“That Was the Church That Was”: A Review


Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead, That Was the Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People (Bloomsbury, 2016)

“If there was no link between Englishness and Christianity, what was the point of the Church of England?” (177).  This critique of Rowan Williams’ Sharia lecture gets to the heart of the argument and the problem with Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead’s book.  In the words of the subtitle, the Church of England has lost the English people and in so doing it has apparently lost its raison d’être.  This failure is contrasted with the national established churches of Scandinavia where although decline in church attendance has been very similar, “church, state and society kept in step with one another” (192) notably in relation to a matters of gender and sexuality.  These are a major focus of the book which helpfully undermines the constant claim that evangelicals are the ones obsessed with sex.  Closer to the truth is that evangelicals, including Justin Welby as Brown and Woodhead note, are obsessed with Jesus.  This is apparently even more worrying and damaging to the church than obsession with sex: “fondness for Jesus is something that makes other people – including other Anglicans – back away, inconspicuously if they can, rudely if they must” (210) not least because “all the talk of Jesus sounds sectarian” (211) and, as the fourth chapter’s “brief theory of religious decline” makes clear, the CofE should in sociological terms be a societal not a sectarian (linked by the authors to “congregational”) church.

Setting the scene

The short guide to theory follows three chapters which set the scene of “the church that was”.  The first two draw heavily on the authors’ experiences (as a journalist and as an academic teaching).  They paint vivid and amusing portraits of the Anglican establishment gathered at Windsor and then of one of its training grounds – Ripon College, Cuddesdon – where Woodhead was teaching in the late 1980s.  The accounts portray the church elite as complacent and lacking even in self-awareness, let alone self-critique.  The writing is already rather biting and, as with the description of the three parties within the CofE (19), can capture something of importance while verging on caricature.  These features become more and more prominent, beginning in the third chapter with the ominous title “Gays and evangelicals”.  This focusses primarily on John Stott and The Returns of Love: Letters of A Christian Homosexual (a generally long-forgotten pseudonymous book on living as a homosexual evangelical Christian which was published by IVP in 1970) with additional gossip about various gay Anglicans.  Although describing the book as “unpalatably liberal for its time” (40) it is treated unsympathetically and no credit given to the fact that it showed that evangelicals, through their main publisher, were engaging theologically and pastorally, based on experience, with a subject which most Christians were ignoring and which, only a few years after decriminalization, most of the English people wanted to avoid considering.

This chapter on evangelicals contrasts with the first two in clearly being the observations of hostile outsiders looking in on a world alien to them with little sign of any attempt to research their subject or understand sympathetically the culture they are seeking to describe.  This failing recurs in relation to various areas but is a feature of almost every account of evangelicals or charismatics.  It is also here that the book’s lack of interest in, and misunderstandings of, theology begins to become apparent.  The terms “Calvinist” and “Puritan” are regular boo-words as we are told that Stott “believed that everyone in England ought to be a Christian, which meant, to him, a Calvinist” (37) and then given a crude caricature of penal substitution (38).  The authors apparently think any doctrine of atonement which involves substitution and an understanding of sin having a penalty is a sign of Calvinism which leads them to the surprising conclusion that what they call “the HTB movement” has “Calvinist roots” (and also apparently believes “in worldly success as a sign of God’s blessing” (130)).  It’s not clear if the authors are aware the opening canons of the Church of England state its doctrine “is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal” (Canon A5) and that these provide a pretty good guide as to what Stott (and most evangelical Anglican leaders) believe.

