There is no doubt that, in an increasingly secular society, uncomprehending—and sometimes contemptuous—of religion, the Church of England faces a struggle to survive. As the Established Church to which most people in England once paid allegiance (at least in name), its numerical decline was perhaps inevitable. At the same time, it has been argued that Christianity thrives under pressure and even persecution, and in this difficult time there are opportunities for the Church to further its mission.
Looking at its present priorities and preoccupations, however, it is hard to escape the question: Has the C of E given up the will to live?
Previously in this column I have lamented the leeching of resources away from struggling parishes to fund superfluous diocesan posts and central initiatives; and more recently, I have questioned the Church’s self-flagellation over its supposed “institutional racism”. If the Church succeeds in convincing everyone it’s racist, why should they respect it or take it seriously?
As if those responsible for our places of worship did not have enough to worry about, it is now being suggested that they might consider ripping out statues and memorials because (surprise, surprise) those in whose memory they were erected did not conform to present-day mores. At the same time, the prospect of a “zero-carbon” Church looms large—a plan which, if centrally imposed, will close many churches (because they will not be able to afford to replace their heating systems, and people will stop going to them if they are freezing cold). Is it not obvious to those at the centre that already struggling churches cannot cope with such additional burdens?”
Nor are these isolated problems. Last year, at the start of the Covid-19 panic, the C of E seemed even keener that the government to ensure that its doors would remain bolted for months, even seeking to ban its clergy from praying—alone—in their own church buildings. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Communion celebration from the kitchen at Lambeth Palace was presented as a gesture of solidarity with others whose lives had been disrupted, but was widely perceived as silly. During the most recent lockdown, when churches were permitted to open for public worship, only a minority chose to do so, remaining closed for a number of weeks during which services could legally have taken place.
Lest anyone doubt the Church’s loss of confidence in itself, it has now advised its church schools not to sing hymns that are too expressly Christian in assembly. This has been greeted with derision by secular commentators, such as Simon Heffer. And it is not only the C of E’s state schools that embarrassed by “Christianity”. Earlier this month, Trent College, a private boarding school which is an Anglican foundation, not only fired its chaplain, the Revd Dr Bernard Randall, but also reported him to anti-terrorist watchdog Prevent, on suspicion of stirring up extremism. His only crime was to suggest to pupils, in careful and moderate terms, that they did not have to agree with the school’s LGBT teaching, but could think for themselves. Dr Randall’s words were in line with the doctrine of the Church; but no bishop or other senior figure has said a word in defence.
If the C of E continues with such acts of self-sabotage, it is hard to see how it can survive. It is time for the Church to spend more time and energy on Christian apologetics and less on apologising for itself.