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Why I have not lost my faith in the C of E

03 February 2023

Despite having reasons to be disillusioned, Anne Atkins defended the Established Church to a room full of students

“THIS House has lost faith in the Church of England.” The motion for the first debate of term in Durham Students’ Union was bound to romp home with a stonking majority, if ever there was.

I always enjoy the craic; so I agreed immediately to take part. “And which side do you want me to argue?” “Oh!” replied the steward. “We’d assumed you’d want to oppose. But if you’d rather defend the motion. . .”


I’ve got enough anecdotes to sink the Synod, before even shuffling the papers on my mental desk: injustices of the Clergy Disciplinary Measure; personal experience of clergy bullying; dysfunctional hierarchies; employment malpractice; long-term sexual and physical abuse — not to mention the mass selling-off of classless vicarages which once acted as centres of whole communities, and replacing them with executive middle-class boxes.

Besides, what kind of idiot would defend the C of E to Gen Z, most of whom probably assume Anglicanism is a synonym for Brexit? The proposition, my clergyman husband agreed, should be a much easier argument to win.

And yet I found that I could not do it. The moment I imagined myself on my feet, marshalling all my ammunition against the Church I was born and bred to — and, despite everything, still love dearly — I realised that proposing the motion was out of the question.

“I’m sorry,” I told the steward. (Other speakers were falling into place and by then it would have been convenient if I’d proposed.) “But I have to fight this motion.”

I CANVASSED a medium-profile atheist friend, whose work well acquaints him with the murkier side of the C of E. What arguments would I have to rebut?

“Wrong proposal,” he replied. “It’s not losing faith the Church needs to worry about. Most of the population has lost interest in the C of E.”

Well, that’s something to be grateful for: no one will turn up. It would be a pleasant trip north, a congenial dinner with the others, a night away from home — what would it matter if we lost hands down, with hardly anyone there?

“I’ve never seen the chamber so packed,” the President said, looking around with satisfaction; others concurred. Every seat was taken. Hmm, so much for mass disinterest. Perhaps Durham is unusual? Or Church, like celibacy and teetotalism, is coming back into fashion?

Another unusual aspect of the evening was that, by and large, the two sides seemed in agreement: committed to the C of E; dismayed at her failings.

The GB News presenter the Revd Calvin Robinson, for the proposition, bewailed the Church’s losing her vision to ubiquitous “wokery”: where is the uncertain trumpet call to arms? Fr Johannes Arens rollicked us through a 1500-year journey that would have done a stand-up comedian proud, in which (at the expense of the hapless example of Leicester) he argued that the Church has forgotten who she is. The last speech for the proposition was gamely taken by the steward himself, a student, Jerry Li, after a last-minute mix-up with a guest speaker.

BUT, despite agreeing with many of their points, the opposition seemed from the outset on more confident ground. The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, referred to the many ways in which the Church, in the words of the late Queen, makes for a better society: in education; in Parliament; in its ability to bring other groups together. The Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, the Revd Dr Stephen Cherry, made the obvious but apt point that good news doesn’t sell: priest does 54 kind things in a week, no story; one reprehensible thing in a 40-year career is a very different matter.

All I could bring was personal anecdote. Yes, I applauded almost all that the proposition said: of course we all bemoan the loss of a priest in every parish. Yes, like the Dean, I would have found it easier to attack than defend. But I lived 14 years in an inner-city working vicarage, and witnessed the lives turned around — day in day out, week in week out — because we are the Established and official Church of the nation. When you’re at the end of your rope, you hold fast to what you recognise. Far fewer strangers would have rung on our vicarage door — desperate, lost, cold, or without a passport — if we’d been non-denominational, however much purer in heart and freer of fault we might have been.

And, in the end, that is what the Church of England is, and is for: individuals, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, being there for the poor and lonely, showing the love of Christ in action. And, for all the many reforms that we might all like to see, she still does it best as the Established Church.

The undergraduates of Durham certainly thought so. They voted two to one against the motion: 132 nays to 67 ayes, from a full chamber — which I would call a pretty spectacular vote of confidence.

Anne Atkins is a novelist, writer, and broadcaster.

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