The devastating effects of democracy

faith & reason: Will the general trend of revolt against central authority be followed by the Church of England? Andrew Brown looks forward with interest to the Synod's vote on church reform.

Some weeks ago the representative of a charming billionaire, who was giving me lunch in Geneva along with a certificate and a fat cheque, asked suddenly what was happening on the British religious scene. I nearly choked on my perch and chips. Then I floundered through hand-waving generalisations until honour was satisfied. Only then did I begin to wonder whether the question really had a sensible answer.

Are there any general processes that can be discerned across all the Christian denominations? I know that between religions there must be other, larger trends such as the decline of rural Christianity and the rise of urban Islam; and within all the British religions there are also certain large patterns, as they all try to come to grips with such phenomena as feminism and the general disappearance of that large-scale unease about the future which was a backdrop to most classical religious thought. I know that nowadays we stressed middle classes worry far more about losing our jobs and domestic security than ever our parents did. But we do not expect death and destitution as imminent and ever-present possibilities, as people did before the development of medicine and fire insurance, or as they still do in wartime. This must have a strong effect on popular ideas of providence; but that is not an effect peculiar to this decade. Similarly, traditional religion is still coming to an accommodation with feminism, but that is a process which has been under way for a long time and still has a long way to go.

Narrow questions have a better chance of being answered, which is a good reason for asking them. And the narrower form of this question, about Christianity, does seem to me to have an answer which reaches across all the denominations. There is a trend, and this is the steady loss of central authority. This has to some extent been obscured because journalists are prone to overestimate the reach and influence of central authorities - it is always easier to ascertain the views of a spokesman than of the people for whom he purports to speak.

With Roman Catholicism, the distinction is easier to make, so long as you bear in mind that what Catholics believe is not necessarily the same as what the Church teaches. What seems to be new this decade is the pervasive loss of authority and central funding across all the denominations. Just as in the political world, there is a reaction against all central discipline. The major ecumenical bodies seem to function in a vacuum but at the same time there are all sorts of low-level contacts between and among churches.

One of the reasons why the Church of England finds it so hard to defend establishment is that the idea of being a national organisation now seems slightly absurd and suspect, not, as it once did to thoughtful Anglo-Catholics, because a national church is too small a thing to make sense, but because it appears too large.

Some of this is a function of the general cultural revolt against intellectual authority which Lord Habgood has been talking about recently. Organised churches are, amongst other things, devices for the articulation of philosophical answers; this will never be among their more popular functions, since philosophy is a hard discipline. The more that all churches are forced into democracy by simple financial pressures, the more their central doctrinal apparatus will tend to decay. The effect will not be to make them more liberal, but more rigid, since boundaries will be set by political assemblies following their common sense. Anyone who doubts the potentially devastating effects of democracy on theological sophistication need only look at American Christianity.

The thesis of a general revolt against the centre is testable, and the Church of England has kindly arranged to test it for me. The elections to the General Synod are just concluding: the howls of wronged archdeacons ring throughout the land. The new Synod will have to approve the Turnbull Commission's proposals for a central, streamlined decision-making body for the Church. If they do so, without fuss, then I am clearly wrong; but if there is a fuss, and the proposals get bogged down in procedural warfare, then the revolt against the centre has already gone further, faster than the centre can believe.

Andrew Brown was last month named the John Templeton European Religion Writer of the Year.

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