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Seriously, . . . a grand job

29 July 2016

A book demolishing recent Archbishops of Canterbury is naïve, says Robin Gill




That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England lost the English people
Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead
Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £14.99


THIS book was officially published only yesterday, but it has already proved highly controversial. The first edition was withdrawn and pulped for legal reasons. Pre-publication reviews have accused it variously of being “muddled”, “incoherent”, “nasty”, and “sadistic”.

Its cover has a picture not of a church but of a gravestone. And older readers will recognise at once that its title echoes the late David Frost’s youthful, satirical, even cynical, television programme That Was the Week That Was.

It brings together a well-respected academic (Linda Woodhead) with a columnist (Andrew Brown) who has enlivened the Church Times for years. But it is Brown’s gossipy and polemical style that dominates and makes the book an irresistible page-turner, and even persuades Woodhead to gossip about a private meeting with Rowan Williams. She may have been unwise to risk her hard-won academic reputation in this way.

Despite its self-evident and manifold faults, there is a serious and impassioned message underlying this book. It argues that over the past 25 years the Church of England has become deeply alienated from the English people and has largely lost the attachment of anyone who is not retired.

Once upheld by women, especially, the Church has now lost much of their support by dragging its feet on their ordination as priests and then bishops. It has also lost the attachment of many gay people with its increasingly hostile stance towards them. And, despite the obvious, albeit mystical, intelligence of Rowan Williams, it has lost the attachment of many educated men and women alike.

This is not because of some process of secularisation — the English, they argue, remain open to “spirituality” in various non-institutional forms — but because the Church of England has become more and more inward-looking.

I think that there is some truth in this message. Arguably the Church has become too inward-looking, more concerned with protecting itself from legislation that it does not like (on, say, same sex marriage) and less effective in shaping the values that might make us a better society. For some of us it is far too obsessed with sex (as, paradoxically, are the authors of this book) rather than with social and global justice. And manifestly the Church is continuing to lose adherents and members at every measurable level (but it has been doing that for most of the past 150 years).

But there is also something deeply misleading and naïve about the Brown-Woodhead critique. They are obsessed with the personality and “power” of Archbishops of Canterbury, regarding them as particularly responsible for the numerical decline of the Church. At one point they announce that “Carey was out of his depth,” and ridicule his “managerial voodoo” and his treatment of the Church as a “cargo cult”.

In contrast, having worked closely with George Carey for a number of years, I was much impressed by his strategic effectiveness. It was he who enabled women to be ordained priest in 1994 (recognising early that lay Evangelicals on the General Synod needed to be persuaded), moderated some of the seriously homophobic proposed motions at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, and attempted to address numerical decline with practical measures (notably Fresh Expressions). All of these achievements are wholly unrecognised in this book.

There is also only occasional recognition by them that Christian institutional decline or alienation is a Europe-wide phenomenon rather than something unique to the Church of England (and, even in England, United Reformed and Methodist decline has been much sharper). Set in this wider context, the particular quirks of Archbishops are largely irrelevant. Even Malta, with some of the highest churchgoing rates in Europe, has experienced decades of unrelenting decline in attendance at mass, and increasingly elderly congregations.

The sociologist Grace Davie has helpfully depicted this as a cultural shift from “obligation” to “choice” — something that affects political parties as much as Churches. Explaining why this shift has happened is problematic, but it is naïve to lay the blame on particular Prime Ministers or Archbishops. The latter can sometime tweak such changes, but cannot easily reverse them.

Will you enjoy this book? Probably. Andrew Brown does know how to keep a reader’s attention. Even on a hot summer’s day I could not put the book down before finishing it. Will you learn from it? That is a bit harder. Like David Frost’s programme, it is quite difficult to sort out fact from fiction, clear-sighted observation from gossip, and legitimate concern from personal bias. A very long spoon is needed but, with that proviso, it is worth buying.


Canon Robin Gill is the editor of Theology and Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent.

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