The State We’re In

Some profound wisdom this morning from Vic.


Once upon a time there were some pointyheads (aka bishops) who realised that less people were coming to their churches and playing with them and God. They looked at the falling numbers of those who came to their CofE churches and started asking people what they didn’t like about them and what they were doing. “If we know what the people don’t like we can change what we do and then they will all come again and we will all be happy,” they thought to themselves.

So they asked and the people’s response was that the church didn’t treat women well, the pointyhats and the members of the churches were all misogynists and they, the general public, didn’t like this at all.

“I know what we’ll do,” said the senior pointyhead, “We’ll ordain women!’ So they went out and told all the people who didn’t come to church, “Look at us, we support women’s ministry – they’re equal (or perhaps more than equal even)!” The people stopped and looked at the church and saw that this was indeed the case, but still they didn’t come and not only that, but many of the people who used to come stopped coming as well. This made senior pointyhead and his friends very, very sad indeed, after all they’d done what everyone wanted and now even less people were coming. What could they do?

They went back to the people who didn’t come to their houses and play and cried out, “Why, oh why aren’t you coming to church? What is it that you don’t like?” “We don’t like the way you discriminate against gays,” cried the world. So the pointyheads decided to rewrite two thousand years of Christian practice and ignore four thousand years of combined Judeo-Christian teaching and understanding because if they did, then surely they’d all flock back to church and everyone could be happy again and the parish shares would be paid up and God would be happy about everything, wouldn’t he?

So it came to pass that senior clergy could be seen in civil partnerships and the bishops would even vote that ‘gay marriage’ in the form of blessing civil partnerships could take place in church buildings and then everyone would be happy, after all, there was nothing different in the church from everything that was going on outside it in the world. What on earth could there be to make the world uneasy now – what a great move forward to promoting church as ‘safe’ and ‘acceptable’ so that people would come and play again.

But instead, even more people who used to come to church left and still the world did not come and play. The buildings were even more empty and the church looked even less relevant to the point that people who were really clever and lived in wonderful Ivory towers in a land called ‘Academe’ spoke of living in a ‘post Christian age’.

Sadly, as the church building became carpet warehouses and heritage centres, the senior pointyhead went out and asked the people outside the Canterbury heritage centre a question in one final attempt to understand what had happened. “We ordained women, we ordained homosexuals and even blessed what they did. We changed everything you told us you didn’t like and yet you still didn’t come. Why?”

The world looked at the poor forlorn figure and answered him, “We never intended to come! You merely asked us what we didn’t like and we told you! Anyway, what does the church have to offer that the world doesn’t? The church has worked so hard to look like us, why do we need to come in to experience what we already have, what do you have that’s any different?”

Then, sadly, the senior pointyhead understood.

26 Comments on “The State We’re In

  1. I think that this piece is very interested in its assumptions. Firstly, it assumes that getting churches full is a priority of the bishops, particularly those of a so called revisionist position. Secondly, it seems to suggest that there was a time when people were going to church in huge numbers, and also a time when the church was not accomodating itself to the culture as it is now. Thirdly, that filling the churches might be a good thing – interesting in the light of 'the road to the kingdom is narrow, and there are few upon it.' Fourthly, that the ordination of women and gay clergy was motivated by trying to get people to church – it would be interesting to see if these motives are in evidence in synodical debates on these matters. Fifthly, that women's ordination and the issue of homosexuality should be linked together – a lot of succesful and full evangelical churches would argue about this one. Interesting assumptions, but they do say alot about the writer, and very little about the reality of these issues on the ground.

  2. >>>She'd rung to tell me that she wanted me to tell the bishop that should they ever conduct a 'gay wedding' in the parish church then she'd not only never enter the building again but she'd remove the bequest (£xxk) from her will as well.

    And this person – and the ideology suggested – is supposedly on the side of the angels? Just because some evangelicals are willing to use the bullying "do what we want or we'll take our middle/upper class wealth elsewhere" tactic hardly that hardly means, as the article argues, female/gay inclusion resulted from a similarly worldly 'fill the pews' agenda. Are we do to bemoan the fact that the church is (generally) not as misogynistic and antisemitic as it used to be? Especially as Sola Scriptura Prayer Book traditional evangelicals don't (by definition) believe in theMagisterium or similar concepts? That the world was more enlightened than the church on these issues should be cause for self-examination in the latter. And the gay/female liberal boogeyman is unrrealistic; modern evangelical churches, in my experience, are often quite pro-feminist (certainly not opposed to female ordination per se – and I've heard "Paul was a feminist!" justifications more than a few times). It would be cynical to say this results from professional women being part of the evangelical target audience, whereas gays are not. But no more cynical – and possibly more true – than the article you cite.