The heart of the book

Moving from specifics to the big picture, the book’s main thesis over the following chapters is that in recent decades the leadership of the CofE practised what they call a form of voodoo.  This refused to face reality and made the national church into something “like a cargo cult” (70) that “assumed that if you aped the jargon and waved some of the symbols, success and prestige must naturally follow” (111).  Their narrative covers accounts of debates on women, George Carey and the Archbishops’ Council structures and Decade of Evangelism, charismatic renewal, the Anglican Communion and the primacy of Rowan Williams.  Rowan clearly doesn’t fit their thesis that “leaders succumbed to the temptation of thinking that their brand of churchmanship held the solution, if only it could be imposed on the others” (70).  He is therefore condemned for being a coward who was bullied when presumably he should have tried to impose his views on others. There is no awareness of the complexities of the issues during his tenure.  It is reduced to sexuality and Sharia and no mention of the central Fresh Expressions initiative, despite the book’s concern about how the church relates to English society.  Given the authors’ outlook and tone however I can’t imagine them having much positive to say about it.

The whole book is at one level a fun read – a piece of satire like the TV show its title echoes or a sort of ecclesiastical 1066 And All That - but it is also deeply depressing at various levels.  It will doubtless be cited by those who share its jaundiced outlook on the CofE’s recent history and its hope that somehow the church might be able to reconnect with English culture simply by embodying the liberal zeitgeist.  Some may even believe the book strengthens their case by giving it academic credibility but it would be unwise to build too much on its rather shaky foundations.

How reliable a guide?

The problems noted earlier in relation to Stott and evangelicals may have seemed minor details or differences in subjective interpretation but they are in fact signs of one of the book’s most fundamental weaknesses: regular basic inaccuracies.  This is perhaps not surprising given the original print run had to be recalled because it contained at least one error so serious that it had to be removed to prevent a libel action. Nevertheless, the number and range of errors is astonishing.  We are told that the Blair government (elected in 1997) passed legislation “in the early 1990s” (110), that a bishop saw events in 2007 as “God’s commentary on same-sex marriage” (128, although same-sex marriage was not introduced to Parliament until 2013) and that David Hope was Archbishop of York (149) when he described his sexuality as a “grey area” (although it was several months before that appointment when he was Bishop of London).  In one place there is even the appearance of careful research when it is claimed that “the electors of the diocese of New Hampshire came to choose a new bishop in the summer of 2003 – five years to the day after resolution I.10 was carried at Lambeth” (170) but the claim is false. The authors seem to have confused his election by the diocese – which was in July, although they explicitly date it to August – with its confirmation by the General Convention.  In the short space of two pages (200-201) we find a crude caricature of the Anglican Covenant, a claim that FOCA later became GAFCON (when it was GAFCON that launched the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans) and a description of the decision in 1992 not to secure women bishops at the same time as women priests as an “odd half-measure…dreamt up as a way to respect the ‘integrity’ of the different sides in the battle” when it was much more a matter of realpolitik – given how hard it proved to secure a 2/3 majority even for women priests (as described in chpt 5, p. 86) to have included women bishops in the legislation as well would have been to ensure its defeat.  Given such recurrent lapses of memory or poor research on matters of public record, the many often entertaining and scurrilous but unverifiable vignettes of personal experience frequently used to illustrate and support their picture of the CofE need to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

What is missing?

As important as the errors is the lack of serious engagement and analysis with areas that even from their own perspective clearly cry out for further scrutiny.  One obvious one is why those who identify as evangelicals have, in the period covered, become so prominent in the CofE’s leadership.  Why, for example, did Richard Harries began his episcopacy as the book opens in 1987 being viewed as one of the more conservative bishops but by its end in 2006 had come to be seen – without undergoing any major paradigm shift in his theology – as one of the most liberal?  This shift in the theological centre of the CofE would involve, for example, tracing the changes in evangelicalism since the 1967 Keele NEAC (NEACs are never mentioned), the rise of evangelical biblical and theological scholarship, the growth in evangelical ordinands and training institutions, and the growing emphasis, across different traditions, on mission.  But matters such as these, and the interesting theological and sociological issues they raise, get little or no attention.

What can be learned?

