The Church of England is doomed

What is unforgivable is the carelessness with which its role in the community is abandoned
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The Independent Online

Over the last few weeks, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the Church of England is not going to survive my grandchildren's lifetime and very probably not my children's. It's not so much the royal marriage or the debate over women bishops that has done it, although each in its own way is a symptom of an institution in accelerating decline. It's that nowhere in any of the debates at the synod this week or any of the discussion about the marriage of the Prince to Mrs Parker Bowles and the succession of Charles to the throne is there any sense that the C of E understands its role as the established church of England or even wants it any longer.

Over the last few weeks, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the Church of England is not going to survive my grandchildren's lifetime and very probably not my children's. It's not so much the royal marriage or the debate over women bishops that has done it, although each in its own way is a symptom of an institution in accelerating decline. It's that nowhere in any of the debates at the synod this week or any of the discussion about the marriage of the Prince to Mrs Parker Bowles and the succession of Charles to the throne is there any sense that the C of E understands its role as the established church of England or even wants it any longer.

Yet, without that role, the Church is bereft of its raison d'être. It becomes just another sect, only one in deep economic trouble and profoundly divided on many of its core issues. Its communities may go on in their individual parts but not as a whole.

If this were just a matter of the Church as part of the "establishment", - the role its critics, and many even within the Church, seem to assume - its position as a prop to political power could be seen as eminently dispensable. No longer required to anoint the King or Queen and take a central part in the pomp and circumstance of royal rule, the Church could concentrate on its religious duties to the benefit of all

But the function of the established Church is much more than this. Otherwise it could never have survived the succession of supreme governors from George IV to Edward VII who lived lives all too obviously at total variance with its teachings. No, the primary job of the established Church, and the one that has kept it going for 450 years, is to provide spiritual sustenance and to make available the sacraments of baptism, marriage and death to the local community.

Even to spell this out sounds quaint and old-fashioned in a more secular age. But it is what the majority of the English has seemed to want. The figures for regular church-going may have gone into free-fall but the numbers who would claim to be Christian and to visit churches for those occasions remain surprisingly high - more than half the adult population, in fact.

A sort of easy, undemonstrative and tolerant ambling along with religion, not wanting it to be too intrusive but wishing its comforts to be available in need, has been the English way. Its frustrating for those who want religion to represent much more of a total commitment and it is offensive to those who want religion relegated to the margins, but it has given countless communities what they wanted through all sorts of upheavals that have destroyed more absolutist churches in other countries.

The trouble is that now no one believes in this any longer at the top of the organisation itself. The Prince of Wales talks vaguely of being a sovereign for all religions, as if the members of other faiths want him in the role and as if universalism absolves him of the duty of morality. The Archbishop of Canterbury has only the most limited experience of parochial priesthood, and that in Wales where the circumstances are quite different. The bishops and the lay leadership of the Church see it now largely in terms of an institution in decline, requiring cost-cutting and new management structures.

What else are the debates in this week's synod about security of tenure and freehold housing but attempts by the bishops to turn a community-centred Church into a national corporation, lower in cost, tighter in discipline? From above, it seems economic sense. From below, it is yet one more nail in the coffin of a pastoral system that has already been wrenched apart by merged parishes and team structures.

Much of this may be inevitable. Church attendance is in decline. We live in a secular age. What is unforgivable in the Church leadership is the carelessness with which the Church's traditional role in the community is being abandoned. The passionate debates about women priests, gay clergy and doctrinal absolutism are signs of an institution turned in on itself. They mean virtually nothing to the broader community the Church is supposed to serve.

Of course, disestablishment would make all the royal quandaries, the anachronism of political appointment to ecclesiastic office and the issue of bishops in the Lords redundant. But it would also remove the glue that holds the institution together. At present, the Church of England is a broad church, because that is the only way it can provide a service for all who might need it. Remove that requirement, and you also remove any need for it to answer all comers.

There is nothing to stop those who believe in an all-male priesthood splitting from those who want to see women priests, the charismatics from the Anglo-Catholics, those who hold to the absolute truth of the virgin birth from those who see it in metaphorical terms. As an established church, the C of E's inclusiveness is a virtue; as a disestablished sect, it becomes a mortal weakness.

After disestablishment, England would gain a reinvigorated but disparate group of factionalised sects. It would lose a heritage in which the provision of the spiritual was considered an essential service in the community at large. It is a loss that may become apparent only when a careless generation has done away with it.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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