Down's rectory in Ashill is 50 yards from the parish church of St Nicholas, where he has taken services since 1988. Pulling into his driveway to park alongside his Rover, I thought of something I had read the previous day in the New Yorker. A confessional essay by the American novelist, John Updike, on "The Future of Faith" had included these words: "A Protestant Christian on the eve of the third millennium must struggle with the sensation that his sect is, like the universe itself in the latest cosmological news, winding down, growing thinner and thinner."
Down, a tall man in corduroy trousers and a thick sweater to which a small cold cross was affixed, is a priest in the Church of England, from which Updike's Episcopalian Church derived its doctrine, liturgy and traditions, and with which it is in communion. He sighed when I mentioned the American's gloomy assessment. "If that's what it's like in the United States, you can imagine how much worse it is here," he said.
For the next 70 minutes, I was treated to an untheatrical but devastating exposition on the future of the Church of England from one of its dedicated priests. In spite of the soft casualness of his utterances, his face showed shadows of disquiet, and most of what he said sounded like a death-knell for the Church of England.
Once a glorious and self-confident institution, the church is hobbling out of the second millennium in frayed cope and crumpled chimere. For the first time, worshipful attendance at the church of which the Queen is head has dropped below a million - about 2 per cent of English people. The institution is riven by argument, feud and schism, and is frequently presented by the media as something far less friendly than the Boudiccan tribal snakepit. The hierarchy seems to roll its collective eyes heavenward more in despair than in ardour. To staunch the flow of hellish tidings, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has been persuaded to hire a public relations mentor, Sir Tim Bell, whose heart (if not his soul) is stapled to Mammon. In the nave, energetic crudity jostles with riotous absurdity, while at the altar elegant mediocrity bumbles on. Many clergy yearn to retrace their Church's decaying lineaments, to have its fading colours refreshed, but others are afflicted with diffusive indecision, hankering after the modern without quite steeling themselves to reject the old.
Now, almost suddenly, the fold is breaking up at an unprecedented rate, as both shepherds and sheep enter the ecstasies of a growing charismatic movement or take the path to Rome. Many, no longer receptive to a rouged style in which the pomp and roll of words and trick of phrase smack of weary insincerity, search for other sources of spiritual comfort, such as New Age mysticisms. And, Down concluded quietly, "If the Church continues to resist people's desire for change, then it is death."
He is far from being alone in his pessimism. Early in the New Year, Christian Research will publish a book whose title, The Tide is Running Out, is a succinctly dire summary of its contents. By then, Down and his wife, Maureen, will have been forced to leave the rectory. From the first day of January he will not be allowed to conduct services in the church of St Nicholas or in the church of St George, also within his ministry, in the neighbouring parish of Saham Toney. The Downs have not yet found alternative accommodation, but the Church has promised to rehouse them. The couple, who have two adult children, profess to be happy with their alternative place of worship, Ashill's community centre, where there are no pews and people drink coffee before praying on their feet and singing to the music of a six-piece band which when I visited a couple of Sundays ago drowned out the cries of newborn babies and the creaks from octogenarian bones. Nevertheless, what has happened to the Downs is very odd, very rustic in its curmudgeonliness, and very bureaucratic. "You can observe the predicament of the Church of England in microcosm here," he said, without visible rancour, almost echoing John Keble, leader of the 19th-century Oxford Movement ("If the Church of England were to fail, it would be found in my parish").
Soon after his arrival in Norfolk (from Lincolnshire, where he tended five parishes), Down decided that Sunday attendances at St Nicholas's and St George's were not good enough. The churches are each capable of holding 200 seated worshippers, yet the average Sunday turnout seldom exceeded 40 at St Nicholas's and 30 at St George's (even though the combined populations of both parishes has risen from 1,000 in the Fifties to their present 3,000-odd). Clearly, most locals were underwhelmed by an institution that no longer can claim to be the organising intelligence standing between the world and chaos. On the other hand, there are some - not all of them regular churchgoers - whose priority is to preserve the mores antiquii of church services from the modern happy-clappy charismatics who are, Down said, the key to the Church of England's future. "Look at what's happening at Holy Trinity Brompton in London," he said. "They have gone for informality and spiritual renewal, and they're packed on Sundays."
When Down proposed livening up his own services by removing the oak pews to make room for charismatic displays of devotion - including "dancing worship" - the traditionalists protested. The chairman of Ashill parish council complained: "The normal Sunday morning services are now very happy- clappy, with people diving around and getting messages. It's alien to what we're used to, and a bit off-putting." Letters went out to parishioners warning against the misuse of medieval churches and the abandonment of the Victorian hymns their great-grandparents sang.
