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Monday, April 15, 2024
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Thought crimes of an anti-woke vicar

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LET me begin with two stories, one of which is true and took place earlier in the summer, the second (sadly) fiction. I pen this as an ordinary English vicar of 25 years, who runs a parish in a stunning seaside town but finds himself increasingly bewildered with the direction of travel of his home denomination.

Submerging Ben, 29, fully into the seawater I sense something malignant leave him, a dark force. It’s difficult to describe, but when a person is under a spiritual oppression you know it. By the third invocation of the Trinity, his baptism complete, he emerges soaking, misty-eyed, panting like a man who’d completed a marathon. ‘It’s all gone, you are free.’ The words come to me unplanned. He nods, grinning and repeating: ‘I know!’

My second story is a fantasy, though I’d like to think perhaps there is a parallel universe where all of this is a reality. It’s late March 2020 and Justin, Archbishop of Canterbury, reads out a statement to the nation from his private chapel in Lambeth Palace. ‘Today I speak to you of the grave concern about the precious liberties not only of the Church but of the common man and woman. In passing these pernicious emergency measures our parliamentarians have overreached themselves and I therefore call upon us all in good conscience to stand for the freedoms won by generations past and resist these instructions.’

Without warning the camera goes black with a sign ‘END OF TRANSMISSION’ There is what sounds like a struggle and the echo of equipment smashing on a marble floor. Later that day government aides issue a press release saying that His Grace is on an extended retreat and: ‘No one is safe until everyone is safe.’ York deputises for him. Weeks later and the public remain unconvinced that the archbishop is on a spiritual break. Forget Che Guevara, now the trendy T-shirt to wear is printed under the auspices of the new campaign group Justice for Justin. Their catchphrases go viral. ‘Where’s Justin?’ ‘Let my Archbishop go,’ and ‘Who has rid us of this turbulent priest?’ In his absence he is denounced by every world leader as a Covid-idiot. 

By the end of the third lockdown Church of England attendance has quadrupled despite the tight restrictions. There are not enough police to stop people crowding into church. Then in early 2021 Justin Welby is released from Wandsworth prison. He is gaunt, bearded, and looks as if he’s aged ten years. Officers push him out in a wheelchair to a makeshift podium. A quiet knowing smile and a feeble wave starts an explosion of clapping by a hundred thousand onlookers. His voice, crackly and faint, intones: ‘Long live the Kingdom of God,’ which gets a resounding cheer. 

Ben has had no such Justin-Mandela-like figure to bring him to the altar. He is however one of thousands of young adults who have quietly reached out to me and my co-hosts, Dr Jamie Franklin and the Rev Tom Pelham, of the weekly podcast Irreverend,  with their own extraordinary stories. The podcast began as a knee-jerk reaction to the lockdowns and it’s gone from strength to strength. We are three vicars musing on faith issues and current affairs and though this shouldn’t be that controversial I suspect we are on borrowed time before getting closed down or cancelled. Despite this we regularly top the podcast charts for religion in the UK. 

Irreverend’s USP is our modest traditional and orthodox views and anti-woke mischief; what used to be called in the good old days ‘mainstream’ Christianity or, if you are a catechised Anglican, the Bible, the Creeds and the 39 Articles. Such religious views are now to be shunned apparently, dangerous as they are. Many vicars who hold similar views keep their head down. I am anticipating that day when dozens of police swoop in and surround the vicarage to arrest me for my own thought crimes, perhaps for misgendering someone on Twitter/X. I bet it will be another vicar who grasses me up too. The Church has of recent encouraged a type of zealous progressive cleric who sees nothing wrong in trashing the reputation of any opposition. 

Young adults like Ben give me hope. He tells me he wants to work unequivocally for Christ and he doesn’t care what the pushback is. He is typical of men and women who say that they have migrated from New Atheism, psychedelics, Wicca, Marxism or whatever and awoken to a post-lockdown world which feels decidedly creepy, evil, a new Dark Age hanging over the West. They mostly come to God not through the light but repelled by the darkness. As Ben braved church for the first time in his adult life while here in Salcombe on holiday I cornered him at the end of the service. During the liturgy he sat the front and seemed curiously engaged while simultaneously lost. After he shared his incredible testimony of coming to Christ in the past few months I sensed an urgency for baptism. And so days later we met at the beach and got on with it. 

My nagging concern is: what if this young man had stepped through the doors of a less receptive church that Sunday? What message would this aspiring Christian have heard? From our mailbag I can tell you that hundreds are laughed away by vicars. It’s tragic. The comments can be so scornful too. ‘We don’t do that supernatural stuff any more.’ ‘Jordan Peterson Bible series, isn’t that Alt-Right?’ ‘You don’t believe in Net Zero?’ Of course, there are a mass of excellent hardworking clergy on the front lines of our parishes but it doesn’t help when the more wacky get all the headlines. How is telling your flock that Jesus was non-binary, never rose from the dead and his mother wasn’t a virgin supposed to help our mission? 

A front-page Times survey of 1,200 clergy demonstrated how a good number of my confreres are captured by the liberal narrative. The implication is that they now have the upper hand. Social media was abuzz with gleeful liberals saying: ‘It’s our time!’ Paradoxically, for all the golden utopian promises, their version of Christianity is running out of steam. Liberal churches die faster than any other brand. They give no reason to join, they make no demands, so why turn up? For the young progressive types (who hold Church as irredeemable, toxic, heteronormative, patriarchal) this is just another reason not to turn up. We might as well have huge banners outside our church porches saying: ‘Nothing worth seeing here.’ 

These progressive clergy know this deep down. The same survey highlights how many are ready to throw in the towel (or cassock). Revolutions are by their nature exhausting and all too often consume their own young. I’ve seen it time and again; earnest priests who have turned their job into a stipended social work with a dollop of ‘spirituality’ eventually burn out, or retire early as ‘post-Christian’. They’ve lost the fire. Their religion has pooh-poohed the transcendent into a flat decaffeinated version of Christianity.  

Of course, all the hundreds of millions of pounds signed off by the General Synod and the Church Commissioners to rebrand Anglicanism and make it supposedly appeal to Reading Festival goers and Guardianistas has done exactly the opposite. But try as we all might the curse of the intelligentsia hangs over the Church. The bleedin’ obvious is obscured and whereas everyone else can see it, those in charge do not want to. 

As a rule only conservative churches grow in the postmodern world. I defy anyone to show conflicting stats. Predictably the received wisdom of much of the hierarchy is not to question the revolution but to push for it harder and faster. So we blow more money, eye-watering sums. Why waste money on a curacy when you can have a Creation Care Officer, Inclusion Strategist, or a Diversity Pathway Enabler? Failing that you can pay out millions in slavery reparations while ordinary church treasurers struggle to keep the roof up. 

Over the weekend a vicar tweets complaining about a video clip on Twitter/X showing a bus full of men, Anglo-Catholic, praying the rosary on their way to the pro-Life event, March for Life. This to me sums up that within the Church of England even the liberals need to concede we have two parallel religions operating. 

Back in my parallel fantasy world Justin has been arrested once again. This time it’s for praying silently outside an abortion clinic. The police officers pushing his wheelchair into the van inform him that he is guilty of hate speech. On the same day a headline in the Times says that churches are running out of pews.

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Rev Daniel French
Rev Daniel French
Rev Daniel French is vicar of Holy Trinity, Salcombe, Devon, and a co-presenter of the podcast Irreverend.

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