What is good about the Church of England? Is there a reason to continue? These are two of the questions which emerged in the course of the last of the Westminster Faith Debates on the future of the Church of England. They are two questions which, taken at face value, appear pessimistic but which are in fact a sign of the Church’s character and resilience. The Church of England is a Church which can ask questions. It also endures, and is likely to go on doing so, albeit in a different form, because, for all its idiosyncrasies, as well as its plain injustices, it keeps faith with God. So in this respect, the Church of England is as God’s people (along with some of their leaders) have always been. It is human and fallible, but it is also a home where people can experience transcendence, where they can see and know God.
Seeing and knowing God inevitably returns us to ourselves, or at least to an examination of what we, as a Church, suppose ourselves to be. The most difficult aspect of self examination is that it can take a person into a place where they are tempted to give up on themselves, to think of themselves as of no value and of their lives as utterly futile. Paradoxically, this kind of despair also comes with denial, with the conviction that this is the only way we can be.
Last Thursday’s debate challenged this assumption. One of the panel members described how a life threatening illness had brought her to a moment of truth about herself, of coming to terms with who she really was and of daring to be that true self to her church. The Church of England, it seems, has come to a similar point in its life. It has arrived at a tipping point, a time of reckoning. This time of reckoning represents ‘crisis’ to use an alliteration of the Greek word for ‘judgment’. The last of the debates on the future of the Church of England amounted to the recognition that it is in crisis, that the Church as we know it is slipping into irreversible decline, that it needs to take stock not only of where it is, but of who it is, and that this ‘taking stock’ will also take the Church to a new place. It is a place, as one speaker noted, where the Church of England may yet represent something more than being one of the principle guardians of our national architectural heritage and become what it is meant to be, the visible, though still flawed, image of God in the world.
To this end, it is becoming clear that the Church needs to let go, or die to, those self perceptions and the way they inform its attitudes to marginalised groups. It also needs to let go of the fetish of unity. This does not mean that it should be unconcerned about unity. Rather, as one speaker suggested, it should develop a unified approach to faith in solidarity with other religions, especially in the face of global religious extremism and violence. In the meantime, much more work needs to be done in the field of reconciliation among its own members.
The opening speaker told of the need for the Church to repent of its homophobia and of the damage which it has caused to individuals and to the life of the Church as a whole. But repentance cannot come without reconciliation, anymore than reconciliation can come about without real regret for the harm that has been done. So we need to ask ourselves what reconciliation and repentance really mean and what they entail for the Church. Do they mean trying to agree on things which we shall probably never agree on, or worse, pretending to do so? Do they even mean agreeing to disagree? Neither of these options have yet proved to be of much use in bringing about reconciliation and repentance. The one is about trying to square the circle and the other is a diversion which does not take us anywhere.
What does take us somewhere is grace, a gift which comes free and often unrecognised, from God. Grace is a dangerous gift because it changes us and so changes the way we see others. Its fire consumes the Church’s false self. But the Church has become so comfortable with its false self that it is in danger of becoming inured to the work of grace and thus risks losing sight of who it really is and of its true purpose. Its false self, which presents as the ‘institutional church’, gets in the way of grace and of what the true Church has to offer the next generation. What the true Church has to offer is the reality of God’s presence in its life, and consequently in theirs, and of his loving purpose for his world which is the world they will inherit. As things stand, the Church of England’s attitude to LGBT people begs the question of what kind of God it actually worships.
On the whole, those who want to find God in the context of a church will endure a certain amount of uncomfortable liturgy and dress sense, whether traditional or not, if they feel God’s presence and love around them. What they will not endure is theology taught on the basis of prohibition and exclusion and which portrays God as commanding and controlling. This is not a God who they would trust with their deepest and most private fears and longings. Neither does this God give shape or meaning to their lives. So what they are really asking is, does this particular church convey the reality of God as a truthful witness to his love, and can they bring all that they are, and all that they have, to its service without fear of rejection? Sadly, the answer is often ‘no’.
The problem lies, once again, with the Church’s apparent rejection of grace. It is grace which enables vision, and those who are looking to the Church for meaning and purpose for their lives will look first to its leaders to supply that vision. Leaders therefore need to be open to God’s transforming grace because they are called to remind the Church of its true self, not by the persona they project, but by being true to who they are. As one speaker said, leaders, as well as those they care for, will only lead in a visionary way when they do so from their own ‘inner place’. It is how leaders and church people live out what they believe and pray which ultimately defines the true Church and makes it attractive to future generations.