The AA is frequently referred to as the fourth protective agency, and it is no surprise when the fourth arm of the Establishment – the Church of England – gets into a spot of trouble the call goes out for some ropes and a recovery van to drag it back onto the road.
Such is the analysis published this week from the pen of the Professor Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology in Religion at Lancaster University. Published this week in the Church of England’s version of the ‘thunderer’ ‘the Church Times’, Professor Linda points out that when cars fall into ditches it is sometimes useful to consider some of the wider reasons that the car dropped off the road in the first place. Was it anything to do with driver error? How had the road conditions contributed to the slippage, and was there any particular challenge with the route taken which could have contributed to the disaster?
Professor Woodhouse committed herself last week to the Herculean task of analysing three new reports, Developing Discipleship, Simplification and Resourcing the Future, emanating from the Church of England via various committees set up to address challenges in finances, organisational efficiency and customer outreach for this increasingly beleaguered institution. She writes:
The reports are resolutely practical and pragmatic. They want action, and they want it now. The report Simplification, for example, makes a plucky start in cutting ecclesiastical red tape. Along the way, it offers the delightful admission that “the culture of the Church of England in framing legislation over a number of years has been predicated on building in safeguards for all possible eventualities.”
Not surprisingly, a mild sense of panic leaks out of all the reports. I imagined Archbishops standing in the road shouting: “The car is stuck in a ditch! Quick! Grab the tools nearest to hand and get it out!” But, the more I read, the more I worried that the hard questions that needed to be asked had been sidelined: why the vehicle fell into the ditch; whether it needed a different engine and new running gear; and whether it was going in the right direction in the first place.
The failure to get to grips with the terrain is particularly apparent. It is said of the society of which the Church is part that it is a “secularised, materialistic culture, often experienced as a desert for the soul”, “built on the . . . presumption that I get to make my life up”. This is a troublingly paranoid and unevidenced projection, and it urgently needs to be married to the existing research on cultural values, social change, and the reasons for church decline which could inform it.
The words paranoid and unevidenced projection are strong meat for any critical review and particularly for those who have found themselves in a long slow skid which has irrevocably landed them in a ditch, with their back wheels spinning.
As some online commentators have added – ‘its time to wake up and smell the coffee’ – but many of the chauffeurs responsible for driving this old Bentley of a thoroughly English institution are still in an apparent state of shock, and appear not to have absorbed the contemporary societal signs announcing full blooded inclusion pursuant to changes in legislation on sexuality and equal rights over the last fifteen years, nor seemingly aware of the profound changes to the Highway ethical, civil society, variegated values and Human Rights code which have occurred during their watch. As a result like the driver in the picture below they have driven straight into a flooded road, watching the signs for a low lying bridge, but ignoring the risks of rising water to cut their engine.
The response of some Bishops on line have accussed Professor Woodhead of ‘perpetuating the sad old faded liberal vision’ in response to her concerns about the Church of England having been slipping down the hill towards congregationalism, away from the vision of societal engagement and vital interaction with civil society which has justified its ongoing incorporation in the State as an established church with 26 prelates entitled to sit in the House of Lord. A position which those of us who desire a vital engagement with the society in which it is set is well articulated by Archbishop William Temple in his 1942 series of lectures realised in the book Christianity and Social Order, which set out an Anglican social theology and a vision for what would constitute a just and more equality driven post-war society.
Professor Woodhead has been undertaking a series of conversations on the state of the Church of England over the last few months, which those preparing these reports would have done well to have taken some time to consider. Exploring issues in sexuality, religion and gender equality, the future of the church in a multi faith and multi cultural society, the Westminster Faith debates have roamed expansively, and opened up a host of possibilities to enable renewed accessibility to the Church of England, a potential widening of its employee and customer base and expanded clarity for its forward vision. They are worth dropping into the you tube feeds and taking a look.
This is the form of engagement, open debate, appreciative enquiry and intelligent research based contribution, which the squeezed middle in English society is yearning for. It is essential for any church or faith organisation in this new era of rapid knowledge transfer, and open international highways, to engage intelligently with contemporary Britain’s faith context road conditions. Driving on the highway has become fast and furious, conditions can turn somewhat treacherous for those ill prepared and change without much prior warning, and drivers and vehicles need to be appropriately kitted out and ready for precipitate alteration in the terrain.
Professor Woodhead counsels the Church of England to submit to a fuller diagnosis of just what has gone wrong. She says:
What is needed now is a more honest diagnosis of what went wrong; a greater openness to existing wisdom; the participation of a broader range of Anglicans; a deeper respect for the Church’s past; and a more imaginative vision of its future. The reports are still a little too captive to the present, too pinched. They need to be expanded, not watered down. There is a bigger, better, and more exciting Church of England out there, waiting to be born.
I personally believe she is quite correct, and hope that her optimism for change is born out through a radical salvage operation and rebuild, yet to be undertaken. The Old Bentley is still being revved by beleaguered chauffeurs attempting to floor the accelerator on a tired and overheated engine, with a holed gasket, its wheels urgently requiring a refit with solid multisurface treads, currently staggering on without the currently bespoke #heforshe cruise control and customised interdenominational, interfaith and intercultural GPS, whilst carrying a somewhat dented and scraped chassis from its recent bumpy ride over the legislation for Women Bishops. There is a great deal to be done.
Here’s hoping that the fourth protective service can once the engine is dried out and the chassis pulled out of the mire, encourage the company to bring her for a thorough going refit – nothing less is required, but there are many available to assist, if a new spirit of inclusivity and humility is embraced – and the exclusivity of the club is truly broken open as the doors of the Cathedral in Stockport welcomes its first woman senior chauffeur bishop in the person of the Rt Revd Libby Lane later this week.