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The lights are still on . . .

08 February 2013

Despite division, rancour, and decline, Cole Moreton finds that there are still signs of hope for the Church of England


WHAT you hope for as a reporter is to witness history being made. What you do not want is Groundhog Day, repeating the same story over and over again.

I remember with fondness what it was like to be in Church House on the day when the decision was made to allow women to become priests. As a reporter working for the Church Times in November 1992, eager to interview the jubilant supporters and the disappointed opponents of the measure, I had a sense of being in the right place at the right time.

I loved the fierce but serious-minded debate in the office, under the editor, John Whale, about how we should react and best serve the readers. Twenty years later, when the moment came for a historic vote on women bishops, I stayed away.

Why? Partly because I work for the Sunday Telegraph now, and it was all happening early in the week. And partly out of a personal reluctance to be back in the same place, reporting on essentially the same divisions, after all this time. I left it to a colleague.

As a journalist, I am committed to covering both sides of the story fairly. As the author of Is God Still An Englishman?, I am still keenly interested in who the British are, and what we believe in. On a personal level, though, I thought it was all a bit sad.

In voting against women bishops, the Church of England was not committing suicide, as others wrote, but it certainly seemed to be going into a darkened room with a revolver and a bottle of whisky, to argue with itself. Again.

Then, in the days that followed, I thought: "This isn't right." The doom and gloom was justified, but it did not sit squarely with what I knew to be true.

CHRISTMAS was coming. One third of the population would be going to a service of some kind, mostly hosted by the C of E. And I knew, personally, some of the many good people out there in the parishes, who worked so hard for their communities, giving time and energy in the name of faith.

So, on a hunch, I asked Church House to help put the word out to the dioceses that I would like to know what they were most proud of. And, while waiting for the answers to come in, I began to write a piece for The Sunday Telegraph which sought an answer to the question: "What does the Church of England contribute to our national life?" I would like to quote from some of it now.

The first answer I found was: "A place to go". The 2011 Census showed that 59 per cent of people in England and Wales call themselves Christian. Despite the best efforts of Richard Dawkins, this is not a secular nation. There is a kind of improvised, individualistic folk-faith at large that draws (often unwittingly) on Buddhism, neo-paganism, environmentalism, and many other sources, but is still allied loosely to Christian notions of God.

We are, as Lord Williams of Oystermouth once said, "haunted" by Christianity. And while we may have turned away from the Church as an institution, we are still in need of the welcome, warmth, and wisdom it can offer at its best.

We still pop in, from time to time: research suggests that 85 per cent of us visit a church in any given year, to give thanks, pay respects, mark a significant moment, or seek solace. When a child goes missing, or the floods come, as every reporter knows, it is often the parish church that provides a rallying point. That is where the vigils are held. That is where the priest is able to act as a spokesperson for those who are too distressed to talk, but who want things to be said.

CHURCH weddings are not as popular as they were, for reasons that seem obvious to anyone who has ever had a bad experience trying to plan one. Why would you suffer the compulsory "marriage preparation" proposed by a vicar who is clearly on the edge of marital collapse, and has no social skills, when the obliging manager of the hotel down the road asks, "How many? For how long? Would you like a glass of chilled champagne to help you think it over?"

Nevertheless, there are 54,700 church weddings a year. The number has risen lately, perhaps boosted by the Royal Wedding. Some priests are clearly doing it right.

Anglicans are also still the automatic hosts for state occasions, although that status must be open to question in a nation that now worships a thousand gods instead of one. The Queen reminded the C of E this year that it exists for the benefit of the whole country, not just its members.

"The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood, and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated," she said. "Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country."

Let us not forget that the Church of England - unlike any other group of believers - has a historic duty to serve everyone. If it wants to keep the special rights and privileges that arise from being the Established Church - including the right to exemption from legislation that would force priests to marry gay couples - then the C of  E must live up to its unique calling.

There are priests who defy this, and set up their parishes as exclusive Bible clubs. And then there are the others.

