You may have seen Rev (BBC1) some years ago, with Tom Hollander as Adam Smallbone. Fiction, but said to be based on reality of being an urban Church of England priest doing his tortured best in the face of an apathetic culture, self-obsessed clientele, and a hostile church establishment interested only in careerism and managerialism.
You may more recently have seen Broken (BBC1) with Sean Bean as Michael Kerrigan. Again fiction, but more obviously (to me) based on the reality of being a Catholic priest in a deprived inner city of the north of England. Priest and people in this come across as somehow more genuine than the stereotypical cartoons of Rev. It’s heart-rending stuff, entirely authentic I assure you. It put me in mind of Jimmy McGovern’s Priest (1994), a truly prophetic work.
You may be watching A Vicar’s Life (BBC2) about four real Herefordshire Church of England clergy. Two episodes down at the moment. There’s no comparison with Sean Bean’s Broken, or even Tom Hollander’s Rev. At least the fictional priests lived the agonies and ecstasies of real humanity on the edge. The Herefordshire programme is all about buildings and the institution. I see nothing in it so far other than middle class complacency, and gimmickry to try and get people to support the organization. There is nothing about the inner life. There is nothing about transcendence.
This is odd in somewhere like Herefordshire where you would think that beauty would be a way in. I remember my Methodist minister uncle, who had served in Carlisle, Sedbergh, Leeds and Stockton before retiring to his native Langwathby, telling me toward the end of his life—rather courageously I thought—how his view of God was not what it used to be, and how increasingly he was attracted to a Wordsworthian panentheism, possibly even pantheism. Who could not be so attracted in the gently luscious Eden Valley, more so even than in the Lakes next door in my opinion?
Of course, my views say something about me. Others are sure to disagree with me. Good—I like disagreement, for only through being challenged do we grow and develop. But IMHO there is far too much emphasis in the Church of England these days on Jesus and not enough on “The Divine” – which, as a Greek scholar pointed out to me years ago, is a better translation of theos than “god”. No wonder the Hebrews would not speak the word. The sentimentality, emotional indulgence and self-obsession of Jesus as my lover is something in the contemporary church that I find utterly repellent. I need to look out and beyond, not in and around. Thus I prefer facing east at mass, all of us fixed on “the other” beyond, rather than the inward-looking, closed and self-congratulatory circle of “me and my mates” as I stand as at the shop counter facing the congregation.
Pub and church used to be the principal facilitators of social cohesion in a community, the price for the ordinary punter being to have to endure a talk of variable quality week in, week out. I bet the publican’s was way more interesting than the Vicar’s. Those functions have slipped away from church to other structures and organizations such as social services and hobby groups. I don’t think that is anyone’s fault, it’s just what’s happened. It’s not recent—it began with the invention of the printing press that enabled people to read for themselves (if they could).
But I’m certain that, as with Old Testament figures time and again, the answer lies not in frenetic activity in the hope of getting people to come back to church, but in inactivity: retreating to the cave to pause, to reassess, to allow or even hasten death in order that rebuilding might begin. Not for nothing is Siva the Hindu God that regenerates after destroying—Phoenix from ashes, the work of the spirit, the blazing bush.
The Master advises against flogging dead horses (Matthew 10.14, Mark 6.11, Luke 9.5). We ignore this by switching on life support when we should be letting events take their course. Close churches. Demolish them. Sell them.
Perhaps future episodes of A Vicar’s Life will reveal more to my taste, but given the state of the Church of England these days, I shan’t hold my breath.
Whilst I have some sympathy with abandonment, I have come to the conclusion that the least worst option would be to transfer title to all churches founded before about 1830 to the state (with the Church retaining a perpetual free right of use), the quid pro quo being that the Church is dis-endowed to the tune of about £3.5bn of its £8.1bn asset base so to form a permanent repairing fund for DCMS. At present the entire burden rests upon dying congregations and exhausted PCCs; almost the whole Church is within a whisker of its final collapse. DCMS would have the heft and be able to generate economies of scale with respect to procuring materials and labour that an individual PCC would never be able to achieve. And a similar approach should be taken with Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (the situation in Scotland and Wales being even worse than in England). Partial dis-endowment would probably be necessary in the current political climate, and since the Commissioners are no longer having to accrue for pensions after 1998 and are only investing in ‘growth’ very late in the day and in a relatively tight fashion, they cannot surely need every part of that £8.1bn.
Then people will no longer be able to claim that they are prevented from engaging in mission (for which they are supposedly trained) because so much of their energies must be devoted to conservation (for which they have generally received little or no training).
The alternative to this partial dis-endowment is that the Church loses its ability to be a presence in every community (which might be problematic a few years down the line when the present, highly atomised and individualised, generation really starts to require care and succour) and becomes a wholly marginal and introverted sect, whilst an important national patrimony is gradually privatised and the effort, care and commitment of previous generations is dissipated.
Dr Monkhouse: I note that you are an erstwhile Methodist, and I have noted some pretty depressing responses on websites like TA to the proposals for a renewed rapprochement with the Methodist Church. Lots of stuff about the validity of their orders and ‘what will they [won’t] bring us’ from people who are usually at pains to proclaim their liberalism. I wish you could write something pretty candid about this (assuming you also have difficulties with what is being written and said). I used to comment on TA periodically, but gave up last year in despair (and boredom).
Just as in Ireland.
You may be surprised to hear from a retired conservation officer and a former member of a DAC (for thirty years) that I have long held an uncertain view that perhaps we (CofE) should accept the abandonment of churches: Not for conversion into trendy dwellings or offices but literally abandoned, as a visual and prophetic reproach ???