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Diagnosis is the easy bit

by
21 May 2012

Where next for the C of E? Nick Spencer joins a discussion

The State of the Church and the Church of the State: Re-imagining the Church of England for our world today
Michael Turnbull and Donald McFadyen

Darton, Longman & Todd £14.99
(978-0-232-52881-7)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

BOOKS on the future of the Church tend to come in two flavours. The first is theological. The author grounds his or her work firmly in scripture and tradition, but leaves the reader feeling that he or she is about as well acquainted with the reality of life in a parish as with life in another galaxy.

The second is sociological. The author talks about social trends and adopts the latest management ideas, liberally sprinkling his or her work with words such as “strategy” and “leadership”, but leaves the reader feeling that he or she is incapable of distinguishing between the Church and Tesco.

Brave souls like Michael Turnbull and Donald McFadyen, however, dare to mix flavours. They allow theology and sociology to speak to one another, and then report on the conversation.

The authors know the Church of England well. They recognise its weaknesses and hazards, as much as its strengths and possibilities, and rehearse them clearly in the opening chapters.

They are also alert to the culture in which it operates, although they maybe fail to admit quite how perfect was the storm that wrecked so much Christian commitment in the 20th century. The loss of the Church’s historic activity of “welfare provision”, society’s postponement (and concealment) of death, the dissolution of so many local com­munities, and the unprecedented rise in personal spending power combined to make Christianity not so much untrue as irrelevant for millions of British people.

Their response to the problem is attractive and well thought through, drawing on scripture and the An­glican tradition, especially Richard Hooker (whom they — bizarrely — praise for his “typical brevity and elegance”); but it is not, I fear, as radical as they seem to think.

The vision of “the gospel em­bedded in the everyday life of a community” is indeed an inspiring one, but it is not particularly revolutionary. Indeed, aside from those Anglicans who think that “the sole responsibility of the Church” is “the proclamation of the gospel” (more of a caricature than a serious threat?), I doubt whether there are many parishes that are not already attempting to realise it.

Of course, medialand may not get this: witness the coverage of Rowan Williams’s resignation, where, for every minute on his significant contribution to public debate, there were 20 on his battles over gender and homosexuality in the Anglican Communion. But just because the world feels easier with the Church as an inward-looking sect, that doesn’t mean that it is.

In short, the book’s fundamental foil, that there has been an “erosion of clarity about the purpose of the Church of England”, doesn’t quite convince. This does not mean that its suggestions are of no value. Some, like the move from a paro­chial to a minster model, are bold and potentially rewarding (although I admit an interest here). It does, however, mean that the book’s diagnosis of the Church’s problems and potential is stronger than its prescription for treatment.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think tank Theos. He is the author of Freedom and Order (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011).

EDITED by James Corkery and Thomas Worcester, among the 12 contributors, The Papacy since 1500: From Italian prince to uni­versal pastor contains detailed studies of some of the popes re­garded as most significant in this evolution, and how papal policies and actions were received (Cam­bridge, £18.99 (£17.10) pbk; 978-0-521-72977-2).

EDITED by James Corkery and Thomas Worcester, among the 12 contributors, The Papacy since 1500: From Italian prince to uni­versal pastor contains detailed studies of some of the popes re­garded as most significant in this evolution, and how papal policies and actions were received (Cam­bridge, £18.99 (£17.10) pbk; 978-0-521-72977-2).

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