On Monday evening in the small village church where I worship, a group of local people put on an excellent dramatic piece to commemorate the outbreak of World War One. It was based around the reflections of four characters: a young soldier from the village who enlisted with his friends from the area, his mother, a schoolteacher who published a magazine for troops in the trenches, and the father of Wilfred Owen the poet. The soldier, who survived the war, was a fictional character but his reflections were based on real eyewitness accounts; his friends were real people whose names are on plaques in the church building. The words of the characters were interspersed with songs from the time sung by a choir, and the backdrop was a series of black and white photographs. The performance was concluded by three short Scripture readings and prayers led by a clergyman in his 90’s who had seen action in World War Two.
Similar events were held all over the country. What can we learn? For one thing, the unique role of the established Church. At times of great significance – national mourning, celebration or solemn remembrance, people turn to the Church of England not just for the free use of an appropriate building or the assistance of people in familiar uniform of clerical collars trained in ceremonial public speaking. The events of the First War with its almost unimaginable suffering and sheer scale of death force reflection on big questions which cannot be answered by glib solutions from politics, economics or science. What is the meaning of life, death, sacrifice? Where was God in all this? Do we have to reduce God in size, and say he loves and suffers with us but cannot do anything about our warring madness? Do we think of him as a distant creator figure without day to day involvement in our struggles, and turn instead to idols? Or perhaps in our bitterness we learn to hate the idea of God, as many did of course as a result of the war. A church which people trust as somehow representing the nation before God in its confusion of faith, hope, doubt and anger, rather than just a local gathering of believers, is very important at these times.
For an established church to work like this, there must be a core central foundation of clarity and certainty and faith that underpins the local expressions of pastoral care: for example sitting with the grieving and walking alongside the confused and angry. Otherwise, if the national Church in its official policies and documents denies the immanence or the transcendence of God, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture and for example its clear teaching on ethical issues, then it is no longer a Christian church, even though it may continue to remain a religious and cultural centre for the nation. However, the alternative of disestablishment in order to maintain freedom to continue its core doctrinal components could mean that there are far fewer events of the kind I attended on Monday evening, a community event followed by Gospel and prayer, when a majority of those who attended were not churchgoers. Mission would suffer, not only in the sense of access for evangelistic purposes to a large “fringe” of people who see themselves as culturally C of E, but also in terms of the Church being able to speak to the nation with wisdom and love from its position of being embedded in the structures of society.
In times of war, the relationship of church and culture is strained. Authentic Christian leaders might refuse to endorse blind aggressive patriotism; rather they recognise the need to resist evil, but work and pray for peace and reconciliation, and focus on care for the suffering rather than celebrations of slaughter, and denigration of the enemy. Ideally, the Church listens to public opinion but does not allow it to distort its historic and unchanging message. Today it is not war which brings closer the threat of Anglicans in England having to choose between authentic Christian faith outside and even against culture, and a national “church” where key aspects of Christian doctrine have been redefined in the image of, and by permission of, the culture. What brings the threat is something unthinkable for the millions who suffered and died in the Great War – the “diversity and equality” agenda.
Bishops are having to deal with this issue on two main fronts: clergy discipline, and education of children. The case of Canon Jeremy Pemberton is being highlighted in the media to show that the C of E is out of step with public opinion; the case is even being mentioned in the House of Lords with the suggestion that the government should intervene to force the church to change. Peter Tatchell has inevitably revived his old threat to “out” all “gay” Bishops – perhaps this will earn him another invitation to tea at Lambeth Palace? Church House has responded, sadly, not by reiterating the Bishops’ clear February statement that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that clergy should not enter into same sex marriages. Rather, they have ducked the question by referring to the forthcoming facilitated conversations, and saying that each case of clergy discipline is to up to local Bishops.
In the area of education, the C of E was relieved to finally publish “Valuing All God’s Children” a few months back. This document tries to show how church schools can have policies reflecting an ethos which is truly loving and respecting of all sexualities and family types, while at the same time affirming the distinctive Christian view of monogamous heterosexual marriage. In practice though the document concedes too much ground to modern unchristian understandings about sexuality (Anglican Mainstream has circulated critiques of VAGC in draft form and will soon publish the critique on this site). In addition, it looks increasingly likely that OFSTED (the government schools’ inspectorate) will see any defence of the traditional understanding of marriage as inherently intolerant, homophobic and contrary to “British values”. Clues to this can be seen in the proposed government response to incidents of extreme Islam being promoted in certain Moslem schools, which has been highlighted recently by Christian Concern, Christian Institute and CARE. Meanwhile at the same time, Stonewall chief Ruth Hunt is now urging the government to teach all children to celebrate the gay lifestyle, beginning with children under age 5.
These examples illustrate a stark choice facing the C of E in the next couple of years. If it can be forced by government legislation, media pressure and the manipulation of lobby groups to accept the validity of same sex marriage for clergy, and to positively endorse radically progressive views on family and gender to children, what will come next? Admission that certain parts of the Bible are not inspired and authoritative as they cause hurt to people with certain lifestyles? Denial of the uniqueness of Jesus as this offends people of other faiths? We are now at a stage when such things are not unthinkable – they are inevitable, if the C of E’s task as an established church is merely to accompany society through the consequences of the choices it has made. I would hope that in our time, the church can use its position in the nation to push back, to refuse to conform, to articulate a different vision from within its special place in the nation – which it should see as its true calling.
Andrew Symes is Executive Secretary of UK-based Anglican Mainstream.