Andreas Whittam Smith: We must keep the links between Church and State

‘Establishment’ helps explain high attendances on Christmas Day.

Friday 26 December 2008 01:00

A lot of people went to church yesterday. About three million of them will have been attending a service in the Church of England – yes, the Church of England with its special status, "by law established", with the Sovereign as its Supreme Governor, whose bishops are appointed by the Queen acting on recommendations forwarded to her by the Prime Minister's office.

It was the State Church at its best. Indeed one must keep the success of Christmas in mind alongside the other image that the Church's critics like to paint: tiny congregations in obscure country churches each week, the worshippers old and mainly female.

As a matter of fact, I believe that "establishment" will have had something to do with the good attendance on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Not because of the little known aspects of establishment – that, for example, the senior bishops of the Church of England sit in the House of Lords by right, or that its National Synod can legislate for the Church, subject only to the Ecclesiastical Committee of the House of Commons findings its measures "expedient" or that the Church Commissioners, of which I am one, are a Parliamentary creation.

No, the crucial factor is that establishment is understood as imposing on the Church of England, on its clergy and lay people alike, parish by parish, a duty towards the entire population regardless of whether they formally belong to the Church of England or not. As Rowan Williams's wartime predecessor, Archbishop Temple, said: "The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members." Somehow people understand that.

Another reason for the Christmas crowds is that the Church of England is hard to miss. It still possesses more than 16,000 churches, over three-quarters of which are listed for their special architectural or historic interest. And when the roof must be repaired, or the ancient tower propped up, even local people who rarely attend services are quite prepared to contribute to appeals for funds. The community literally cares for the fabric of its old church. It is not a big step, then, also to turn up on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

The Church's ministers, too, are numerous. Of course clergy numbers have been declining and bishops are worried about the trends. Nonetheless the Church of England still musters some 20,000 clergy and other ministers. This is one for every 2,500 people in England. In addition it supplies 1,600 chaplains to prisons, hospitals and the armed services. Some 7,000 retired clergy help out when they can. And each year about 600 men and women enter training for the priesthood.

Make of these numbers what you will, but the key characteristic of this labour force for me is that clergy live where they work. They are never commuters. They don't drive out from posh villages or suburbs to work in inner cities. They are always present. I have visited clergy living in streets where the next-door properties are boarded up. Again I think the sheer scale of this deployment and its ubiquity help to explain why so many people attend the big festivals.

The Church of England is its parishes and its vicars, but it is also its cathedrals. In terms of attendance, cathedrals are expanding It is likely, for instance, that Canterbury Cathedral, St Paul's in London, York Minster and the cathedrals in Norwich and St Albans will each have attracted some 5,000 adults, young people and children to services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Last Saturday, for instance, St Albans Cathedral held 30-minute carol services every hour on the hour from 11 am to 4 pm to provide for people who found they couldn't get into the regular carol services because they were too full.

The attraction of cathedrals for casual worshippers goes beyond exceptional architecture, beautiful music and services strictly conducted. What people also seem to like is the very anonymity of the cathedral congregation. Nobody will especially welcome them or ask where they live. There is no risk of being asked to do something. The truth is that some visitors don't wish to be affably greeted and invited in; they just wish to go on being, well, strangers. And in cathedrals, they can do just that.

These three million worshippers will have sung the hymns that many people know almost by heart and settled down to listen to the Bible readings appointed for the day. And will they have experienced the same shock that I always do when I hear the opening sentence of St John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"? There was something to think about for the rest of the day.

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