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?