A Close Encounter with the Church of England
For someone like me, born and raised in middle England, the Anglican Church is a familiar feature of the national landscape. Its church spires rise above villages and towns. Ruined abbeys stand among well-tended lawns, testaments to the upheaval that accompanied its birth. Bells ring out on Sundays, calling the rural faithful to prayer.
Its leaders are part of the fabric of establishment – presiding over the weddings and funerals of the great, popping up now and again to comment on matters of national importance.
Its lower orders toil away, shepherding diminishing flocks. Parishes no longer able to sustain themselves merge with others. Churches are de-consecrated, vicarages sold to stockbrokers.
The Church is mocked by the media when its priests misbehave – usually in affairs of the heart. TV shows like The Vicar of Dibley and All Gas and Gaiters portray the Anglican clergy as eccentric figures of fun in a world seemingly far apart from the gritty reality of modern Britain. Alan Bennett’s sermon in Beyond the Fringe brilliantly captured the sense of separation that many of us felt from the religious establishment in the Sixties. Perhaps because of the Church’s status as part of the establishment, the mockery is relatively gentle – less savage than the Irish sitcom Father Ted.
My own family, mainly on my mother’s side, is dotted with clergy. A cousin here, a great-uncle there. My great-grandfather’s parish was in Liverpool, just a stone’s throw away from Anfield, the home of Liverpool Football Club. My mother was born in his vicarage. My grandmother married a vicar after losing my grandfather. My great-aunt, a gentle primary school teacher, was so enamoured with the clergy that a standing family joke was to pipe up in her joyous tones whenever one of us spotted a a man of the cloth on our travels.
When I was a child, the clergy seemed to exemplify the phrase in the children’s prayer: “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. Meek and mild, forever suppressing the red-blooded side of their nature. As I grew up, I came to see them as emasculated, anaemic. No passion – anger, greed, joy or envy. And ultimately irrelevant.
I was confirmed in the Church at the age of sixteen, and from that point onwards, as soon as I was no longer compelled to do so, my visits to church were confined to wedding and funerals, along with the occasional Christmas service for the sake of appearances.
Those clergymen – for there were no women priests in those days – and lay Christians who caught my attention were not the members of the clerical establishment. Not the bishops and archbishops, but the mavericks and the brave. Canon Collins, who founded War on Want and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Terry Waite, who was rewarded for his efforts to free Hezbollah’s hostages in Lebanon by being kidnapped and imprisoned himself.
I never divorced myself from the Church of England. Like so many others of my generation, I just drifted away. Yet it stayed in my heart because its place in our history and its role in the evolution of the England I am a part of today. I still love churches – the stained glass windows, the soaring ceilings, the mystery of what might lie behind the whitewashed walls, or underneath the stone floors. I spend time in graveyards looking for insights into the communities in which the dead were buried. I am deeply moved by church music and the grand rituals of faith, even if the small print leaves me cold.
For me, religion is about emotion, not logic. Yet I find it hard to be swept up in communal feeling. My emotion is a very personal thing, not to be released in an incontinent outpouring, even if I allow myself the occasional burst of fury at my incompetence on the golf course. For this reason, organised religion doesn’t sit well with me, just as I prefer to watch football on TV in my own company, rather on the terraces, swept along by communal joy, anger or frustration.
But worship in the Anglican Church is far from incontinent, unless we’re talking about the evangelical, tongue-speaking wing. Even expressions of grief at funerals are understated – discreet tears forcing their way through the formality. George Osborne’s tears at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral caught the attention of the media only because his visual emotion was an exception from the sombre masks adopted by his neighbours.
My world over the past five years has been the Middle East. I have been living in a Muslim country, where funeral processions are mass outpourings of emotional energy. Where imams weep from the pulpit, and the sounds broadcast from the mosques range from harsh, barking instructions to grief-laden keening. Where communality is all, even though one community is set against the next because of ideological and doctrinal discord. Where people pray together in homes, streets, offices and roadsides, not merely in the buildings set aside for them. And where believers consider themselves free from the organisation that binds the Christian churches, yet cannot resist the temptation to create structures and hierarchies, since to do so is a universal human instinct.
So it was an interesting contrast to revisit the understated Anglican rites at Bristol Cathedral this Sunday. All the more so because it was an event I had never attended before. An ordination ceremony – in which new priests are formally accepted into the Church – is a curious hybrid of public worship and the Church attending to its internal business – the creation of a new cadre of priests to minister to the faithful.
We were there to welcome another member of my family to the priesthood. My sister, who has spent her life attending to the sick as a family doctor, was one of ten new priests being ordained. So now she is officially licensed to tend both to our physical and spiritual needs.
The service was probably the longest Anglican ceremony I have ever attended – two hours. The cathedral was thronged – the congregation was probably swelled by the presence of friends and families of the new priests.
As you would expect, the established church was there in force. Two bishops, two archdeacons, a host of priests and a gentleman with a lawyer’s wig whose role I never discovered all entered in procession, led by a fearsome looking lady in black vestments and what appeared to be a form of mace.
