Church magazine February 2019
Michael Ramsey was the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury since 1900. There are two biographies published: the more scholarly by Owen Chadwick, which repays reading again and again; the other more affectionate and gossipy by Ramsey’s one time press officer, Michael De-La-Noye. The latter reports that Ramsey was more than once to be found chanting “I hate the Church of England, I hate the Church of England, I hate the Church of England”.
In the thirteen years since I was ordained, the Church of England has changed beyond recognition. I could be wrong, mind you—it could be that the changes began sooner but I didn’t appreciate them, having been in Ireland, but whenever they started, they have been damaging.
The Church is in real danger of becoming an exclusive sect where one is accepted only if one can sign up to a particular set of beliefs, a particular view on the atonement, a particular view on the interpretation of the creeds, a particular view on the afterlife. And more. This is not my sort of church.
My sort of church is truly catholic where everyone is welcome no matter what his or her views, to explore the thing that I call The Divine. Instead of its being for all, it’s becoming a hobby group for middle class club members only. Some churches even organise people into fellowship groups that can be used to keep an eye on the purity of members—beliefs, way of life—just like secret police in a totalitarian regime.
Of course, the church IS a totalitarian regime, or its apparatchiks would like it to be. But the truth is that however much archbishops and bishops and General Synods may pontificate and huff and puff about how they think we proles should live and what we should believe, congregations have their own ideas. I don’t know anyone who bases their thoughts, opinions or actions on what bishops say.
If you read the news emanating from the Church of England HQ, Lambeth Palace, or the House of Bishops, you will see that the church is in a constant state of warfare between its different parties. Some don’t mind same-sex marriage, some do. Some are happy to affirm gender redesignation, others are not. Some are supportive of women bishops and priests, others are not. Some think that every word in the bible is literally true, some do not. And more, with all stations between the extremes.
All this is a criminal waste of energy. I’m not bothered what you think of the virginity of Mary. I’m not bothered whether you think priests have magical powers or not. I’m not bothered what you believe about sacraments. I’m not bothered whether you think the resurrection/ascension is historical fact or entirely metaphorical. I’m not bothered what any of you do with your genitals alone or in the context of a mutually respectful relationship.
What I’m bothered about is the teaching and example of Jesus. And from what I read about the early church, that’s the only thing they cared about too (after all, most of the doctrine hadn’t been invented then). And the bottom line of that teaching is liberation, healing, salvation, redemption—all words for the same thing—the purpose of which is that we have life abundant: that we grasp life’s opportunities and make good use of them and—a crucial point—help everyone else to do likewise. The common good. That we use our gifts and skills for the benefit of others and ourselves. That we free ourselves from the things that tie us down, that restrict our vision, such as ways of thinking, ways of acting, addictions, obsessions—all things that prevent us rising like “the lark ascending” so that we may approach The Divine, that we may all be sons and daughters of The Divine.
In the words of the great Advent carol, This is the truth sent from above: “and if you want to know the way, be pleased to hear what he did say”; and I would add “and did”. It really is as simple as that.
Liberation. Freedom from attachments—attachments to people, to family, to emotions, to desires, to ways of thinking, to addictions—all addictions, not just chemical. This is a Buddhist message too. Trouble is, it’s hard work. It requires you to delve into your psyche to identify the things that keep you in your rut. It’s such hard work, in fact, that the church gave up on it and instead made it into a punishment/reward exercise with the promise that the more ticks you get in the class register, and the more gold stars for your portfolio, the better seat you’ll have in the afterlife.
Let me make it quite plain: I don’t care about the afterlife either. I’ve heard of a Catholic theologian (name escapes me at present) who said that belief in the afterlife is not a necessary prerequisite of being Christian. I long to meet Hugh in the afterlife (I can’t even type this without filling up), but I don’t bet on it—there is nothing in scripture or doctrine that says I shall.
I don’t know that I would go as far as Michael Ramsey in saying that I hate the Church of England, at least not until I’m in receipt of its pension, but I certainly think its current direction is wrong, wrong, wrong. I’m not much bothered about bishops and hierarchies, and that’s putting it mildly. I’m not that bothered about creeds: I can interpret them as I wish—and I do.
What I AM bothered about is life abundant. Not life resisting, not life begrudging, not life bemoaning, not life denying, but life abundant. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven; or as the well-known American theologian Dolly Parton might say, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. This, the psychological authenticity of the gospel, keeps me in the job.
Christian life and liturgy are not about being entertained like Sunday morning at the London Palladium. They’re not about collecting Duke of Edinburgh awards in caring or sharing or being pious or knowing when to do this that or the other. Life and liturgy are about celebrating our humanity with beauty in all its manifestations.
I was raised in a staid, repressed environment, in some ways puritanical. It has been a long journey for me, though I started quite young. I wonder if it comes easily to us staid, repressed English to look into our hearts.
I leave you with an extract from J L Carr’s short novel A month in the country, a beautiful work made into a beautiful film with Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, Natasha Richardson and Patrick Malahide. The vicar (Malahide in the film) is talking to a young WW1 veteran (Firth) who has come to restore a painting in the village church, thereby also restoring himself after the horrors of the trenches:
The English are not a deeply religious people. Even many of those who attend divine service do so from habit. Their acceptance of the sacrament is perfunctory: I have yet to meet the man whose hair rose at the nape of his neck because he was about to taste the blood of his dying Lord. Even when they visit their church in large numbers, at Harvest Thanksgiving or the Christmas Midnight Mass, it is no more than a pagan salute to the passing seasons. They do not need me. I come in useful at baptisms, weddings, funerals. Chiefly funerals – they employ me as a removal contractor to see them safely flitted into their last house.’ He laughed bitterly.
I may not hate the Church of England—yet—but I would regard it a badge of honour to be called a wild, angry and uncontrollable priest. A feral priest.