For this man hell is having to say what he believes in

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The Independent Online
"If Jesus Christ came back today, the Church of England's General Synod would crucify him" says Vijay Menon, an evangelical member of the Synod, which is meeting this week in York. Menon's group wants to restore "biblical standards" to the church.

The gap can never have been wider between what the Church of England actually believes, and what people outside it feel it ought to believe.

The debate on hell is a splendid example of these confusions. Very few people, and few of them European Christians, really believe in a lake of fire wherein the wicked are deep-fried for all eternity. The picture of a hell somewhere underground where people are tormented forever really nowadays appeals only to American fundamentalists, amongst whom it is a popular legend that a Russian drilling project broke through into hell somewhere near the Finnish border - but of course it was all hushed up by the Communists. The idea is almost as unlikely as God sitting on a throne in the skies with a long white beard.

Yet the Church of England does believe that God exists and that hell - or ultimate separation from God - exists too. Some of its cleverer members believe that these truths are concealed from the modern world because they come dressed in incredible pictures, like that of the lake of brimstone, or the old man in the clouds. So they write reports, which the Synod endorses, saying neither of these things need be taken literally.

Unfortunately, they lack any very convincing cartoon pictures to put in their place. If Hell is not about demons pitchforking back into the bitumen pits anyone who tries to climb out, then what is it about? And here the church has real trouble answering. Rwanda, Srebrenica or Auschwitz are nice pat answers, but for most of us experienced as something on television; and hell, whatever else it is, is worse than watching any possible television.

Hell is by definition worse than anything we can imagine. Only an artist of extraordinary genius can begin to suggest it - and there don't seem to be any of those writing reports for the Church of England these days. Fifty years ago, CS Lewis had a bash, with The Screwtape Letters. These are still extraordinarily vivid. But the doctrine commission could hardly republish them as a full systematic theology of hell.

This brings out a wider difficulty that the Church of England has when expressing its beliefs: because it is not a church with a single, defined catechism, like the Roman Catholics, and an officially promoted style of theology, it is more dependent on art than on logic. What it teaches has always been more powerfully expressed imaginatively than as a set of bald doctrinal propositions. At its best, Anglicanism could combine both forms, as in the Book of Common Prayer, which is both great art and great theology.

Unfortunately, for most people today it is also great nonsense. The churches that are growing, even those most rigorous in their theology, have almost abandoned the use of the book; and many of its most vociferous defenders think it valuable not because it is true, but because it is beautiful.

The classic defence of traditional liturgy and language elides the difference between art and theology: "If the King James version was good enough for St Paul, then it is good enough for me," said one legendary churchgoer, protesting against modern translations. But this sort of confidence depends on ignorance. It cannot survive the discovery that St Paul spoke no language that we understand.

The doctrine of God has run into similar difficulties. It is all very well to believe in Him - but to explain what this means or how it feels is far more difficult. Believers express their feelings not in the production or consumption of theological reports but in prayer, which does not sit easily in the public domain.

Once the pictures and art which had expressed this belief in former ages lost their force, for one reason or another, the belief itself did not lose coherence, but became much harder to communicate.

A mathematical physicist turned priest and theologian like Sir John Polkinghorne believes that God created heaven and earth just as firmly as Michaelangelo did, perhaps more so. But Michaelangelo's scientifically impossible frescos on the Sistine Chapel will have convinced far more people than Dr Polkinghorne's carefully argued books on God and science.

Then there is sex. All religions have traditionally been concerned with sex,not least because religious belief is in general something acquired within families. Religions that do not strengthen the social structures which transmit their doctrines will tend to die out irrespective of their truth.

Many of the fastest-declining religions in England today, such as the Methodists and the Roman Catholics, are clearly suffering from the erosion of their traditional sociological base as much as from any difficulties with their doctrines of sex. But the Church of England's difficulties with sex are exceptionally public and prolonged.

A report last year seemed to come to terms with cohabitation as a substitute for marriage - and was furiously attacked by one member of the committee responsible for producing it, Dr Alan Storkey.

Over the weekend, Dr Storkey's wife Elaine, giggling artlessly, said on television what most evangelicals think too obvious to be worth saying: that the divorce of the Prince of Wales is an embarrassment to the church; and that this embarrassment will be redoubled if he ever remarries. The point is that Mrs Storkey's instincts are very much those of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey; and it is generally assumed that what she says, he thinks but would never dare to say.

As a church whose ministers are legally obliged to marry almost everyone who presents themselves demanding this service, the Church of England is caught in an appalling dilemma here. If it turns away the ungodly, it loses a chance to reach them and reduces its justification for being regarded as the church of the nation. If it accepts them, it accepts also that it will dwindle away to a sort of English Spiritual Heritage, especially in the countryside.

These problems are hard enough to deal with, but at least they are heterosexual. On the issue of homosexuality things are even worse. In many parts of the church, homosexuals of any sort are invisible. In some places they are almost the norm and have been accepted for decades. What is almost impossible for the church to do is to have a policy which will work in both sorts of parishes.

None of these problems are new. Disputes about the nature of God, hell, and the afterlife were far more pressing and bitter in the years around the First World War. But they were private then. They were fought out among bishops and theologians, and if a result was ever reached, it was done so by undemocratic means.

The General Synod has changed all that and turned the formation of doctrine in the Church of England into a spectator sport. Twice a year, sometimes three times a year, there are votes on sensitive and interesting subjects. Each vote will generate a story about what "The Church of England" thinks. Each story in turn will generate any number of articles about what the Church of England ought to believe.

There are other biases built into the system that make its proceedings shocking to the general, non-church-going classes. Because it is elected by an arcane and indirect process, the Synod's members represent the section of the church which is fondest of committees and - it often seems - least in contact with the outside world. Synod members, by and large, read broadsheet papers and have no idea of the impression that their deliberations make on people who do not.

Because the Synod is a democratic body, riven by deeply held dissension, it develops sexual policies erratically, so the church's official position moves, like a firecracker, in a series of random leaps punctuated by loud explosions. All the large churches are split on all the issues that divide the Church of England. But the others do not make a public spectacle of the fact.

For all its frustrations and inefficiencies, there is something noble and endearing about this enterprise. "We shall talk about the truth and the truth shall set you free" is not quite as snappy a motto as it might be, but it is not bad. However, its time is limited. The Synod's position is the result of an historical oddity. It exists, and gains its national position, from the fact that it does the work of the establishment that Parliament cannot be bothered with. If the establishment goes, the Synod will be changed beyond recognition. And there are processes hastening this end.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, is determined to give the church a central government, which could provide the kind of single- minded long-term leadership that the Synod conspicuously can't. He is not a man to be gladdened by the endless attacks on the Church of England for waffling and temporising, perhaps because he sympathises with some of them.

His proposed solution is a drastic one: to set up a single central committee which will control the income of the church commissioners as well as the agenda of the Synod. This has run foul of Parliament, which considers that the church commissioners are a parliamentary charity. The struggle over that may well lead to full disestablishment - and though the Church of England may then find it has a clear and biblical line on all the important questions, it may also discover that no one cares.