Despite these and other weaknesses, the book highlights factors easily lost when discussion focuses on surface issues such as sex and gender.  First, although the degree to which the CofE has ever really “won” the English people is debatable, there has been a significant cultural change over the last three decades which means it has “lost” large numbers of – particularly younger – people.  They now have little or no experience or understanding of Christian belief and practice in its Anglican, or indeed any, form.  Second, the CofE as an institution has struggled to recognise the seriousness of this and work out how to respond.  This has various causes including its own internal diversity (and the fears this could lead to division) and its institutional structures and inherent conservatism which prevented it responding to its rapidly changing social context.  Third, and perhaps most important, that diversity extends to fundamental disagreements about the core identity and calling of the church, particularly its relation to wider society.  The book shows no signs of having a place for those who – whatever their theological tradition - see the church as an international community called by God to share in his mission by being the bearer in word and deed, in different times and places, of a revealed gospel which is good news about Jesus.  Such terms and ideas are totally missing or subjected to ridicule.  They are pushed aside by a conviction that the point of the Church of England is to nurture a presumed link between Englishness and Christianity as a form of religion.  Centre stage must therefore be given not to the gospel or Scripture or tradition or Jesus or the Spirit but to those who, in the book’s closing words, have “varying degrees of commitment” but still think “the church belongs to them” (222).

The key question the book raises for me is in what sense, if any, those committed to two such contrasting understandings of the church can genuinely walk together in the same institutional structure.  Might it not be the case that, if either is to flourish, each needs to grant the other a distinct ecclesial space and identity to pursue two very different, probably irreconcilable, visions of what it means for the church to win the lost English people and how to go about that vital task?

23 thoughts on ““That Was the Church That Was”: A Review”

  1. It would be constitutionally impossible for a senior member of the House of Lords to commit such a “hate crime” and would result in a threat to both the archbishop himself and the position of the Church of England. You really don’t seem to understand the legal and constitutional position or what is wise and possible in a highly politicised context.

    • Are you really saying that if an Archbishop preached a sermon pointing out that the Apostle Paul taught (in Romans and elsewhere) that we all face the holy wrath and just condemnation of God from birth onwards, and that we must all flee to Christ from the wrath to come, and put the sermon on the CofE website, that he would be committing a hate crime? And are you saying that, if true, that should deter him from obeying his Master – whatever the consequences?

      Phil Almond

      • Are you really suggesting that a senior member of the House of Lords and the Privy Council should be so subversive as to bring the stability of the Constitution into serious peril? Such people behaving as “expected” is the only thing that keeps our “unwritten” constitution functioning, maintains public confidence in government and enables the political life of the nation to continue in stability with ordered handover of power between governments and the mutual respect which is the basis of the consensus we call democracy.

        You are asking a person with such responsibilities to rock the boat in a way which would cause it to capsize. May I remind you that last time a religious radical tried to mix power and Faith in this way the country was plunged into several years of civil war, the King lost his head, and a decade of economic decline followed in which all the power structures fell apart? If that happened with modern weapons the consequences would make Syria look decidedly ordered and calm. Since the Civil War, the relation between Church and State has remained part of a delicate balance which prevents the country from degenerating into sectional chaos.

        In short, you are asking the Archbishop to act as a mere Christian leader without any regard for his civil responsibility as a central component in the machinery of public order and government who must use his influence without ever overstepping the mark. Like the Queen, he simply mustn’t be controversial because the consequences would be too awful to contemplate, or do you believe the Queen privately approves of everything her governments do, however reprehensible? She just cannot speak out, because that would undermine everything she exists to maintain, and the Archbishop is in a similar position.

        And yes, preaching the wrath of God would be seen as a hate crime and an incitement to terrorism and we have laws against such things in an attempt to prevent radicalisation and the recruiting of terrorists in a religious cause. There was that little incident in New York 15 years ago, which you might remember, and the world has become a dangerous place since then. However misguided their efforts, governments have to try to keep the lid on such things. Do you really think the Archbishop, or Christians in the UK in general, could be seen to destabilise the nation and continue to operate?

        • Some passages which I believe speak to this disagreement

          Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai, “All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.” When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

          “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.

          For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.

          “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
          Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings!

