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Andrew Brown: Jeremy Paxman casts his critical eye over the C of E

15 September 2017

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Survey: the journalist and broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, who has written a lengthy article for the Financial Times exploring the state of the Church of England

Survey: the journalist and broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, who has written a lengthy article for the Financial Times exploring the state of the Church of E...

FOR some reason, this year’s British Social Attitudes figures showing the collapse of societal Anglicanism made far more of a splash than the last ones did (News, 8 September). I don’t know how many times I have written the “No religion is the new religion” story in the past five years. Google suggests only three times, although there are 12,000 hits for the phrase in association with my name; but, in any case, the idea does not seem an entirely novel one — except to commissioning editors.

So The Times had Daniel Finkelstein writing an opinion piece on the end of God; the Financial Times had Jeremy Paxman doing a survey of the Church; the Daily Mail had Quentin Letts with a long why-oh-why that must have taken at least ten minutes to research and write; and The Guardian had Canon Giles Fraser demanding disestablishment.

Paxman had not written the same piece before. His version was probably the best summary of where the Church is at to have appeared for years: there was a gorgeous country church where “Apart from the visiting weekenders, of whom I am one, there are seven in the congregation, none of them exactly in the flush of youth. The vicar celebrating communion according to the Book of Common Prayer is 87; he apologises beforehand that ‘I have tried to draw stumps several times’ and yet he keeps being asked to conduct services and cannot refuse. He preaches a drily witty sermon that happens to be about the ‘shipwreck’ of the Church of England, which he admits he has recycled from earlier years. He forgets to lead the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer.”

This was contrasted with a Holy Trinity, Brompton, plant: “You can almost hear St Peter’s, Brighton, before you see its towering neo-Gothic stonework. . . The message is relentlessly upbeat. ‘There is no such thing as hopelessness,’ says the preacher. ‘God loves you and is so proud of you.’”

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But he also went to an Anglo-Catholic church in Holborn. He listened — and understood — when he was told that the Church of England was not an organisation. He could see that HTB must be part — but could be only a part — of any renewal. He was entirely charmed by the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman. Paxman thought, very reasonably, that the money would run out, since it was not just churchgoing but church giving which was held up by the older generations and not practised by the young.

One thing common to all these — and to some that I have written myself, from time to time — is the assumption, sometimes rising to the level of an argument, that the really big strategic mistake the Church has made is not to appeal enough to people like the writer. This was most marked in Letts: “As a deputy warden of a (healthy) Herefordshire church and the husband of a country-church organist, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry or rage, like some helmeted Crusader, at my Church’s travails. . .

“Justin Welby . . . only seems interested in issuing Left-wing clichés about Brexit and egalitarianism. . . Remote, snooty language about economic emancipation and social inclusion may go down well with civil servants and BBC managers, but it bores the bejaysus out of the British public.”

From the Mail’s point of view, the Church is failing because it is failing to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted, which is what Christianity is — obviously — all about.

The complaint that Archbishop Welby never talks about Jesus was particularly unfair, given his stated policy of mentioning Jesus in everything he ever says in public: he even got Jesus into the second paragraph of his FT article last week. But he has clearly been classed as a “saboteur” to be “crushed”, to quote the Mail’s front-page exhortation to Theresa May when she called the General Election. Letts spelled out his iniquity: “He has made life hard for Theresa May by saying her chances of a successful split from the EU by 2019 are ‘infinitesimally small’.” What a horrid man he must be to say that.

 

TO UNDERSTAND what the Archbishop’s “remote, boring, snooty” language might actually mean, you could turn to Monday’s Guardian, where the paper’s religion correspondent, Harriet Sherwood, had a fine interview with the Revd Dr Alan Everett, the Vicar of St Clement with St Mark, Notting Dale, which is next to the Grenfell Tower.

I realise now that this is where my daughter was baptised, in a ceremony where the officiants wore more lace than the baby. Fr Everett still talks about “mass”, but this is about Christianity, not churchmanship: “On the night of the fire, Everett, 59, who has been vicar of St Clement and the nearby St James churches for the past seven years, was woken in the early hours by another priest. The pair went to St Clement at 3am, switched on the lights and opened the doors.

“‘Those two actions, that one moment, feels like the core, the heart of my entire ministry as a priest,’ he said. Within minutes, evacuated residents and people offering help began to arrive at the church.”

The moral is not that catastrophes bring people back to church, but that catastrophes bring people into churches that have spent 11 years growing roots into the community.

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