AS A torrent of stories, anecdotes, and information began to pour in from around the dioceses (and I began to feel like my esteemed former colleague Margaret Duggan), I was guided to the story of an Assistant Curate, the Revd Charlotte Ballinger, who heard that a cyclist had been killed by a lorry outside her church in Chipping Barnet, north London.

She persuaded the police to let her through their cordon, and knelt to pray beside the body of the 66-year-old woman. "I commended her to God's mercy and care."

The cyclist's husband asked Miss Ballinger to take the funeral. "There were tears and laughter in equal measure," she said. She was clear about her responsibilities. "Parish priests and the church building are available for the whole community, not just for those who attend church regularly."

I also read about how this attitude had led to a highly unusual development in East Sussex, where the edge of Brighton meets the South Downs: a team rector and his congregation were fighting to keep open the local pub. The Bevendean Hotel, Moulsecoomb, was closed by police after complaints about drug use and violence; but that left 18,000 people with nowhere to go.

The Revd John Wall, who wrote of the dispute in his Diary column (11 January), said: "Part of the heart went out of Moulsecoomb. . . There is nowhere else for people to pop into and relax. Every good community needs a decent church and a decent pub."


He helped to set up a co-operative to rescue and reopen the pub that everyone knew as "the Bevy", as a community space with a café, and an organic garden to supply the kitchen. It will open as a pub in the evening. "The Church of England is at its best when it is embedded in the local community and working to build that up," Fr Wall said. It is at its best when it seeks to serve.

WE KNOW that the Church lacks the money or the people to put a professional into every parish, as it once used to. Often, the work is done by a part-time volunteer. One bishop told me: "We are turning from an institution into a voluntary organisation, with all the challenges that that involves."

But there is still cause for the rest of us to be grateful. The list of projects sent to me by the dioceses was long and overwhelming: night shelters, food banks, credit unions, housing trusts, legal advice, street patrols, and support groups were all mentioned. Countless churches would be serving hot dinners to the lonely or homeless, and not just at Christmas.

This sacrificial work was highlighted by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at the first press conference after he was chosen. The then Bishop of Durham took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and praised what he called the "unknown heroes" of the faith.

"The work of the Church of England is not done primarily on television or at Lambeth, but in more than 16,000 churches, where hundreds of thousands of people get on with the job they have always done, of loving neighbours, loving each other, and giving more than 22 million hours of voluntary service outside the church a month."

Atheists, agnostics, and other believers work just as hard. But, as I wrote in that Sunday Telegraph piece, nobody else has the same kind of national network, or historic connections with people in authority. The challenge is to make it work for a nation that is going through great cultural and ethnic change.

In the mean time, Anglicans give £50 million a year to charity beyond the Church, and educate a million children in C of  E schools. They also have a duty of care for 16,000 buildings across England, two-thirds of which are listed. Collectively, these are a storehouse of our historic culture, a physical record of the things we have done and cared about. Caring for them costs £110 million a year.

The finest of them include the cathedrals, which attract 12 million visitors a year. Attendances at services in cathedrals have risen by a third over the past decade. Colonel Dick Bolton, who has trained guides at Canterbury, has no doubt why. "Cathedrals are centres of excellence," he told me, standing under the high, vaulted roof of the 600-year-old nave. "At a time when everything else seems to be dumbed down, cathedrals try to maintain a very high standard in the fabric, the quality of the services, and the music. And, hopefully, the welcome."

I felt it that night at Canterbury; and I feel it often (although not always) when I go and knock on the door of a priest in a parish whose people are in need. That welcome is the way it should be.

I have no doubt that, in its anniversary year, the Church Times will document many struggles. Some of them will be painfully familiar. But it seems to me, as a reader and as a professional observer, that there is still a great deal that the Church of England should be proud of, and for which the rest of us should be thankful.

Cole Moreton's book Is God Still An Englishman? How Britain lost its faith (but found new soul) is published by Abacus at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99), 978-0-3491-2224-3.

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