Four years ago, the rector - then 55 - made his first bid to remove some pews. "It was such a confrontation that we decided to leave it for six months to let tempers cool," he recalled. "And when we tried again in 1996 there was such an enormous amount of ill-feeling that the only way to defuse it was by moving the people rather than the pews."
For the happy-clappies, Down held services in Ashill's community centre; for the traditionalists he provided something more formal in St George's and St Nicholas. "That way we were able to pursue the values of renewal. People came to the community centre from beyond the two parishes," he said. His charismatic services have recently attracted about 130. This new congregation is called the Fountain of Light, and represents yet another in what has become a litany of schisms in the established church.
The traditionalists never really adjusted to the arrangement. Last July, they voted that their rector should clear out altogether. I asked him what his response was. He glanced at his wife, then murmured: "I'm about to resign. Someone else will take over the parishes on 1 January, and the Fountain of Life is in the process of being recognised by the Church of England as a missionary congregation. Its membership is defined by the people who come, and not by anything geographical or architectural or Victorian furniture." Within a week of this utterance, the Reverend Down had indeed resigned, though he will carry on doing what he has been doing until the end of the year.
In conversations with laity and clergy, one is sometimes struck by the vexatious nature of the discussion attending the Church's decline and efforts to reverse it. One intelligent pensioner in Saham Toney put it this way: "We traditionalists rely on solemnity to a great extent to offset the fast pace of our inventive, ephemeral lives. We prefer a ceremony that trickles with unguent to the Hallelujah-all-fall-down service that is increasingly in vogue." But a 35-year-old woman, who also described herself as a traditionalist, countered: "The Church has been hampered for countless decades by having departed from the simplicity and candour of the mind of Jesus. I hope it can return to that, but I'm not sure Martin Down's way is the right way back."
Worried Church adherents might seek solace in the Preface to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which said: "It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England... to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it." Yet perhaps it may be too late to preserve the mean.
The diocese of Norwich, of which Ashill and Saham Toney are a part, may be a good example of the Church's predicament. "There are 700 churches in this diocese," Down said. "If you look at them as any plc would, you would close 600 of them tomorrow. We are by no means the poorest diocese, but it faces a planned budget deficit of pounds 500,000 next year. At that rate the present resources of the diocese of Norwich will run out in three years' time. At that point it becomes bankrupt. With half the clergy retired, a lot of money is going on paying them. Many dioceses will soon go broke.
"I was ordained in 1965," the rector said. "In that year, 600 were ordained as stipendiary clergy. Now it's 250, including women - which I have no problem with. A lot of people are being ordained as non-stipendiary clergy, so the figures are being massaged. You could say the Church has halved since my ordination. The question is: can it be saved from itself?
"The one area of the Christian Church that is not declining in the country is the charismatic movement, particularly the new charismatic churches, such as New Frontiers based in Brighton, the Vineyard churches and the Pioneering churches. They are all growing. Some people are saying they are the future of the Church of England. I think George Carey is among the people who believe this."
John Updike certainly appears to believe it, as far as the Episcopal Church is concerned. "Ever younger, frequently female clergypersons have succeeded to the pulpit, and their tone... is, all in all, laid-back. A certain pleasantly faded flower-child, hug-your-neighbour sweetness has replaced the sterner old dispensations," he wrote.
But for anything fresh to take hold, the Church must finish the task of purging itself of vexatious disputation, forging new priorities, cooling the passions raging within and remedying the inertia without. The Church's recent general synod will not have encouraged many. Days were spent debating the true meaning of the Greek preposition "ek" (out of) in a vain attempt to find a proper English translation for the Nicene Creed. Was Jesus incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, or from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, or by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary? Divine inspiration failed to resolve it.
Meanwhile, graver pressures are being exerted on the Church. Recently, Britain's most senior Roman Catholic clergyman, the Scottish Cardinal Winning, announced that the British constitution is an insult to Catholics. He was referring to the 1701 Act of Settlement which established the Church of England as the state church, with the reigning monarch as its head, and bars a Roman Catholic from succeeding to the throne. A repeal movement is underway.
Royalty is not expected to buckle easily. In a private Palace document earlier this year, the Prince of Wales said: "The Church I love has been swept away by pathetic politically- correct `progressives'." In response, Christina Rees, an evangelical member of the General Synod and member of the Archbishop's Council, urged the prince to be "open-minded", adding: "Change is a sign that the Church is alive and growing. An alternative to change is death."
That little contretemps is nothing compared with the continuing war over homosexual clergy. Archbishop Carey is said to be desperately worried over the conflict, which is aggravated by anti-gay Asian and African bishops and pro-gay American bishops, not to mention the avid attention it receives from the right- wing press. Another fissure involves skin colour. This year, after Bishop John Sentamu (one of two black bishops in the 114-strong episcopal ranks) accused the Church of institutional racism, Archbishop Carey admitted institutional guilt.
