Preaching to the choir

The Church will soon hit a Hartlepool moment, when people who feel politically unwelcome go elsewhere

Sounding Board

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

An institution led by a self-selecting elite obsessed with the hot topics of today’s culture war alienating increasing numbers of its supporters until they eventually vote with their feet, leaving the very survival of that institution in doubt.

The Labour Party or the Church of England?

Watching the slow motion self-destruction of the party that purports to speak for the ordinary people of this country is an uncomfortable exercise even for a Tory clergyman who should be reaching for the popcorn and turning up the volume.

Politics, especially for those on the Left, is seen as axiomatically connected to their faith

It’s uncomfortable because it’s too close to home. Like the defeated Labour councillor who told the Daily Telegraph “the voters have let us down”, the leadership of the Established Church have spent the last year or so (in fact, the last half century or so) giving the strong impression that they dearly wish that their congregations were made up of different people with different interests and more appropriate views.

This can be seen across all the elements of the church’s leadership. The House of Laity of the Church of England is supposed, as its name would suggest, to represent all of the good honest folk who call themselves C of E and come to church often enough to be on the Church’s electoral roll. Yet, while 58 per cent of Anglicans voted Tory at the 2017 election (according to YouGov) — with only 28 per cent voting for Labour — the House of Laity merrily passes motions lamenting Brexit or supporting nuclear disarmament. That they are not directly elected probably plays quite a part in creating this disconnect.

The Brexit divide is, of course, the most stark. While only one bishop out 113 publicly backed Brexit, two thirds of Anglicans did. To one extent this shouldn’t matter: we should be able to vote whichever way we want and to disagree well.

But it does matter. Because so often politics spills over into the pulpit — especially, I think, for those on the Left where their politics are seen as axiomatically connected to their faith and their virtue ethics.

It matters because I’ve lost count of the number of people who have got in touch with me — one of the relatively few public Conservatives in the clergy — to tell me that they’ve stopped going to church because of the politics being promulgated from the pulpit; because they have heard themselves — and the majority of the country, let’s not forget — denounced from the pulpit.

And it’s not just about politics. It’s indicative of a cultural and ecclesiastical mindset which divides the Church of England (in the pews) from the Church of England (in charge). And it’s indicative of a church that suggests it’s happier to talk about politics than it is to talk about the Resurrection.

And people are starting to vote with their feet. Actually, that is unfair: people have been voting with their feet for quite some time. But at some point we are going to hit a Hartlepool moment, when we realise that the good men and women, whom we have relied upon to turn up, give their money, join committees, arrange the flowers, repair the broken steps, or look after the Sunday school, have gone elsewhere. They have been told they’re not welcome and they’ve heard the message.

A neutral observer might suspect that they are embarking on an attempt to force a total blood transfusion on the church. Out with the old; in with the new. The trouble is — and this policy has been going on for some time, so we really do have the ability to judge — the new have remained remarkably resistant to being funnelled into the Church’s veins. I’m not even sure we even know who the new will be, just that they won’t be the old. And nothing is less attractive to a new member of anything than an institution that doesn’t like itself or its members.

My plea to my ecclesiastical elders is this: love the people you have; love the faith you have inherited

But fifty years of failed experiments have not discouraged our right reverend fathers and mothers in God. The change being forced on the church by the Archbishop of York in his “Vision for the Church of England in the 2020s” is a doubling-down on the policy, and I fear we are not long before we reach our own Hartlepool.

So my plea to my ecclesiastical elders is this: love the people you have; love the faith you have inherited, and over which you have been set as custodians for this generation; draw together a politically divided nation so that our churches can be havens of peace for Left and Right alike (and for the downright bored); bring those who currently call themselves Anglican with you as you seek to attract their friends and neighbours and grandchildren to church and to God.

A vision of the church of the future that starts from loving our past and our present is one that actually has a future. A year zero church, which pays lipservice to an “inherited church” but seeks to denigrate it at any opportunity, is on the way to the morgue. Let’s get ourselves off the End of Life Care Pathway and focus once more on the Resurrection.

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