  3. Peter I find your analysis really rather troubling and unreflective about the Church and society. It rather lacks any Christian (or other) maturity.
    I wonder if you saw Diarmaid Maculloch's 'History of Christianity'? Or if you have read the book? I commend both to you for a more mature reflection of the state we are in. But I suspect the C of E is not a church you are ever going to feel very at home in.

  4. It's not my analysis, it's Vic's story. FWIW though, I think you're living in a liberal bubble if you think that the majority of the unchurched are in any way interested in revisionist theology.

    • Actually Peter you called Vic's story 'profound widom'. That sounds like analysis to me.
      You failed to answer my question.
      And if you think the unchurched are in any way interested in ANY theology as such, then you are living in a very strange bubble indeed!

  5. So now what is my analysis? The story itself or my describing it as "profound wisdom"? The point remains (and you admit it yourself) – attempts to pander to society's mores in the disguise of "mission" do not and will not work.

    Unless of course you believe that propounding whatever society wants is actually effective mission?

  6. And meanwhile the Roman Catholic Church didn’t make the same mistakes as the jolly old C of E. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office of the Inquisition) issued repeated statements that the Church neither would nor could ever ordain women, because Jesus had never ordained women and that proved that female priests were simply an impossibility, didn’t it? (There was, of course, the question whether Jesus had ever actually ordained anyone, but they didn’t go into that.)

    But attendance at Mass continued to fall.

  7. As for gays, the Prefect of the CDF (a position formerly known as that of Grand Inquisitor), who was later to become Pope, really cracked the whip. He issued a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” reiterating that homosexuality was an “intrinsically disordered condition” and that “a person engaging in homosexual activity therefore acts immorally” no matter what the circumstances. Later he issued further statements condemning civil laws protecting gays from discrimination in employment and giving legal recognition to gay relationships, even if they weren’t called marriages.

    And attendance at Mass still continued to fall.

  8. Describing the story as 'profound wisdom' is an analysis of the story.
    I asked if you had read or seen Maculloch's (rather more mature) analysis of the 'state we are in', and what your analysis of that was. Society clearly does not want the kind of 'Mission' that the story you so admire might espouse, else the writer might have a different and rather positive story to tell.

    • Yes, I've seen Maculloch's TV series. First five programmes excellent, number 6 a bit of a liberal polemic towards the end – shame he didn't interview anybody who disagreed with his perspective, but then that would have ruined his point wouldn't it?

      • His point was an historical analysis of Christianity and the state we are in. I commend the book to you.
        Maybe the story that you think exhibits 'profound wisdom' would also have been better if it had had the perspective of somebody who disagreed – George Carey, who was so enthusiastic about the ordination of women for instance.

  9. William is right.
    I do know a fair number of people, some of them with a very strong faith, who have left the church because they are disillusioned with its exclusion of women and gays. I am sure there are also people who have left the church because they see it as increasingly liberal. There are also people who have left just because they see that we are constantly at loggerheads.

    Perhaps we should split into liberal and orthodox Christianity – as in Judaism, then we can reach those of our thinking?

    I still have this hunch though that the churches still wouldn't be full.

    In order to fill churches we have to communicate the gospel message of hope and salvation in ways that are relevant to people. They have to know that we have good news. Do they know that? Do they believe it when they see our lives? Do they know that we are Christ'sdisciples because of our love for each other?

    This is the real challenge we face!

  10. It is also worth noting in response to this 'story' that the senior 'pointy hat' who was so enthusiastic about ordaining women was George Carey – an evangelical and by no means a liberal.

  11. I'm risking merely flaunting my ignorance here – but I think Winston has a point when he says that Vic's piece is revealing about its own assumptions. Frankly I think it's questionable how much truth there is in telling the story of either the ordination of women, or of the 'gay debate' (for shorthand's sake), in this way.

    In the case of homosexuality, it's a very recent thing indeed for anyone in 'the world' to lament to the church, "we don't like the way you discriminate against gays" – and by very recent I mean within the last 15 years or even less. Little over 20 years back (1987) The Sun ran the headline, 'Pulpit poofs can stay' after general synod debated Tony Higton's motion on homosexuality – the implication presumably being that the 'poofs' in question should have been expelled. That could be seen as one expression of a view some say dates back to Chaucer – that the church was too soft on 'sodomites' (or whatever the word should be). Being a Catholic (or Anglo-Catholic) priest was, until pretty recently, a safe place for men to be gay when 'the world' was much less safe. I'd suggest that a truer way to tell the tale would include the suggestion that the closet has collapsed much more quickly in the world than in the church – hence the recent accusations of discrimination.

    in friendship, Blair

    • The assumption in the story about churches led by ordained women is another that is troubling. Probably the fastest growing church in our diocese has a woman priest leading it. It has grown so fast as to outgrow the current building.

