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‘Rebel Priest’ Rev Jules Gomes: The Anglican Church is dying from a surfeit of niceness


Tis’ the season to be jolly! For this Christmas, bottoms clad in glamorous Gucci apparel will assiduously apply themselves to wiping off crusted pigeon poo from the pews of many parish churches in the Church of England. Attendance will peak at Christmas Services and plummet through the rest of the year, leaving the pious pigeons of St Feelomania’s Parish free to drop down from the heavens a fresh layer of avian excrescence.

Church attendance has plunged to its lowest ever. This marks a defining moment for the comatose Church of England in 2016 as it gurgles and gasps on life-support. Only 1.4 percent of the population now attend C of E services on Sundays. Numbers have nosedived to a mere 752,000 souls. Even the sanctified spin put on the figures by stirring in mid-week, occasional services, school services and Messy Church (a liturgical novelty minus the pigeon poo), keeps the numbers below a million at 961,000.

While the C of E is wheezing away like my old asthmatic auntie, Islam is growing. Its worshippers spill out from overcrowded mosques on to the streets—offering prayer five times a day. Conservative churches are growing. The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) is witnessing a new church plant or addition almost every week. An old nursery rhyme may hold the clue to solving The Mystery of the Disappearing Devotees in the C of E.

Remember “Old Mother Hubbard”? She went to the cupboard, to give the poor dog a bone. When she came there, the cupboard was bare, and so the poor dog had none. Well, that’s the problem. The cupboard is bare. The sheep are not fed. Instead of preaching the meaty gospel of Jesus Christ, Old Mother Hubbard has been serving by the ladleful, a watery gruel of niceness. As a bonus, she might throw you a wafer-thin slice of the stale bread of Corbynite socialism or climate change hysteria or diversity abracadabra.

But niceness is her USP. “Niceness” with a capital ‘N’ is the premier product the Church of England is selling to its non-customers. Sociologists have put a new label on this product. They are calling it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Christian Smith, Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, outlines the creed of this religion as follows:

  1. There is a God who created the world and watches over us.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents. This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering…’ but ‘…centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people,’ writes Smith.

Don’t worry, be happy is the theme song of this religion. It is Marmalade Christianity—sweet, sugary and non-controversial. Biblical Christianity, on the other hand, is Marmite Christianity—salty and stinky. You love it or hate it. ‘Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so. I’ve come to disrupt and confront,’ says Jesus in Luke’s gospel, a verse Peterson translates with characteristic pugnacity in his translation, The Message.

This month, while Sir Mike Tomlinson, Birmingham’s former education commissioner, was warning of hundreds of children in the city being exposed to radical extremism through unofficial Islamic schools, Birmingham Cathedral was celebrating its 300th anniversary with an offering of Marmalade Christianity.

Feeling miserable post-Brexit? Feeling depressed post-Trump? Now Birmingham Cathedral is offering Christians and people of other faiths the chance to turn your emotions into a referendum-style art project based on votes about feelings. The “religion of niceness” is inviting Brummies to answer a different question each day for five days about “how they are feeling” at this point in the year. Questions include: “Have you laughed today?” and “Are you looking forward to next year?” The answers will be displayed as eight-foot tall interactive boards.

This is a grand display of Anglican Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It is all about feelings, nothing more than, feelings as Morris Albert sang in the seventies. Christmas is about flesh. The most glorious line in the prologue to St John’s gospel announces that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ This is the incarnation, not deism; flesh, not feelings; marmite, not marmalade. It is this we proclaim as the message of Christmas and the good news of Christianity. ‘And to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,’ writes St John.

St Feelomania’s Church might see a rise in attendance if only the preacher took the Bible seriously and preached the ‘Word made flesh.’ This is what a 5-year academic study Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy revealed last month. But will the touchy-feely kum-ba-yah singing vicar of St Feelomania’s Church open a jar of marmite for her parishioners?

No! David Haskell, who led the research into the church growth project, thinks not. “If you’re in a mainline church and that church is dying, and you’ve just heard that the theological position that you have is likely what’s killing it, you’re not going to be very happy about that,” he writes.

Old Mother Hubbard waited too long to stock her cupboard with food.

She went to the baker’s

To buy him some bread;

When she came back

The dog was dead!

(Image: Quinn Dombrowski)

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‘Rebel Priest’ Rev Jules Gomes
‘Rebel Priest’ Rev Jules Gomes
The Rev’d Dr Jules Gomes, BA, BD, MTh, PhD (Cantab) is a journalist and academic.

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