As I get older, it increasingly seems to me that we inhabit a world in which what would have once been regarded as absurd is fast becoming reality.
This week it emerged that Church of England bishops are preparing to launch a ‘project on gendered language’ in the spring, which will be debated by the General Synod, the Church’s parliament.
Priests may have to stop using the male pronouns ‘He’ and ‘Him’ in prayers. The phrase ‘Our Father’ could be dropped from the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his disciples to say.
What manner of desecration will be committed, I wonder. ‘Our parent who art in Heaven’? Or even, ‘Our non-binary parent who hangs out in Heaven’? But perhaps Heaven itself is regarded as an unacceptably elitist concept by the noisy woke brigade within our Established Church.
Pictured: Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the General Synod, the Church’s parliament
Predictably enough, such activists have applauded the prospect of ‘cleaning up’ the language of worship. Women and the Church, a group that campaigns for ‘gender justice’ in the CofE, says it welcomes ‘the start of another project to look at the development of more inclusive language in our authorised liturgy’.
Well, they may be cock-a-hoop, but I suggest that the majority of the dwindling number of worshippers in the Church of England will be flabbergasted that the bishops are wasting their time with such nonsense.
I also submit that, insofar as they notice the sometimes bizarre goings-on within the Church, most non-religious people will scratch their heads in disbelief at this latest sign of lunacy.
God is of course neither male nor female. It so happens that He was described by Jesus, and is referred to in biblical texts and prayers, as ‘Father’. It also happens — though women and the Church may not like it — that Jesus walked on this earth as a man. The Virgin Mary, whom many Christians revere, was a woman.
Another gender-driven assault on language has been committed on the ancient carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. In the new version, sung in at least one Anglican church last Christmas, there is the line: ‘God rest you also, women, who by men have been erased. Through history ignored and scorned, defiled and displaced.’
The General Synod at The Church House on February 6, 2023 in London
I have been wondering over the past few days what my father would have made of it all. A priest in the Church of England for more than 40 years, he died on Good Friday nearly 44 years ago.
Prebendary John Glover (a Prebendary is what a Canon is called in some Anglican dioceses) would have been amazed that the Church to which he devoted his life — rising at an early hour to take services; visiting the sick and troubled; mending the perpetually temperamental church boiler — should have become obsessed with the gender of God.
What would he say if I could tell him (perhaps he knows) about St Nicholas Church in Leicestershire, where a Rainbow Pride flag was recently hung from the altar as a ‘profound invitation’ for those who feel excluded by the Church on account of rows over sexuality, marriage and gender?
I’ve little doubt that, like many current parishioners at St Nicholas, he would have been shocked. I think he would say that the altar represents the presence of Christ during the communion service. How could any Christian wish to turn it into a vehicle for political propaganda?
STEPHEN GLOVER: Prebendary John Glover (a Prebendary is what a Canon is called in some Anglican dioceses) would have been amazed that the Church to which he devoted his life — rising at an early hour to take services; visiting the sick and troubled; mending the perpetually temperamental church boiler — should have become obsessed with the gender of God
The LGBT flag has been removed from St Nicholas while a Church court considers whether or not it should be draped over the altar. Whatever is decided, we can be sure the activists won’t disappear.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in the least anti-gay. In fact, with one or two qualifications, I am in favour of same-sex marriages in church — of which more later — a controversial subject that has been tearing the General Synod apart this past week.
What concerns me is the introspection of the Church, and its preoccupation with secular matters at the expense of godly ones. It resembles a cult, whose members increasingly bicker among themselves while hardly bothering to connect with the rest of the country.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the Church of England in which I was brought up, and which several members of my family as well as my father have served as priests or bishops, is in a state of crisis that worsens year by year.
How quickly the Church of my youth has contracted! Although the churches of half a century and more ago were admittedly seldom full, the CofE nonetheless enjoyed a central role in the nation’s life as the Established Church which existed for us all, believers and non-believers.
Bishops in their gaiters were authoritative, even fearsome, figures. The humbler clergy (who in those days were proud to wear their ‘dog collars’ in public) were generally treated with respect.
Same-sex marriage (file photo)
Average congregations were between two and three times larger than they are today. According to a report by the Church of England, the number of people regularly attending a church service on a Sunday morning dropped from around 1.2 million in 1987 to 679,000 in 2019. Numbers have fallen still further since the pandemic.
One indication that the modern CofE is a sect increasingly out of step with the country is that its bishops and clergy are overwhelmingly Left-wing — much more so than either the laity or the wider population.
A 2021 poll suggested that a mere six per cent of clergy voted Tory at the last election, whereas a whopping 40 per cent backed Labour, evidently in the belief that Jeremy Corbyn would make a decent Prime Minister.
Justin Welby is the most overtly Left-wing Archbishop of Canterbury for years. He has asserted his right to intervene in political controversies, and has done so on subjects ranging from immigration to Brexit. A few days before the 2016 referendum, he tried to influence the outcome by writing that he would vote Remain.
Speaking of Brexit, Anglican prelates and clergy are thought to have been overwhelmingly opposed to it. In 2020, 25 bishops wrote a letter expressing their alarm at the prospect of a No Deal Brexit.
Bishops and clergy were at odds even with their own congregations. According to one fascinating piece of research, 66 per cent of Anglicans voted Leave, compared with 52 per cent of the general population.