          Phil Almond

  2. In a review which concentrates so much on alleged inaccuracies it is fun to read that the book was withdrawn because of an alleged libel. It was not.

    The last two paragraphs are worth a serious argument. Which I don’t have time for right now, except to make two points.
    1) it appears to be the opinion of smart people around Justin Welby that a formal split would be disastrous for both parties, and I suspect they’re right. It seems to me that the only hope for the church is a return to ferocious niche marketing exploiting every possible niche and ignoring the fact that their implications are incompatible. That means that the people who care about doctrine (from any position) will all be convinced that they are yoked with heretics and imbeciles. That’s unpleasant for them, but they are a minority.
    2) That the Church of England was a distinctly English expression of Christianity doesn’t seem a particularly controversial point to me. Isn’t that what the Prayer Book did?

    • Further, if you’re going to be silly clever about Graham Dow, his 2007 remarks were indeed made in response not to gay marriage but to the proposal to introduce civil partnership, something which makes them even more homophobic, as the next edition of the book will point out. Of course, by 2012, the Church of England would find itself defending civil partnerships as exactly the sort of arrangement God had in mind for gay people.

      The pressure on David Hope to out himself came after he had been named as the next Archbishop of York, but before his translation and I think as a consequence of the announcement of his move. I don’t think this is a terribly important detail but it can be can be fixed.

      The question of why evangelicals have become so prominent in the leadership is simply answered: they wanted it and worked for it and are much better organised than their opponents. On the other hand, their increasing ascendancy has been accompanied by the steady numerical collapse that forms a background to the whole story. So maybe the problem was not that there were insufficient evangelicals running the church in 1970 after all.

      • ‘……….evangelicals have become so prominent in the leadership ………….’
        A question (and it is a neutral question) is: do all these evangelicals believe ex animo that Articles 9-18 are true. I hope the answer is yes and that those convictions come out in their preaching and teaching. Another question (neutral): when did either Archbishop last preach a publically broadcast sermon on the Wrath of God?
        Phil Almond

        • Well, they wouldn’t be allowed to. Broadcasting regulators expect broadcasters to vet content to ensure it remains within the Public Service remit. Religious content has to be non-controversial, non-denominational, and the wrath of God would clearly be too scary a subject to be addressed in public in the UK. These days it might well count as a “hate crime” to say such things in a public setting.

          • The Public Service remit would not stop an archbishop preaching a sermon on the wrath of God and putting the sermon on the Church of England website.

            Phil Almond

        • A neutral answer would be that it would be surprising if any bishops nowadays believe Articles 13 and 18 ex animo, and certainly newsworthy if it came out in their preaching.

          I read them in context as meaning that everyone who is not a particular sort of Protestant is damned and their good works wholly meaningless to God. Yes, that would make a newsworthy sermon from a bishop.

          • However people at the time understood what one had to believe to be saved, I take article 13 to mean a person who does not know God cannot be saved simply by doing a few good deeds; that good deeds can never cancel out our Sin. I take article 18 to mean that sincerely following faith in something that is not God is not salvific. It does not argue that a person who is in error can never be saved, only that universal good conscience is not enough, because Salvation is found only in Christ.

            I would be disappointed in any bishop who didn’t hold to both of these as titled and written.

      • Who mentioned Graham Dow? I’ve searched the page for his name and my browser can’t find it. Why introduce criticism of someone who’s not been part of the discussion?

        • Sorry: it’s in the review – that a bishop saw events in 2007 as “God’s commentary on same-sex marriage” (128, although same-sex marriage was not introduced to Parliament until 2013)

          • Oh, I see. Well, not having read the book but having followed the link to the Telegraph article, we need to be a little careful when reading bishops’ remarks through media spin. I suspect what the bishops, including Graham Dow, were actually arguing was that we have set up a society and economic system so based on individual gratification that we were ignoring the ecological consequences which impact everyone and rebound on us as the one of the nations responsible, and that this is in harmony with Biblical ideas of judgement and natural justice built into the ecological system.