Further damage seems likely over the issue of women priests. An estimated 500 clergy have left the Church of England and converted to Roman Catholicism since the ordination of women in 1994. Further, many who stayed on to oppose female ordination formed a rebel group, Forward in Faith - 8,500 Anglicans, including 1,000 clergy and bishops - to resist the consecration of women bishops. The Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, told friends he would resign if the Church opted for women bishops or withdrew safeguards for opponents of women priests.
The rebels are now threatening to break away and establish links with Rome, unless they receive approval for the formation of a "third province", a parallel Church which could operate outside the jurisdiction of the Church of England. Such moves fly in the face of Archbishop Carey's desire, reported three months ago, for more power as "Anglican supremo". This "supremo" has alienated both Left and Right by seeking to align the Church with the trade-union movement, while refusing to recognise a union representing 500 of his own clergy.
Other "image" problems multiply. There is concern over reports of a "growing number" of Anglican priests performing unauthorised and dangerous exorcisms. Admirers of the Church's wedding skills were thrown into confusion when the Bishop of Birmingham, the Right Reverend Mark Santer, 60, announced that he would marry a 58-year-old divorcee in a register office. Meanwhile, a new version of the Church's Psalter, due to be adopted next year, has been condemned by academics as "grotesque, inadequate and unworthy."
The extent to which things spiritual are imbued with things temporal was seen in this year's leaked statistics showing that some bishops spend more on their chauffeurs than the average vicar earns in a year (pounds 15,760). A number of them claimed more than pounds 100,000 in expenses. The mixing of things spiritual with things venal was illustrated earlier in the Nineties by the Reverend Chris Brain, who was forced to end his "rave" Nine O'Clock Service in Sheffield and resign from the Church for deriving "sexual gratification" from his women devotees. Brain's excesses came on the heels of an equally unedifying affair at Lincoln Cathedral, where the dean and sub-dean captured the headlines by "fighting like alley-cats" and resisting their bishop's request that they resign.
It is doubtful that the Church of England's woes can simply be prayed away. So, increasingly, it turns to the marketplace. If the halo doesn't work, how about a logo? In recent months the Church devoted much thought to providing a "common visual identity" for its 13,000 parish churches. The symbol, in "warm episcopal purple", was created by a design consultancy which includes WH Smith and Marks & Spencer among its clients. "Gravitas with a contemporary feel," pronounced the Rev Eric Shegog, director of communications at Church House. "A very tacky idea," countered the Rev Geoffrey Kirk, secretary of Forward in Faith.
Enter "Church of England, plc". New Labour techniques in ideological marketing - already used with some success by the Holy Trinity Brompton- based Alpha Programme - are now being applied by the established church itself to what used to be worshippers but are now often referred to as "customers". Market research is one of the roles of the Archbishop's Council, where Christina Rees deliberates alongside 18 other "directors". One of them is Jayne Ozanne, a marketing strategist whose previous products include Fairy Liquid, Kleenex and Huggies. Churchgoers will be asked about their perceptions of the Church and for suggestions on how to address their gripes. All of which follows countless other efforts at trendy brand-building - including Church-sponsored television commercials in which young Christians are shown dancing in a nightclub to hip-hop music - not to mention the introduction, earlier this year, of Britain's first MBA course in church management.
It's hard to believe that such secular initiatives will do much to counter the disrespect in which the Church generally seems to be held. And yet, to an unbeliever like myself, not all the criticisms of the modern Church are fair. Christian ideals of freedom, equality and love should be seen in the context of the misery of the world down the millennia; perhaps the Church has succeeded too well, raising standards of human behaviour so impressively in the past that it is now condemned for falling short of them itself.
A few weeks ago, I visited Dr Martyn Percy, director of the Lincoln Theological Institute at Sheffield University. A canon of Sheffield Cathedral, whose wife, Emma, is also a priest, he has - at 37 - written widely on religion and society. He seemed less perturbed than most about the Church's future. In a recent book, Power and the Church: Ecclesiology in an age of transition, Dr Percy describes the fragmentation he found a decade ago in the slate- grey Cumbrian village of Coniston. "Once upon a time, the place had supported two [Plymouth] Brethren churches... Now, there were no Brethren left: one church was a carpet warehouse, and the other a Masonic Lodge. The Anglican church was an unremarkable Victorian building. Yet with a population of only 1,200, in 1989 there were three [neo-Pentecostalist] House Churches. One had been founded by a former youth worker attached to the Anglican church: he had fallen out with the vicar 10 years before over guitars, spiritual gifts and the life. He left, taking the teenagers with him; they now rented the local library on Sunday. A few years later... this church divided itself... Further splitting was to occur, as individual worshipping preferences were exercised. A kind of gentle anarchy set in... The combined numbers of these three House Churches was no more than 40 people; the Anglican electoral roll was around 160."
