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Angela Tilby: What Matthew Parris gets right and wrong about the C of E

03 December 2021


Matthew Parris

Matthew Parris

MATTHEW PARRIS wrote a strangely personal piece in his Times Saturday column recently about his relationship with the Church of England (Press, 26 November). In it, he confessed that he loved singing hymns and relished the Bible, that cathedrals filled him with wonder, and graveyards filled him with delight. He also admitted that he said his prayers every night, simply because he has always done so.

There are, he claims, millions like him, who take comfort in the Church’s rituals and ceremonies, but who sit light to its doctrines. To clarify, Parris does not believe in God and often writes pretty negatively about religious faith. Yet he loves the C of E.

I happen to know him slightly: we were exact contemporaries at Cambridge and once acted together, if I remember right, in a version of Sweeney Todd. Matthew is charming, courteous, funny, and kind. He was brought up in Africa and Cyprus. He was MP for West Derbyshire, and then turned to journalism and broadcasting. He was an early campaigner for gay rights with Stonewall.

What sparked his Times column was the Archbishop of York’s speech at the Synod in which the Archbishop spoke of the C of E dying “a grand operatic death” if it failed to reverse decline (News, 19 November). Matthew, in contrast, believes that the Church could survive for a long time if it gracefully accepted decline, while continuing to minister to its diminishing flock.

Matthew’s response touched and provoked me in equal measure. I agree with him that growth is unlikely at present, and that much effort going into new initiatives is a waste of time and money. I also agree that the C of E should prize its inheritance more highly: the Bible, the BCP, its music, ceremony, buildings.

I also recognise Anglican doubters and even unbelievers; they are not a new phenomenon. The C of E has always striven for a balance between personal conviction and public conformity; we are “conformists”, after all. Personal faith matters, but is not everything. Conformity is not bad faith; the gift that it offers is that it prevents faith from being all about me.

Where I disagree most strongly with Matthew is that I believe that church practices are not arbitrary, and that they are about more than nostalgia. Worship is a good habit, a training in beauty and virtue. But it is also a portal into the grace and reality of God, into the tough faith of the creeds, into a relationship with Jesus. So, I reject the idea that all there is left is to the offering of comfort in a dying Church.

We do not know what God intends for the C of E, but our abiding vocation is to call others to be responsible people, alive to reality itself, and so to God. Matthew may disbelieve in God, but I suspect that God believes in Matthew.

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