Tolerating the intolerant: John Whale on why the Church of England likes to say yes

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THE ordination of 32 women in Bristol Cathedral yesterday will no doubt be used by the critics of the Church of England as another occasion for public scorn. The charges against it abound: it teaches no fixed doctrine; it permits and even fosters division; and it is less efficient than other churches in meeting its costs. All these charges are true. They show that the Church of England is doing the job it is meant to do.

True to what it believes to be the nature of God, it opens its arms wide. Within 10 minutes' walk for most town-dwellers, in every suburb, on most housing estates, in nearly every village, it keeps a building going, a sign that God has been found trustworthy in this place. In those buildings, at set times, it receives all comers. In particular, and on easy conditions, it receives them at the emotional peaks of their lives: after births, for marriages, in bereavement. This is the Church for people who rarely go to church and yet need a church to be there, to speak to them of altruism and forgiveness, of the possibility of understanding evil and death, when they are in a mood to hear. That its regular congregations are diminishing is beside the point. So are the numbers pulled in by other denominations and other gathered pursuits, such as political rallies, union meetings and football matches.

This universalism means that the Church of England accepts religious uncertainty. Most people in England nourish a few Christian ideas; few church-going Christians hold a coherent set of them firmly. These uncertainties are well based. Christianity has been open to irresolvable differences from the first. There is a tension between the first three Gospels on one side, and the fourth Gospel and St Paul on the other, about who Jesus was and what he thought about himself. There is a tension between Bible and Church as the source of authority. All religious belief deals in the end with the unprovable. 'We have but faith: we cannot know; For knowledge is of things we see.' To suppose that any one body of religious thought has all the answers right strains credulity. The Pope may get to Heaven and discover that he and his Church have been bang right all along; but so may Tony Higton, the Essex rector who bases equal and opposite certainties on scripture; and so may neither of them. Fixed doctrine excludes; the acknowledgement of uncertainty includes.

The Church of England encompasses Anglo-Catholic clergy with a high doctrine of the Church, and Evangelical clergy with a low. That is what it was set up by Elizabeth I at the end of the 16th century to do: to span both pre-Reformation and Reformation believers; to be the Church of the whole nation. Of the first group, it never held the loyal Romanists, and of the second it began to lose the hard sola scriptura people within a century; and between the clergy of both groups who stayed, the struggle for dominance has persisted. But the main body has seen the importance and rightness of comprehensiveness, of including as many kinds of believer as possible.

The dispute over whether it can admit women as priests has been the most public test of the Church's comprehensiveness. It has come out well. The bishops have been at pains to make sure that people on the losing side should still have their views honoured as falling well within the range of defensible belief, and should be cared for by bishops they could trust. It has shown itself to be a Church that acknowledges independent thought, permits dissent, and manages disagreement. There are plenty of people inside it who wish this were not so, and would like the Church to think only as they do; but they too are accepted. It contrives to tolerate even intolerance.

But the obligation to be everywhere, and to be the Church of everyone who belongs to no other, is expensive. The Church of England is reproached for being unlike other denominations in not paying the whole of its own salary bill: two-fifths is paid by the Church Commissioners out of historic endowments. (The proportion is to decline over the next three years to one-fifth.) But every church kept open costs money in staff, however thinly provided. The one economically comfortable course would be to serve only those places where there was a regular congregation of fair size. Other denominations are able to do that precisely because the Church of England chooses not to. Financial efficiency is very difficult to square with universal provision.

Thousands of valuable buildings are maintained, most of them medieval. Contributions come from the state, and business, and tourism; but the chief burden of care falls on the cleric in charge of the building, and on the regular worshippers there.

Besides all that, the Church of England is a huge philanthropic force. Most of its fundraising is for causes outside itself. In the past six years the Church Urban Fund has raised more than pounds 20m from Church of England churchgoers for schemes designed to make life better for people who live in depressed city neighbourhoods or on run-down housing estates.

Christianity is a religion of love. By precept and example, its founder commended the ideals of service, of humility, of valuing all human beings at the same high level; of self-giving. Like every Christian denomination, the Church of England lives in the light of that standard. Since people are human, it gets a lot wrong. It can nevertheless claim to be a paradigm, however imperfect, of the love shown by the God it tries to serve.

The writer is the editor of the 'Church Times'.

(Photograph omitted)