            I’d be wary of pushing that too far, but I can see a degree of justification for a prophetic warning that we ignore the natural consequences of our action at our collective peril. Of course, that’s all too subtle for the media, who are much more interested in creating scandal than reporting thoughtful ideas, and are part of the individualistic system the bishops probably had in mind.

    • Ian Paul analyses the growth of evangelicalism in the clergy and more lately the bishops here. http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/are-evangelicals-taking-over-the-church/ Evangelicals of both the conservative and charismatic kind are quite good at evangelism. They claim success amongst students and a professional, urban middle class. Most of these converts remain fairly close to this form of Christianity.This is changing the church in ways the authors do not like. Other initiatives such as messy church and fresh expressions may redress the balance but we must continue with what is working.
      The book misrepresents the role of John Stott. Calling him a Calvinist is misleading. He rejected Calvinism as a complete system and preached what he found in the Bible by preaching both extremes even if they appeared contradictory. He was uniting evangelicalism and at the same time changing it by overcoming fundamentalist tendencies and promoting biblical scholarship and social action. Of course, he did not do this alone. Along with Common Worship, liturgical worship was renewed by the hymns of Timothy Dudley-Smith and others.

  3. I confess I haven’t read this book, but knowing something of what the writers tend to produce I guess Andrew’s critique is a very fair one. And yes, this does raise the question as to how we relate to others in the CofE who take a similar line. But I did find the suggestion in the last paragraph of a split very disturbing. Surely that goes against the spirit of Keele and the legacy of John Stott, and I fear that it would be utterly detrimental to the proclamation of the gospel in our country. I could envisage that on the one side it would lead to an ever narrowing sectarian group displaying all the signs of arrogance that so often plague those who claim to have the full gospel, and on the other side a wishy-washy liberalism. The strange fact is that perhaps we need each other! With an evangelical ABC and a growing evangelical influence in many areas we have the opportunity to work within the structures.

    I am in a group of parishes (called a “Mission Community” here in Exeter Diocese). Our ministry team is drawn from various backgrounds, and our 5 parishes are of mixed background, but we are successfully and gladly working together with a desire to proclaim Jesus. Some in our congregations probably do have an Englishness type of Christianity rather than a committed-to-Jesus type, but we have real scope for work and worship and witness together. I do realise this may be a more fortunate situation than some people experience, (e.g. where there is an incumbent who kills any gospel initiative stone dead), but talk of splits is surely not the answer.

  4. Ken
    Looks like I expressed myself badly. What I was meaning to say was that to arrange ‘distinct ecclesial space’ to different parts of the institution of the CofE, whether as envisaged by Andrew or on the basis of those who subscribe ex animo to the ‘Articles of Salvation’ and those who don’t (there is no overarching paradigm of doctrinal unity to keep these two groups honestly together) would require the financial and building and other resources of the institution to be divided. As I keep saying, what I pray and hope for is a painful, candid, public, web-based debate on what all Anglicans, Archbishops, Bishops, Scholars, Theologians, interested lay, believe, open to all, as a prerequisite to deciding what the painful, honest way forward is, and above all I pray that God will revive and renew all our hearts. Where is the God of Elijah?

    Phil Almond

  5. ‘The key question the book raises for me is in what sense, if any, those committed to two such contrasting understandings of the church can genuinely walk together in the same institutional structure. Might it not be the case that, if either is to flourish, each needs to grant the other a distinct ecclesial space and identity to pursue two very different, probably irreconcilable, visions of what it means for the church to win the lost English people and how to go about that vital task?’
    Not quite the key question, Andrew. Because ‘…those who – whatever their theological tradition – see the church as an international community called by God to share in his mission by being the bearer in word and deed, in different times and places, of a revealed gospel which is good news about Jesus’ are still fundamentally divided at a doctrinal level about e.g. original sin, inability, satisfaction – in short Articles 9, 10, 11, 17, 18, 31.
    And – whatever the key question, a key question is – follow the money, or rather, who does the money (and the other resources) follow?

    Phil Almond

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