New wine in old wine skins?
When I was younger, it was amusing for me to think that I was the only boy in my year to study Religious Education to ‘A’ Level. I was also the only boy to have done this for five years in my school. The previous boy was my brother. I was born and bred in a peculiarly secular part of the world, and South Yorkshire had, and continues to have, the dubious reputation of being one of the least, if not the least, churchgoing area in Europe. Even in those days I took a kind of instinctive interest in why the Church was so off-putting to people, and it became something of an innocent research project to gather people’s impressions, prejudices and opinions about Christianity. Bishop Ted Wickham had already written his seminal book ‘Church and People in an Industrial City’, based on Sheffield and his experiences in the Industrial Mission there, demonstrating that the Church of England had never engaged the hearts and minds of the working classes in this part of Yorkshire and here, as elsewhere, churchgoing was largely a middle-class pursuit. The Church of England, with its Victorian morality, its emphasis on the feminine but ruled by men, and its unconscious, or perhaps very conscious, support of the status quo earning it the nickname ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’ was culturally and emotionally far from the ordinary folk of the country. Couple this with the historically significant blow to ‘simple faith’ that was the First World War and you are left with the rich fertile ground for the advance of ‘scientism’ and rational secularism. My peers in my younger years were the heirs to these influences and so the playground talk would be of the irrelevance of the Church, of the naive stupidity of those who attended worship and how, in the heady, forward-looking years of the 1960s, it was an old-fashioned institution doomed to fade and die. It is these inchoate and largely visceral feelings about the Church and religion that people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens give a voice to and it is also why we have the paradox that the people of our country profess a lack of regard for religion but still resort to it in great numbers for baptisms, weddings, funerals and events like Princess Diana’s funeral. The problem is not a lack of faith but a lack of faith in religion and, specifically, the Established Church.
Where does this leave us? Recently there have been two, seemingly unrelated, resignations taking place many hundreds of miles apart. The one is the present Pope, Benedict, who has, in a move unprecedented since medieval times, signalled that he wishes to stand down as Pontiff. The other is Canon Giles Frazer, the rather controversial priest who formerly worked at St Paul’s Cathedral and resigned from there in tacit support of the protestors in the Occupy movement who were questioning our world economic order. Pope Benedict is standing down because he believes that he is not strong enough in body or, significantly, mind and no longer believes himself to be up to the challenges of the role. It is a brave and unselfish decision. Frazer on the other hand is stepping down from the rather less high-profile role of writing a column for the Church Times, which he has done courageously, and with honour for his free-thinking, for some nine years. He cites ‘having less and less respect for the leadership of an organisation that often seeks to achieve little more than its own perpetuation’ and finds ‘the mealy-mouthed pronouncements of many bishops plain embarrassing.’ The Pope seems to be saying that the future of the Church now needs to be in younger hands and implying that the changes that are necessary are beyond his ability to effect. Canon Frazer seems to be saying that he fears for the ability of the Church of England to make these necessary changes or, in its present state, to have the will to make them. Sadly, Peter Sandford, one of the bright young things of the Roman Catholic Church in this country has a similar jaundiced view about his Church as does Frazer about mine. In a powerful, heartfelt statement he declares…’the Catholic authorities need to start speaking up as forcefully as they have done in recent weeks against gay marriage in defence of the poor and the marginalised.’ He goes on to accuse Archbishop Vincent Nichols of being all but invisible on the national stage except for his stand against gay marriage.
It is not hard to see where the young are in all this and that they share today all the anxieties about the institution of the Church that I and my peers had all those many years ago. In our hearts, even those of us most passionately concerned with the future of the Church and our faith, know that we cannot continue as we are now and no matter how hard we resist we can see the truth in what Frazer, Sandford and, yes, even a old frail Pope are saying. Change is necessary and it is urgent. Recently, the Church of England has shown itself to be resistant to this change by not agreeing to ordain women to the episcopate. The Bishops have tried to produce measures to achieve this, but it can all look, to those who watch us, like the desperate flounderings of old men trying to catch up with the world around them. We have also come out determinedly and loudly against same-sex marriage, despite the obvious groundswell of support for it in the land. No doubt, we will catch up on that one in a decade or two, but will be behind the game rather than leading opinion and change. And so, the rift between the people of our land and their Church widens and, meanwhile, 2 billion people wake each morning to face a foodless day.