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Daniel Frampton: What the cringing C of E needs is a healthy dose of fire and brimstone


It’s one of the quirks of the Church of England that to be a member you don’t really have to believe in God. This is a strange sort of inclusivity, no doubt, though it is terribly nice. But that’s exactly the problem. Too much niceness is repellent. The C of E is much like that fool of a husband who gives way to his wife on every matter of consequence. He’s very reasonable, but not exactly masculine. It shouldn’t really surprise him if his wife then runs off with the local imam.

A recent ComRes survey found that 36 per cent of self-proclaimed Church of England Christians never attend church, while one-third never pray; 60 per cent do not even read the Bible. In other words, Anglicans are the least dedicated of all Christian groups. Responding to these findings, Rachel Jordan, the Church’s national mission and evangelism adviser, had the temerity to declare that the survey at least revealed who the ‘committed people are’ – meaning those ‘deeply committed, practising Christians’ who ‘might be willing to take on the task of spreading the good news of Jesus’. If only such living saints had a loyal Church.

It seems to me that self-reflection would have been a rather more serious response here. Do we really need a better class of Christian or do we simply need a better Church? One might follow the other. The Church of England has perished. It is a corpse. Another study recently found that only 15 per cent of the population identify themselves as Anglican. Church attendance is near non-existent, affiliation has dwindled. Moreover, the Church’s moral authority has been reduced to naught. Long gone are the days when clergy and laity alike were prepared to burn at the stake for their convictions. This was a very manly Christianity. Today most Anglicans aren’t even willing to risk a light singeing in The Guardian.

It is one of the tragedies of our time that the Church of England is now synonymous with ingratiation; for example, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s statement that Britain should reconcile itself to certain elements within Sharia; or the suggestion from the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, that the Koran should be read at the next coronation service. The Archbishop of Canterbury might just as well recite extracts of The God Delusion or The Vagina Monologues – the latter, especially, would provide him with an excellent opportunity to acknowledge the tribulations of the menstrual cycle. He could hand out free tampons in the vestry. It would at least be an honest recognition that the Church is now the province of rotund lesbians flatulating at the Mass.

The vapid proclamations of the upper echelon of the Church are mere details compared with the general surrender that has informed most of its recent history. The failure to defend lifelong marriage was decisive, of course, followed by the admittance of women into the clergy, as well as other creative acts of ‘accommodation’. These are sure signs that the Church of England has become a fundamentally unserious and confused institution.

This pallid poor dear, the C of E, has me longing for the brimstone and fire of the Old Testament, or at least the corrupt and somewhat randy popes of the Renaissance era; anything but this sorry sort of Christianity that has been a hostage of the state since 1534. The beguiling vision of ‘old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings’ is hardly combative. Old maids aren’t nearly fanatical enough for my taste. But a lack of fanaticism is precisely what defines the Church of England: those dull words ‘established church’. It’s far too respectable for its own good.

G K Chesterton was probably on to something when he referred to Roman Catholicism as ‘the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age’. The Catholic Church, he wrote, is the ‘one fighting form of Christianity’. I am not a Catholic, unlike Chesterton, though I cannot help noticing that Catholics have generally resisted the spirit of the age, which likely explains Catholicism’s essential continuity. Might this have something to do with actually believing in a vision of the supernatural?

Earlier this year a survey found that a quarter of Christians in Britain did not believe in the Resurrection. Presumably, most of these Christians were Anglican. Nearly a third of them thought that Heaven was an illusion. It was a surprising finding. Yet there has, for a while now, been a serious anti-supernatural tendency in the C of E. Evelyn Waugh noted that during his time in the Army in the Second World War the Anglican chaplains ‘seemed to have no sense of the supernatural at all’. This suspicion had, in some sense, justified his own conversion to Catholicism years before.

Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited underlined, as perhaps only a Catholic could, the significance of the red flame in the sanctuary lamp, ‘burning anew among the old stones’, in the chapel at Brideshead. Catholicism is right at home here, unlike its heretical younger sibling. Even the ghost stories of M R James appear to concede the point that the Church of England is hopelessly out of its depth in all matters relating to the supernatural. The insinuation is clear when, in An Episode of Cathedral History, an Anglican dean dismisses the supernatural as ‘arrant nonsense’.

It seems reasonable to suggest that a church that renounces eternity will be in a perpetual state of surrender to the passing fashions of the present day. Moreover, moral conviction is rooted in the idea of objective value, not the relativistic impulse that appears to have overcome the Church of England today. But conviction matters. Since the C of E has refused to take a stand, we have naturally declined to stand with it. This includes the Rev Gavin Ashenden, the former Honorary Chaplain to the Queen, a man of great spirit, who recently felt obliged to resign his post as a result of the Church’s moral capitulation to the modern world.

Rather than questioning society – pro Ecclesia contra mundum – the English Church has confined itself publicly to a series of embarrassing platitudes designed to placate the crowd rather than risk its fury. Perhaps this timidity is inherent. I hope it is not, though I suspect otherwise. Hollywood, of all places, appears to have caught on to the idea that Anglicanism is simply too nice. As we see time and again in film, a battling priest, often combating an otherworldly malevolence, is almost invariably a Catholic clergyman, resilient and devout – not some effete, vegetarian-option, Anglican outreach officer absolutely determined not to offend the Devil.

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Daniel Frampton
Daniel Frampton
Daniel Frampton is a historian and writer.

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