Faith & Reason: Logic and lunacy among the believers

Once upon a time the Church of England stood for a Protestant monarchy. Now it is not sure. And it is even more confused about its own constitutional role, argues Andrew Brown.
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The Independent Online
Dr David Samuel is is a kindly gentleman with a white beard and an unlined forehead, who exudes that sharp benevolence which comes to fortunate souls when they realise that the great majority of their contemporaries are going to burn in hell, for ever. Dr Samuel is a Calvinist. He used to be a member of the Church of England too. After he lost a case in the High Court against the right of the General Synod to ordain women, he left the Church of England, taking his chapel in Reading and his ministerial orders with him. He joined an outfit called the Continuing Church of England, where he was bumped up to Bishop - his diocese covers all of England and Wales.

This makes him sound a crank, and perhaps he is. But he is also humane and even liberal in argument, once you grasp his premises. He believes that God's plan for Britain is that it should be a Protestant monarchy; close attention can reveal the clear meaning of the Bible and this in turn reveals the meaning and purpose of everything else in the world.

These beliefs were quite common before the First World War. In parts of Ulster, they still are. Until he lost his court case, he was able also to suppose that they were the foundational beliefs of the Church of England. Now, he says that "Politically the matter is lost. Humanly speaking, there is no prospect of that being reversed. The church along with the other institutions of this country are under the judgement of God, and without the intervention of God I do not see how this [trend within the church] could be reversed."

This is an inspiring example of the resilience of the religious imagination. It is nowadays scientists, rather than theologians, who have inherited this Calvinist confidence in the primacy of the theory over data and the concomitant willingness to abandon common sense. As a scientific attitude it has brought great rewards. It is odd that it should have been so thoroughly discredited among the religious, who nowadays feel that their picture of God ought to conform more to human ideas of benevolence and even decency.

Yet the fact that Dr Samuel's idea of the Church of England is absurd does not mean that he cannot spot the absurdities in other people's view of it. He was speaking last week at the launch of a Gallup poll his organisation had commissioned into attitudes within the Church of England.

Two things are noteworthy about this. The first is that the bishops have finally got their act together to resist opinion polls. Only 25 of the 114 questioned replied, a sufficiently low number to remove all confidence in their results. Some of the rest looks distinctly dodgy too: when asked "How satisfied are you with the current system of synodical government in the Church of England?" only 52 per cent of the general public replied "Don't Know". God in His wisdom alone knows what the 28 per cent who pronounced themselves "Fairly Satisfied" thought they were doing: probably giving a vote of confidence to the Chief Rabbi.

The second significant feature of the poll is one to which Dr Samuel drew attention himself, and this is the deep confusion within the church about what Establishment actually means. A huge majority of regular church attenders wanted the church to remain established "and keep its association with the state" - even more than were in favour of women priests. There were smaller, but still clear majorities among the full-time clergy and the population as a whole.

So far so good. Then you ask the same people whether Parliament should continue to have the final say in the affairs of the Church of England, or whether the Prime Minister should have a right to veto the appointment of diocesan bishops, and majorities just as large, if not larger, reply that he should not, and that the church should be free of parliamentary control.

This really does look like a more significant discovery than the 35 per cent of self-described Anglicans who told Gallup they never ever attend any place of worship. The plain meaning of the findings on Establishment is that the Church of England has no idea at all of the sort of relationship it has or might hope to have with the state. It expects all the privileges of Establishment but recoils with horror from the obligations. It could do with a dose of Dr Samuel's astringent logic.