IN HIS Guardian column on Monday, Simon Jenkins had some advice for the Archbishop of Canterbury (there is a very funny story doing the rounds about another journalist who delivered his advice in private, but that’s for another week): “Anyone coming fresh to the Church of England’s predicament sees only the proverbial frog in boiling water. There is no way it can cope with its architectural inheritance. The church’s legendary wealth can only just pay for its clergy, who spend much of their time racing round seeking builders to patch roofs.
”The Church of England plainly needs to dispose of a large swath of its capacity, probably at least half. But unlike the railways, its buildings cannot be demolished. So it agonises not over how to dispose of them but how to fill them. Given that half are rural, it is like praying for a revival not of the church but of the entire middle ages.”
He goes on to point out how well the cathedrals are doing, quoting Dr Grace Davie, Professor of Sociology at Exeter University: “She sees cathedrals as places of ‘vicarious religion’. They are anonymous, where people can come and go without pressure or welcome, let alone having to hug strangers.”
I like this, not least because I was last week talking to a professional Anglican spin doctor whose faith was rescued as a young man by the ability to go to a cathedral and not talk to any of those horrible Christians for six months while he was thoroughly disillusioned with the business.
Jenkins goes on to say that “The key here is that a wider community of the unaffiliated, even the unbelieving, has come to see cathedrals as something it ‘owns’. If biscuit tins are any guide, half of England owns Salisbury Cathedral.
"Whether this can be replicated at parish level must be doubted. But this issue of ownership surely can. As long as parish churches are seen as shrines belonging to a tiny minority of the community, any hope of wider commitment is pie in the sky.
"Struggling local churches must be secularised, desanctified. They must be vested in an endowed local trust or parish council that literally owns them, so they become community assets, for whose upkeep local rates can be levied, as with public parks and gardens. There will be many spills along the way. But these buildings cannot be demolished or nationalised. There is simply no alternative.”
This is interesting, and I think overlaps with the idea of “festival churches”. Something like that has to be the answer to the problems of “English Heritage Christianity” — the picturesque rural churches. But it shares one important assumption with Jenkins’s praise of cathedrals: that we are dealing here with buildings that stir the aesthetic sense and the historical imagination.
There are thousands of them, true; but there are thousands more without those qualities in places that do not even want to be communities. They cannot all be reinvented as church-plants.
EVERY now and then, something genuinely new happens in the world of religious journalism, and, last week, Archbishop Welby was accused of telling a joke. That has happened before, but this is the first time, to my knowledge, that it has been officially denied.
That becomes understandable when you consider that the original report in The Times had “the Archbishop of Banterbury” — as the Mail called him when repeating the story — telling Pope Francis that the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist was that you could negotiate with a terrorist. This is much less funny than the Welby standard, and rather more cosy than some of the jokes he actually makes.
IN THE United States, there have been repeated, noble attempts to explain why it is that white Evangelicals are so overwhelmingly in favour of Donald Trump over his much more Christian opponent, Hillary Clinton. The Washington Post ran a long piece which essentially boiled it down to her status as the number-one hate-figure for the broad mass of Evangelicals ever since 1992, when she had first emerged as a professional woman who was not content “to stay home and bake cookies”.
This was beautifully illustrated by an anecdote about two generations of the Graham family: Billy had been impressed by the Clintons when he met them, and suggested that Bill become an evangelist, for which “he had all the gifts”, when he left the presidency, “and leave his wife to run the country”. When this story was published in a biography of Billy Graham, “Graham’s son Franklin later sought to clarify that his comment was intended as a joke.”
The mixture of pomposity and spite which goes into such efforts at “clarification” brings to my mind a parallel with the story of God and Abraham arguing over Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham: “I’ve found ten just men.”
God: “Yes, but I found Franklin Graham. Your move.”