can I now attend services held before I was born, or have my son baptised by a pre-recorded vicar on YouTube?

The Government had ordered another lockdown in England but, thanks, in part, to people such as Ade Omooba who argued with politicians, civil servants and the police, places of worship were exempted. After being passed the ball, the Church of England seemed displeased to find themselves on the pitch. The Bishop wrote of his “surprise and dismay” that Churches would not be forced to close. 

“Last March it was relatively easy,” he said. “The Government used emergency powers to close churches. All I had to do was tell the clergy to obey the law.” But this time the tricky part was getting churches to close. He lamented that he could no longer legally tell vicars to shut their doors, adding: “If I am asked for my advice, it is certainly that you should close.” Perhaps hoping that peer pressure would finish off anyone not swayed by his opinion, he revealed that around half the clergy had asked to suspend public worship “and that number is growing every day”.

But aside from age old questions of Church and State, some think something else was going on. Throughout the lockdowns most Church leaders maintained the uneasy message that meeting up in person was ideal, but that a Zoom, or live streamed service was still a “real” service. Many churches even began performing the sacraments over the internet, asking people to provide their own bread and wine to consume in front of their screens.

Matthew Roberts, who previously convened the International Presbyterian denomination, is clear that this isn’t the case. In a sermon worth quoting at length, because it’s important to record the resistance to the ban, he addressed his York congregation on “Why we can’t not worship”:

When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English in the sixteenth century … one of his most inflammatory decisions was his translation of the word ekklesia, “church”. He quite rightly had noticed that it means “assembly” or “gathering”. So he translated Jesus’s famous words as:

“apon this rocke I wyll bylde my congregacion. And the gates of hell shall not prevayle ageynst it.”

… We can genuinely worship God ourselves, or with our families and households, while we do so. But nevertheless, it is not church. It is not gathering. It is not the thing we are made for, not a taste on earth of our eternal destiny in heaven. So for those who cannot, for good reason, come to gather with the church for worship, watching online is an excellent thing to do. But it should be seen as an excellent thing which mercifully relieves, but does not take away, the real grief and loss at not being able to gather in person.

Virtual absurdity

There has been very little theological discussion of what “online church” means, since it was not an issue encountered by previous generations of Christians. But it is perhaps unsurprising that in the latter days of liberalism, where we have rejected a teleological view of the body and relegated our social interactions to the virtual world, that so many Christians readily accepted the oxymoron of a “virtual congregation”.

What else, apart from physical presence, can the criteria be for church attendance? Synchronised timing? Surely virtual service advocates would not exclude the many churches who recorded their message to be watched later? But if timing and physical presence are not valid criteria, the whole idea becomes absurd. Can I now attend services held before I was born? Can I have my son baptised with a bowl of tap water and a pre-recorded vicar on YouTube? Perhaps the only thing stopping us all from attending the Council of Nicea (AD 325) was the lack of a decent video camera?

In the first Chapter of Romans, Paul argues that one way in which God punishes sin is by removing His constraints, thus allowing people to be destroyed by their own actions. Roberts believes something similar happened with lockdown: “we’ve suffered a real disjunction between the physical and spiritual realms in recent years and become so utterly consumed by our screens that in a sense, God has said, ‘there you go, you can sit at home for the best part of a year with only a screen to look at, how do you like that?’”

The ancient Gnostic heresy which has plagued Christianity for thousands of years drew on the ideas of the ancient world that there was a divide between an evil and corrupt physical world which human bodies belonged to, and the spiritual world which was pure. This is why Gnostics found the idea of Jesus Christ — fully man and fully God — so difficult to accept. As Tom Holland writes in Dominion:

For some Christians, the teaching within Paul’s letters, and within the four earliest gospels — that Jesus, a man tortured to death on a cross, was also, in some mysterious way, a part of the identity of the One God of Israel — was simply too radical to tolerate. Who, then, might he actually have been? Rather than commingling the earthly with the heavenly, some Christians argued, was it not likelier that his humanity had been mere illusion? How could the Lord of the Universe possibly have been born of a mortal woman, still less have experienced pain and death? 

The idea that God himself came to earth as a baby and was born into a germ filled barn is boringly familiar to those of us who remember our nativity plays, but the idea is becoming more radical today as we spend more and more of our time interacting and prioritising the non physical.

Theological malaise

For those of us blessed (and cursed) with internet access, lockdown was a terrifying taste of what a non physical world looks like. Everything was available, all of the time. The catch is that we barely needed to move a muscle to access it. That is a catch because as physical beings, how we use our physical bodies profoundly affects how we experience things. 

We all know this to be true of course. In his Deo Gloria Trust lecture on evangelism in March 2019, delivered to an assembled crowd at Lambeth Palace, Justin Welby quoted Marshall McLuhan’s truism “the medium is the message”. A year later he and other Christian leaders were proclaiming the Easter message of Christ’s victory over physical death — via YouTube. Welby told his iPad: “In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have a hope that is surer than stone; than any architecture.” 

The Church of England has drawn in the year busily counting its congregation, and anecdotally the picture looks bleak. But church leaders who broke lockdown restrictions report that their flocks are thriving and are busier than ever. It wasn’t cost free for the lockdown breakers. Paul Levy, the minister at Ealing — a Church that met illegally during the November lockdown — said he felt as if he had aged ten years during that time. But few have regrets about their actions, save for thinking they should have met sooner.

If there is a central picture of the church in Britain at Christmas, it’s one of a deep malaise about the theological problems facing it. The other big issue is the hierarchy of the Church of England. Does anybody seriously think that praising the NHS as “fundamentally right”, joining the eco doom-cult of “Net Zero” and telling people to stay at home on a Sunday is a brave message? Rightly or wrongly, people see the Archbishop of Canterbury not just as the leader of a denomination, but the voice of Christianity in Britain. 

For leaders of other Christian traditions it was, in the words of Sir Geoffrey Howe, as if they were sent out to the crease, only for them to find that before the first ball is bowled, their bats had been broken by the team captain. Anglicanism has many splendid pavilions, but the light is fading. Covid was the chance to shine, and dim has been the response.

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