STEPHEN GLOVER: Justin Welby is the most overtly Left-wing Archbishop of Canterbury for years. He has asserted his right to intervene in political controversies, and has done so on subjects ranging from immigration to Brexit. A few days before the 2016 referendum, he tried to influence the outcome by writing that he would vote Remain
Needless to say, there’s nothing remotely unchristian about being Left-wing or a Labour supporter. The trouble is that a Church that is openly and actively of the Left is liable to alienate many who think differently, thereby weakening its already fragile claim to be considered a national Church.
But it’s not simply a question of the CofE being divisive. The damage goes deeper. By concentrating on trendy Left-wing secular causes, the Church fails in its mission of spreading the good news of Christ, which largely explains why millions of people feel it has little or nothing to offer them.
A good example of the skewed values of the Church hierarchy is its recent decision to spend £100 million to atone for its historical links to the slave trade. Its investment arm, the Church Commissioners, will set up a fund intended to help communities which suffered from the ‘shameful and horrific sin’.
The slave trade was of course a great sin, and it is deeply shocking that the Church of England should ever have benefitted from it. But the victims of the slave trade are long dead, and can’t be helped in this world. Identifying deserving descendants of victims is surely a futile task.
The CofE is strapped for cash, closing at least 20 churches a year, and paying its shrinking number of clergy a near-pittance. The sum of £100 million would go a long way in revitalising moribund parishes and spreading the word of God to ordinary people, including the descendants of slaves.
But such a practical approach would be at variance with the woke prejudices of many Church leaders. They are looking inwards, to the sins of distant predecessors, rather than outwards — to those on their doorstep in need of help and guidance now.
STEPHEN GLOVER: The CofE is strapped for cash, closing at least 20 churches a year, and paying its shrinking number of clergy a near-pittance. The sum of £100 million would go a long way in revitalising moribund parishes and spreading the word of God to ordinary people, including the descendants of slaves
Meanwhile, the CofE has wasted vast amounts of time in obsessing about monuments in churches which may have some association with slavery. Many are under threat of removal, or alteration so as to conform with the sensibilities of modern ecclesiastical commissars.
I don’t want to be unfair to an institution I still love, and in which I regularly worship, albeit with a faith much less steadfast than that of my father, or indeed my mother.
I also accept that there are challenges for the Church in an increasingly secular world. It’s hard not to sympathise with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops over the issue of same-sex marriage in church.
They would like to permit it, but know that this would outrage Anglicans in Africa, where the Church is both strong and conservative, while also upsetting a powerful minority in this country.
For once, I felt for Dr Welby when on Wednesday at the General Synod, apparently close to tears, he rebuked ‘outsiders’ trying to force the Church of England to change its teaching about marriage and blessings for gay couples.
He was thinking of MPs such as Labour’s Sir Chris Bryant (ironically, a former vicar) and the Tories’ Sir Peter Bottomley, who would seemingly like to force the CofE to conduct same-sex marriages. It may be a national Church but that doesn’t mean its practices should be dictated by interfering politicians.
The trouble is, though, that the compromise agreed on Thursday — offering a blessing to gay couples — satisfies almost no one. Religious gays will continue to feel excluded, while conservatives will think a blessing is a step too far.
STEPHEN GLOVER: For once, I felt for Dr Welby when on Wednesday at the General Synod, apparently close to tears, he rebuked ‘outsiders’ trying to force the Church of England to change its teaching about marriage and blessings for gay couples. He was thinking of MPs such as Labour’s Sir Chris Bryant (ironically, a former vicar) and the Tories’ Sir Peter Bottomley (pictured), who would seemingly like to force the CofE to conduct same-sex marriages
No, it’s not easy for a Church which has to take account of many differing views. Irritating though its contortions over gender and other issues may be, I don’t think we should criticise it for agonising over same-sex marriage.
I also concede that there are still many fine priests. Parts of the Church, particularly on its ‘happy-clappy’ evangelical wing, are energetic in spreading the Gospel. Some cathedrals are packed on a Sunday.
The CofE sometimes still stands at the centre of our national life. One such occasion was Queen Elizabeth’s recent funeral. Another will be the King’s coronation in May. At such moments one can almost imagine that we live in a Christian country.
But it can scarcely be denied that the navel-gazing Church of England is gradually withdrawing from the society it should lead and serve, and is doing so at a time when Christian belief throughout Britain is collapsing.
As recently as the 2001 census, 72 per cent of the population in England and Wales described themselves as Christian. By 2011 that figure had fallen to 59 per cent, and by 2021 to 46 per cent. Over the same period, the number of people identifying as Muslim, though small, rose significantly.
It’s impossible to say how much this astonishingly rapid collapse of Christian belief, which is particularly marked among the young, is attributable to the failures of the Established Church.
After all, Christianity is in retreat across Europe. There are countries such as Sweden and the Czech Republic where the proportion of young people who have no religion, and never go to church, is even higher than in Britain.
In the mid-19th century, the poet Matthew Arnold described in Dover Beach the gradual ebbing away of Christianity: ‘The Sea of Faith/ Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore/ Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled./ But now I only hear/ Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.’
That ‘long, withdrawing roar’ is getting louder. It can be justly said that Churches other than the CofE are failing to counter it. But our national Church — so self-absorbed, so easily diverted by secular issues, so removed from most of society — is singularly ill-placed to take up the fight.
Conceivably there could be a renewal. In the 18th century, Methodism grew out of an Anglican Church that had become complacent. In the 19th century, the Anglo-Catholics took Christianity to the inner-city slums.
So I’m not without hope, and I think my father would feel the same, that with the grace of God the Church of England may one day become less fashionably woke and trendily Left-wing, and more committed to spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But there are few signs of its doing so. In this increasingly godless age, we need our national Church more than ever, and yet it seems to be slowly slipping out of view.
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