  12. William – your points about the Roman Church are spot on! In Spain and Italy, mass attendance continues to fall while the Church continues to remain loyal to the traditional position – this negates Vic's piece totally!! He needs to study a little bit more sociology of religion before he makes his simplistic assertions. His description of the bishops is also so lacking in a traditional understanding of Christian charity – maybe, he needs to take a look at the biblical understanding of Christian charity.

    • Winston, my experience agrees completely with yours, at least as regards Italy. (I know nothing of Spain.) In the cathedral in Florence, except on special feasts, the principal Sunday Mass is generally celebrated in one of the large side-chapels, the congregation not being large enough for the nave.

      In Naples, a traditionally more Catholic city, attendance is somewhat higher, and some churches are better attended than others, but I have yet to find one even near to being full, with the exception of the Cathedral during the summer months, when a Mass is held each Sunday at which hundreds are confirmed. On these occasions it is plain from the behaviour of the people and from the precentor’s continual explanations and admonitions (e.g. “This is the prayer of Consecration now; we all kneel for this”; “After being confirmed you return to your places; you don’t go outside onto the steps to smoke a fag”) that most of them are simply not used to being in church, and that Confirmation is being used as some kind of “rite of passage” with quaint religious overtones.

  13. I think it's obvious that this story is not making claims about the rightness or wrongness of ordaining women or blessing same sex relationships, but deals with the processes behind those decisions. As Christ's church, our priority is to do what God wills, not what society wills. As the author points out, in an engaging fairy-tale ('parable') style, this order often seems to be reversed.

    It's an old proverb which still stands today, "the end does not justify the means'. Wherever we stand on the issues quoted, we must ensure that our processes are filled with Godly integrity.

    • I suspect that if the author (or the blog owner here who thought it was 'profound wisdom') actually did agree with the rightness of ordaining women or blessing same sex relationships, they would perceive that the very very lengthy process of deciding to ordain women was a process that allowed the holy spirit to work through the an institution. What other process could there be for making such a decision?
      And the 'story' seems to be about church decline, rather than about processes. and because it doesn't properly analyse the real reasons for these things, it really doesn't work as a story. It's a parable that misses the mark really rather widely.
      If you would like some good analysis of church growth and decline across the world in the 21st century, Diarmaid Maculloch's book is an excellent place to look.

  14. Oh yes, I was forgetting. There is one other exception in Naples, and that’s when they hold the regular ceremony in the Cathedral at which that rather dubious miracle takes place, viz. the liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro, the Patron Saint of Naples and Campania.

    The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, who also refuse to “pander to the world” seem to have some success in Italy, but “conversions” are often transient: after a few months, in many cases, “La Torre di Guardia” and “Il Libro di Mormone” somehow find their way safely into the large, black plastic bags that are put out into the street for the nightly rubbish collection.

  15. Actually, it seems to me that the real moral of this story is woe betide the pointyhead who rattles the bars of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’s comfy little cage.

    Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells attends an Anglican Church near you. He sings “All Things Bright And Beautiful” with gusto ev’ry Sunday. ‘Speshly the third verse. You know the one I mean: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.” Oh and the lesser known fourth verse too: “A pox on poofs and women, they’re all such dreadful bores, let’s kick them out of our church, and lock the bloody doors”…

    Problem is that the pointyheads no longer listen to Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. They’ve actually started to read their bibles and thrown open their church doors with a blanket invitation to everyone to come on in. Everyone. The rag-tag and bobtail, the rabble and even the riff-raff. Most aren’t interested, but to Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’s horror one or two poofs and feminists, drug addicts and foreigners have wandered in and sat down. They’ll be off again as soon as they realise just how subhuman the pointyheads’ theology makes them, but poor old Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells doesn’t realise this. He thinks they’re there to stay. So he has a fit of apoplexy, turns purple, threatens divine retribution and the seven plagues of Egypt on the poor old pointyheads and flounces out of church in a state of high dudgeon.

    Drawing rooms up and down the land are full of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and his friends and hangers-on, all nursing a sense of grievance against the pointyheads for letting the rabble in and ruining it all. Meanwhile, having grown heartily sick of being treated with condescending, nauseating pity, the rabble has scarpered never to be seen again. So the pointyheads sit in their empty churches and wonder where it all went wrong.

    And that’s what happens when you rattle the cage of the Lord’s anointed. But there’s a solution. All the pointyheads have to do is bend the knee and make a proper display of chastened pride to Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and he’ll gladly come back. And everything will be as it was before.

    In the cloud cuckoo land that is the Church of England, of course…



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