The problem, he has concluded, lies with "the absence of theology", by and large, from contemporary revivalism. Without it, "there is unlikely to be a developed... doctrine of the Church and the like."
In the Church of England itself, he told me, "Every month there is a report of a schism. But the scale of the schism or haemorrhage alters from place to place. The churches most vulnerable are those on the wings, very low or very high, and the issues which cause the ructions tend to be something to do with healing or amending the prayerbook or a desire to change the style of worship."
Dr Percy is a shortish, amiable man with a round face, dark hair flecked with grey and penetrating treacle-brown eyes. His desk pencil-holder carries the words "Buy British". What interests him about Martin Down's Norfolk parish dispute is that it has "a slight academic shape. It's a nice story in that it positions the Church between two models, one of which is communal and the other associational." Under the communal - or classic, old-fashioned - model, the number coming to church was immaterial, he said, "because the church is there for everyone, and the parish priest just put himself at the disposal of his parish." Under the associational model, the Church has become "something you join, like a club".
On the flight to Rome that followed ordination of women, he points to a subsidiary controversy, over numbers. "At least 2,500 were said to be ready to leave the Church of England. Actually, the figures are hovering around the 300s. So people say the Church has gone to the dogs. But many go to Rome for a year and find that it's authoritarian and they're not paid very much. And they also discover that the laity in the Church of England has much more power to, say, snooker a bishop."
He is undismayed by a decline in the number of stipendiary priests. "If you go back 400 years, it was probably rare for a rural community to see a priest from one year to the next. We do work with an English fiction that, until recently, every place had its own priest and its own church."
Nevertheless, those places which have their own church, if not their own priest, are becoming fewer by the month. Increasingly, religious billboards are being replaced by "For Sale" signs, as wealthy house-hunters wave cheque books at Gothic arches and vaulted oak trusses (St Michael's in Didmarton, Gloucester, for instance, is on offer as "a spacious family home" for pounds 380,000), and conversions of a different kind follow.
And for all Dr Percy's optimism, the Church of England would probably acknowledge that you can't pin down the multitude, because the multitude is fickle and no longer capable of being kept in check, cajoled or captivated by mysterious terrors and colourful rituals.
CHURCHMEN BEHAVING SADLY: SELECTED ECCLESIASTICAL EMBARRASSMENTS OF THE NINETIES
Westminster Abbey, 1999
A dispute over the sacking of organist Dr Martin Neary incurs pounds 750,000 in legal fees.
Lincoln Cathedral, 1997
The dean, the Very Rev Brandon Jackson, resigns after a eight-year feud with the sub-dean, and an ecclesiastical court case in which he was cleared of having an affair with a woman verger.
St Paul's Cathedral, 1997
The appointment of the Rev Lucy Winkett as dean provokes mutiny and a campaign of hate-mail from opponents of women priests.
Clergy and congregations in Jesmond and Byker refuse to accept the authority of the new Bishop of Newcastle because of his support for homosexuals.
Kings Norton, 1997
The archdeacon of Birmingham speaks of "poison running in the parish" of St Nicholas, Kings Norton. Briefly: the Rev Eve Pitts, Britain's first black woman vicar, is asked to resign after disputes with her three male colleagues; she refuses, alleging racism and sexism. (All have since moved on.)
Chepping Wycombe, 1996
The bill for a nine-year feud between the vicar and the parish council over the maintenance of a Buckinghamshire graveyard passes pounds 100,000.
Hereford Cathedral, 1990
The attempted sale by the dean and chapter of the "Mappa Mundi" provokes a six-year battle.
The Rev Roger Flower, married vicar of St Saviour's, runs off with wife of Bishop of Hull.
The Rev Tom Bodkin is accused of an adulterous affair with a parishioner who sought help with marital difficulties.
The Rev Paul James, opponent of woman priests, leaves wife to move in with pregnant lover.
The Rev Chris Brain is accused of "improper sexual relations" with up to 60 women involved with his "Nine O'Clock Services". The Church later spends pounds 50,000 helping his victims.
The enthronement of the new Bishop is overshadowed by revelations of a gross indecency conviction 26 years earlier.
The Rev Julie Upton, one of the first women to be ordained in Britain, resigns over an affair with her married boss, the Rev Ian Owers.
1999: Church mocked for investment (via Pfizer) in Viagra.
1997: Church attacked for investments in GM (Monsanto) and arms (GEC).
1996: Church attacked for accepting lottery handouts.
1995: Church mocked for stake (via BSkyB) in Playboy channel.
1994: Church Commissioners cancel pounds 63m annual contribution to clergy stipends as a result of pounds 800m loss from reckless property speculation in the Eighties.Reuse content