Sounding Board

God’s comeback

The Church of England has found God again

A church without God? Who would bother? For years the answer has been the dear old C of E. Even Yes, Prime Minister couldn’t resist a dig:


What’s a modernist in the Church of England? (Jim Hacker asks the redoubtable Sir Humphrey)
Ah, well, the word “modernist’’ is code for non-believer.

You mean an atheist?

No, no. An atheist couldn’t continue to draw his stipend, so when they stop believing in God they call themselves modernists.

How could the Church of England suggest an atheist as bishop?

The Church of England is primarily a social organisation, not religious.

Damning. Witty. Insightful. Yes, Prime Minister’s parody followed a well-established trope: of the Anglican parson who didn’t really believe in God; of a church desperate for credibility in an incredulous age, which had mortgaged out its core beliefs in return for social credit.

And yet, while it was insightful in the 1980s, the parody no longer holds. One of the interesting developments of the last two or three decades has been the death of the modernist: both in its metaphorical and its literal sense. The latter, in fact, causing the former.

If you find a priest crossing his fingers during the creed or wincing at the mention of the Virgin Birth it is likely he was ordained many decades ago and is now floating around the edge of retirement. It is also very likely that he is a he, as at the height of the modernist movement only men could be ordained in the Church of England.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury says he wants priests who can say the creed without crossing their fingers

Younger priests just don’t have this affliction. They may be dripping wet, they may preach about Brexit or refugees, they may not know their way around the Prayer Book, but you really can’t say they don’t believe. The vision of the Church of England as primarily a social organisation is one which, while still live in the public imagination, simply does not match reality.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury is an Evangelical — one who draws every sermon back to Jesus and has said on any number of occasions that he wants priests who can say the creed without crossing their fingers.
His predecessor, while mocked for being “impenetrable”, cannot be accused simultaneously of watering down his beliefs; if he had, he might have been more penetrable.

This is, intriguingly, different from the trajectory taken by our American sister church, the Episcopal Church. There, the modernist creed did not die. There we see stories of priests having to be defrocked for declaring that they are also, in fact, Muslim, or an election to bishop having to be annulled by the other bishops because the winner described himself as also being a Buddhist. Their last Presiding Bishop (the American Church’s answer to the Archbishop of Canterbury) was notorious for going out of the way to avoid talking about Jesus, although she was very hot on every manner of social justice issue.

What accounts for this difference? The short answer is that as the size and prestige of the Church of England has collapsed, so has its social cachet.

It has never been cool to go to church, but now it isn’t even really respectable. There is simply no market for a church which doesn’t really believe in God. If you’re going to take the social hit of admitting to being a Christian, you might as well actually be a Christian. Religion in America has taken longer to collapse and so, perhaps, it has taken longer for the temptation to offer a church without God to collapse with it.

But the little signs of hope are visible there too, and from surprising quarters. Last year, when proposals were being made to ditch their prayer book and rewrite it for a woke generation, it was the younger generation that said, “OK, Boomer,” and fought against it. And of the younger priests, it’s the gay ones who are often at the forefront of the battle to defend the creeds and Christian orthodoxy (if my more traditional readers can park, for a moment, their disbelief in the separation of questions of sexuality from orthodoxy). A study by the Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary showed that, across the American church, “our LGBT seminarians are not interested in a vacuous liberal theology that has no authority, no God, no Christ, and no sacraments”.

Once again we see that if you’re going to embarrass yourself in front of your peers by being a Christian, you might as well actually find God in the process (if my more liberal readers can park, for a moment, their disbelief in the possibility of anyone finding God).

These may be just small pockets of resistance as the great army of secularists and modernists marches towards its inevitable victory, or they may be the start of a rearguard action that has a chance of reviving the church. But for the sake of good comedy and good commentary, let’s lay to rest the old canard that the modern C of E doesn’t believe in God. We’ve made quite enough mess on our own account without being held accountable for the faithlessness of our fathers.

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