Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Anglicanism on the rocks

Intentionally or otherwise, the Archbishop of Canterbury has clinched the case for disestablishment of the Church of England. His well-intentioned but ill-judged remarks on the ‘inevitability’ of some form of sharia law obtaining more formal recognition in Britain have aroused the fury of not only anti-Islamists and the non-religious, but also of a majority of his own flock. His business, they presumably feel, is to promote the Anglican faith – not to advance the interests of Muslims or even of other forms of Christianity.

The whole controversy has exposed the futility – if not humbug – of so-called ‘inter-faith dialogue’. The endless and still fruitless quest for Anglican reunion with the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand and nonconformism on the other shows how near-impossible it is to mend doctrinal schisms which have deep historical roots. To seek friendly accommodation with non-Christian faiths such as Islam is even more Alice-in-Wonderland. The best these conflicting belief-systems can do is to grudgingly mumble that they ‘respect’ each other, while agreeing to continue to disagree without actually fighting – if that is possible. All they have in common is an even greater dislike for the non-religious than for each other. And given the impending schism within the Anglican communion over the intractable issue of homosexuality, the ecumenical enterprise is looking more forlorn than ever.

What all this has to do with the everyday lives of most British citizens is beyond me. The great majority of us – including those who describe themselves as nominally ‘C of E’ – do not believe in the doctrines of the church, and are not regular worshippers. We live in a post-Christian society, and appreciate its historic legacy and cultural benefits, such as impressive church architecture, a rich musical tradition, and Christmas festivities [actually purloined from earlier pagan midwinter celebrations]. But Easter and the legend of Christ crucified and risen again leaves most of us cold.

If we are historically aware, we know that the sole reason for the existence of the English Church was the unbridled lust of England’s nastiest monarch, Henry VIII. The Elizabethan Reformation Settlement which ultimately ensued placed the Anglican state church in a subordinate position to parliament, giving its adherents exclusive access to the legal profession, the universities, and many other public offices. For three hundred years [except during the short Commonwealth interregnum] Roman Catholics and nonconformists were excluded from large areas of English life, and popular prejudice against them remained strong until the late 19th century.

The Anglican church of the 18th century ‘hunting parson’ and the pompous, venal Victorian clergy so vividly depicted in Trollope’s novels were widely seen as the ‘Tory party at prayer’ – a mainly upper class, Establishment institution which, while producing some admirable and even saintly characters, was never on familiar terms with the broad mass of the people. Attempts at revival during the 20th century, and such movements as Christian Socialism, did not halt the steady seepage of active worshippers.

Faced with a resurgent Roman Catholicism – recently revealed as the Christian denomination with the highest number of regular worshippers – and, over the past couple of decades, an increasingly militant Islam, it is little wonder that the leaders of the established church are worried. Constantly crying that they are the custodians of the nation’s historic Christian tradition, they refuse to face the fact that we live now in a post-Christian culture, and that by attacking atheism and secularism and seeking to carve out entrenched privileges for themselves and other religious believers, they are turning their backs upon the vast majority of British citizens who no longer believe their doctrines or accept their pretensions.

Like political parties, not only the Anglican church but all the churches have exhausted their moral and financial capital and should learn to cut their coat according to their cloth. Their place in the nation’s future should be determined by their self-funded contribution to the welfare of society as a whole – not by pushing and shoving for special privileges and exemptions from state laws designed to apply to everyone while demanding handouts from the public purse.

If Jesus returned to earth and looked at his 21st-century “followers”, I suspect he would wearily recognise many of the same self-righteous Pharisees he excoriated and the greedy money-lenders he drove out of the Temple.


zola a social thing said...

Who is an Antidistablishmentarian then?

Richard W. Symonds said...

To my mind, just an all-too-familiar character assassination by the media et al, on an 'easy target' who is a threat to the war-mongers and their appeasers.

An Archbishop can change hearts and minds - regarding the so-called 'War on Terror' in Iraq & Afghanistan et al.

Thus, people like the Archbishop have to be 'silenced' - usually by ridicule.