Ten more commandments: How to save the Anglican church

Twenty years ago, Anglicans believed its first female priests would reignite the Church of England. It never happened. Amid private infighting, public apathy and a resurgent Vatican, Peter Stanford draws up a rescue plan

Peter Stanford
Sunday 16 March 2014 01:00
Rev Richard Coles said that big bosses at the BBC would prefer him to drop the 'Rev' bit when announced on air, but he insists on retaining it
Rev Richard Coles said that big bosses at the BBC would prefer him to drop the 'Rev' bit when announced on air, but he insists on retaining it

New dawns in the Church of England come round with all the regularity of the liturgical seasons. So every new Archbishop of Canterbury is hailed as the one finally to solve the problems of dwindling congregations and doctrinal divisions, and every Lambeth Conference gathering of the 28 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion is held up as potentially reuniting and refocusing what has become little more than a loose association of peoples with only a passing interest of God in common. But the truth – or the Truth, as clerics like to write it – is that every epiphany never quite delivers, disappointment piles upon disappointment, and a slow decline continues.

The first ordination of female vicars in the Church of England, 20 years ago this month by the Bishop of Bristol, was arguably the most-hyped of these recent New Jerusalems. It came after a long, and bitter via dolorosa that caused a small but high-profile group of dissenters (Ann Widdecombe, John Gummer, Charles Moore) to decamp to Roman Catholicism. But the first pioneers of women's ordination were in no doubt that their Church was finally marching on the high road. "We are a people reformed, remade and renewed," proclaimed Katharine Rumens, ordained a priest in April 1994. "I look to the future with great excitement."

But yet again, this great reform hasn't quite lived up to its billing. Many of the problems of disunity remain, notably over what is essentially the same issue: women bishops. So how to save the Church of England from a slow drift into oblivion?

Having had a ringside seat at the events of the past two decades, and more broadly as a fellow traveller (albeit at one pew removed as a Catholic), who sees so much that is good and needed about our national church as its goes about its daily, non-headline-making parish life, here are a few suggestions – more 10 conversation-starters than 10 commandments – assembled with the help of Anglican friends.

1. Stop obsessing about sex and gender

In the gospels, the bedrock of Christianity, Jesus wastes no time at all worrying about sexual orientation or gender. It is clear that he likes and trusts women – so much so that he reveals himself first, after the Resurrection, to a woman. Follow his example: look out rather than in, and tell that minority of church- and synod-goers who insist on banging on about gay vicars or women prelates at every opportunity to get over it.

2. Pick on a subject that matters

Over in Catholicism, Pope Francis has achieved miracles in his first year in post at the head of a church arguably even more sex- and gender-obsessed by focusing remorselessly on what has become his mantra: "a poor church for the poor". With its parish churches in the heart of every deprived and marginalised community, the Church of England is just as well equipped to make the same claim.

3. Break that link with the state

There is, frankly, something slightly absurd about having the Queen as the head of the Church. Admirable as she is in every other way, she would be the first, I imagine, to admit her theological shortcomings and a disparity between her own life and that of the poor and needy. Her constitutional role as monarch prescribes her from offering anything other than symbolic leadership and polite interest, and the Church of England, in its current state, needs something more substantial to rally around.

4. Beef up the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury

There is much to be said for consensus and democracy, but churches tend to attract the most intransigent and narrow-minded, who dig their heels in to defend even the most bizarre prejudices as "God-given" and endorsed by the Old Testament. The time for reasonable persuasion is over. These backwoodsmen need someone to order them into line, and with the Queen gone, the Archbishop can have a last-resort, quasi-presidential power.

5. Treat the Anglican Communion as a religious equivalent of the Commonwealth

Postcolonial Britain has rebuilt its relationship with its former colonies within the loose but (generally) cordial structures of the Commonwealth. The Church of England should copy this model with the various branches of the Anglican Communion that, mostly, have their roots in our colonial past, and give up all trying and failing to sing from the same hymn sheet. It will free up the domestic church to be what it wants to be without looking fearfully over its shoulder as to how any reform will play with Anglicans in Nigeria, New Zealand or North America.

6. Offload the property empire

Another relic of the past are the huge, beautiful but chronically underused parish churches in many parts of Britain that take up so much of local Anglicans' energy to keep them going. The bill is crippling and the time they absorb could be so much better used in addressing real and urgent needs. The historic but little- used churches should be funded by the state, as part of our heritage.

7. Get out of state schools

While there are many Church of England primaries and secondaries doing great work with largely non-Christian pupils in unfashionable and blighted parts of the country, a smaller number of high-achieving ones has become the over-subscribed destination of choice for sharp-elbowed metropolitan agnostics. Given that the ins and outs of the Anglican faith seem to play so slight a role in such places, would it not be better to switch the emphasis of a religious upbringing to the home and parish?

8. Get some better PR (i)

Tom Hollander's small-screen portrayal of Adam Smallbone in BBC2's soon-to-return Rev may be comedy, but it dispels the cosy clichés of the Church of England propagated by TV characters from Derek Nimmo's Mervyn Noote to Dawn French's Vicar of Dibley by showing the social cement that the Church of England actually provides, far beyond church-going figures, in impossible conditions to straitened communities.

9. Get some better PR (ii)

As a masterclass in how to showcase the Church of England's unsung, unfrightening, undogmatic and ever-so-normal place at the heart of national life, you don't get much better than having the Rev Richard Coles every week on Radio 4, and not in the cringeworthy context of "Thought for the Day". He has said before, in this paper, that the big bosses at the BBC would prefer him to drop the "Rev" bit when announced on air, but his insistence on retaining it shows the sort of soft power the CofE could deploy more widely.

10. Get some better PR (iii)

Canonise Desmond Tutu. Anglicans don't go in for saint-making in the same way as their Orthodox or Catholic cousins, but surely an exception could be made in the case of the South African Laureate. He's so well loved and respected, yet many of his secular fans forget that he is an Anglican.

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