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Press: Faith and doubt in the life of Matthew Parris

26 November 2021

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MATTHEW PARRIS is a really good columnist, as well as a very nice man. If you want to provoke a reaction, it would be hard to improve on this, from his Saturday column in The Times: “Justin Welby has made a forgivable but serious mistake. He thinks the Church of England is about God.”

So, now that the readers are pleasurably woken from their slumbers, give them something to think about. After gently mocking the Archbishop for “the latest Anglican faddism about ‘reaching out’, ‘planting’ new churches, targeting the Church’s message on the younger generation, finding new ways, new media, to put Anglicanism across”, Parris writes: “I don’t believe in God. But I love the Church, pay my subs to All Saints’ in Elton, sing hymns, and delight in the Testaments Old and New. I say my prayers every night not because anyone is listening, but because I always have. Cathedrals fill me with wonder, graveyards with reverence. . .

“And it goes deeper. I love both the story and the person of Jesus, who I’m convinced was a real and wonderful man, albeit under a serious misapprehension about paternity.

“There are millions like me. . . Turn away from us, Canterbury, in order to ‘plant’ new churches in untilled soil, but when they wither — and they will — there are worse corners to crawl back into than the traditional parish churches of the dear old C of E.”

This is the most civilised version imaginable of the Emma Thompson thesis (Press, 12 February). It raises two obvious questions. The first, of course, is how to pay for the Church that Parris wants.

There was a letter from Richard Willan, a churchwarden in rural Wiltshire, setting out the financial problems: he has a 13th-century church building, in which a congregation of between six and 12 meet once a fortnight. They have to pay £7000 a year to keep the grounds and building going, and a further £10,000 towards diocesan clergy costs. About half that sum is raised from the 60 or 70 villagers who don’t go to church: “The remainder has to be found through continual fundraising.”

It’s very hard to see this model persisting for decades, given the age of the congregation. Yet it is central to the hold that the Church still has on the English imagination.

 

THE question that interests me more is what it might mean to believe. I’m sure Matthew is right when he says that there were very large numbers of people who went to church in the years of apparent Anglican triumph who did not really believe in the words that they heard and said. But much of the point of credal language is that it is impossible either to believe or to disbelieve in it in the way in which we might assent to other sorts of proposition.

I can say that I doubt God really talks to the Revd Nicky Gumbel, but that doubt is entirely different in its quality and its effects to a doubt that might strike Mr Gumbel about the reality of those conversations he experiences. The one is a doubt about God; the other would be a doubt about the reality of Mr Gumbel.

The first-person reality of belief is different in kind from the third-person testability of it. There is a great gulf fixed between them. We may throw strings of words across it, but they make a weak and dangerous tightrope when you’re trying to get from one side to the other.

Belief gets shape and power from performance; above all, from ritual. People fail to go to church because they don’t believe — obviously — but they also don’t believe because they fail to go to church. They no longer live in a world in which churchgoing would infuse their belief with meaning.

And here, I think, the Church has only itself to blame when modernising liturgy. You can — you must — disagree with the Prayer Book; it’s much harder to disbelieve it. It is always worth arguing with and trying to discover what it’s trying to say. Who could say that about Common Worship?

 

SOMETIMES, the ritual does not take. The case of Emad al-Swealmeen, the Liverpool suicide bomber, who had been confirmed in the city’s Anglican cathedral (News, 19 November), brought out Tom Harris, a Conservative MP, to argue in the Telegraph against the people who suppose that converts must always be sincere.

“Rather than see churches and their members as pliant dupes willing to believe any sob story told them by new arrivals in the country, we should celebrate the fact that we still have groups of people willing to give up their time to advocate on behalf of others by virtue of their own commitment to biblical principles. Such people bring a necessary degree of compassion and concern that would otherwise be missing.”

The great mistake, he went on to say, would be for the Government to show compassion. “The corollary of those qualities, however, is a necessary cynicism by the authorities.” That really is saying the quiet part out loud.

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