The niceties of hierarchy were there in subtle as well as obvious ways. The senior bishop was the centre of attention, to whom all deferred. He even wore a mitre slightly longer than that of his junior colleague.
There were prayers, motets (sung by a cathedral choir that curiously broke the grand tradition of including boys for the upper register), hymns and the rituals of ordination. The sermon was on the theme of the disciple St Matthew, who gave up a lucrative career as a tax collector to answer the call from Jesus. Very appropriate considering the number of ordinands who were entering the clergy late in life after other careers, yet full of vernacular expressions that sat a little awkwardly within the sermon, as if the archdeacon who delivered them felt that she needed to use “modern language”, perhaps against her better instincts. A faint echo of Alan Bennett.
The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Rev Mike Hill, was a calm and authoritative figure, his demeanour fully reflecting his place high in the Anglican pecking order. He bore a disconcerting resemblance to the comedian Harry Hill, although as far as I’m aware they are not related. His use of the shortened version of his first name suggested an intentional informality that might have caused the formidable archbishops of old to raise their shaggy eyebrows.
As the service went on – so well-oiled and rehearsed that even the small children seemed lulled into silence – my mind drifted into the minutiae of the doctrine. I couldn’t help thinking about the violent birth of the church that spawned these well-crafted words of ritual. Of Henry VIII, of Archbishop Cranmer and other “martyrs” burned at the stake. Of monasteries stripped of their treasures and reduced to rubble. Of Catholic priests hiding in holes. Of persecution and exclusion, wars and rebellions, all in the name of faiths whose DNA differs less than that of the average brother and sister.
Anglicans may argue between themselves about whether women should be priests, let alone bishops, and whether homosexuality is a sin. Yet by and large these days it’s a discussion with words, not weapons.
Their predecessors fought to the death about the wording of the Common Prayer Book – the work of man, but those becoming priests are asked to “accept the Holy Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ”.
But what are these holy scriptures? The Anglican Church worships with many bibles, as my sister pointed out. And what we read in English comes to us from a mishmash of sources and through the lens of translation – from Aramaic, Greek and Latin. Each version is subject to the translator’s interpretation, as I learned at school when I translated the Gospel of St Michael from the original Greek and compared the sense with that of the King James Bible.
So are the scriptures priests are asked to accept the translations or the source? And how can we be sure that what we understand to be the source actually is the source – be it divinely received or the invention of man?
No doubt the seminaries have all the answers to these questions, but for ordinary souls like me they are an unsolved mystery.
Perhaps because of the uncertain origins of its scriptures and the malleability of its ritual, the Anglican Church seems to me like a smooth stone, rounded by centuries of qualification and compromise. Whereas Islam is like a jagged rock, seemingly in the same form as when it was hewn from a cliff face.
Muslims believe that the Holy Quran is the pristine and complete word of God, received over a lifetime by his prophet. No translation of the Quran is accepted as representing the original, so believers constantly refer to the source for inspiration and direction as to how to live their lives.
Even though more than a thousand years of scholarship have produced a secondary scripture – the Hadith – based on the reported words and deeds of the Prophet, the Quran remains the bedrock of Islam, for all its inconsistencies and untranslatable language. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, with no compromise, if the Quran clearly states so.
Today, if I was a Muslim and I questioned the fundamentals of Islam, as a minimum I would be subject to disapproval and abuse, and in some parts of the world imprisonment and even death through vigilante attack. If I renounced Islam, I would be condemned as an apostate and, according to some believers, subject to the ultimate punishment.
The Church of England, on the other hand, no longer has heretics, merely people who disagree. And those who disagree with the essentials of the Anglican faith are free to part company without being hounded to death by state or vigilante.
Yet in many countries, Christian as well as Muslim, the concept of blasphemy is alive and well, and I for one am glad to be associated, even distantly, with a church that does not seek to physically punish people for what they believe. I am also happy to look upon many Muslims as friends because I know that they in their hearts do not believe in coercion and persecution, and nor do they accept such practices as part of their Islam.
After the ordination ceremony, I met a number of my sister’s new colleagues. I was impressed by their open-mindedness and humour. These were strong people not afraid to express their opinions, far from the anaemic ditherers often portrayed in the media.
I’m sure it’s significant that the Church recruits many of its priests from other walks in life, and that ordained ministers tend to continue their existing careers while giving time and effort to their communities on a voluntary basis. Even the two bishops, who are paid for their work, came to the Church from other occupations. And the current Archbishop of Canterbury was a successful oil company executive before answering the call.
Our career politicians should take note.
But despite this fascinating look at the inner workings of the Church of England, I can’t see myself returning to the fold in any meaningful way. Christian values remain embedded in my make-up, but I still can’t reconcile myself to being part of an organised religion.
That said, I have gained a new respect for England’s established church, and I would hate to see it fade into obscurity. At the risk of sounding patronising, which is not my intention, the Anglican community is a force for the good, and my country would be diminished without its heritage, traditions and the efforts of its ministers.