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Press: Is clericalism at the root of the C of E’s ills?  

24 May 2024


I HAVE had a slightly heretical thought: suppose the apparently interminable wrangling over gay sex in the C of E is an example of what Pope Francis would call “clericalism”.

This is true in the obvious sense, in that the only people who need to pay even lip service to the official doctrine are clergy. It is also true in a less obvious way, in that both sides vastly overestimate the significance of the Church’s rules.

It is not just that Evangelicals believe that liberal theology is responsible for the collapse of the Church of England; liberals believe the opposite — or, at least, they used to, while they still had any hope. For both parties, the secret of revival is to push the other lot out, as if the fate of the Church were decided by what went on in the General Synod.

All this was provoked by Theo Hobson’s essay in The Tablet, “Will the Evangelicals split the C of E?” I have always thought of him as an enthusiast for kicking out the conservatives when it comes to women’s ordination, but, faced with this schism, he has done his sums.

“The new split would be even more grievous, as the evangelicals are a far larger force than the opponents of women’s ordination, and they are demanding a cleaner split, with bishops wholly independent of the rest of the Church. The opponents of women clergy were a small minority: letting them stay, with their own bishops, did not really threaten the main identity of the Church. An evangelical subchurch would be different, more of a rival to the official Church, or majority Church (it’s hard to find the right terms for such an odd situation).”

The whole mess is a really powerful argument against the existence of the Synod, and a reminder that phrases such as “this does not affect the doctrine of marriage” can only conceal the Emperor’s bottom if everyone agrees to pretend.

THE other Anglican doom piece came from Patrick Kidd, in The Spectator, writing against clericalism from his experience as a churchwarden: “The C of E does love forms. My co-warden and I recently had a two-hour ‘visitation’ by the archdeacon. We had to fill out a 16-question form on our make-up and attendance figures; answer 55 more on parish finance; fill out a third form on when the drains were cleaned and the lightning conductor checked; and answer the questions ‘Do you have a plan for if the boiler breaks down?’ and ‘How will you make lighting more sustainable?’. My co-warden spent a weekend converting the emails by which our maintenance programme is run into a logbook as required. It wasn’t looked at.”

I don’t suppose this stuff is any more popular with the parish clergy, but they are paid to endure it, however inadequately. Kidd drew an excellent moral: “The important thing for volunteers to realise if they want to stay sane is that they can say no to a lot. Our vicar is blessed (he may not always feel so) that a source in the diocese described my church to a colleague as ‘the one with the difficult wardens’.” Whether this news comes too late to save the C of E is another question.

AN EXAMPLE both horrible and awe-inspiring of successful volunteering was provided by a photo essay in The Atlantic about a corner of the Appalachians where the Welfare State, as we would understand it, has completely ceased to function.

Some of this results from the uniquely dystopian workings of the American health-care system, where more money is spent to less effect on life expectancy than anywhere else in the world. But some is a result of the belief that private charity is morally better than state action. The piece dealt with Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical groups, and the scale of need was difficult to grasp.

There’s a mobile free clinic operating out of camper vans: the CEO says that she has seen queues of 1600 people for its services, waiting at six in the morning. Then there is Aude King, the black pastor who bought an abandoned building in his childhood neighbourhood: “Digging out all of the dirt and dead animals and hooking the place up to electricity and water took months, but in 2017, the Rec was up and running.

“It now serves hundreds of hot meals in an area where many people live in motels without kitchens. It also provides mental-health programming, kids’ activities, a computer lab, and fitness classes. . . All of its services are provided almost entirely by volunteers; the only person who gets paid is a bus driver, who transports kids from their schools and homes to the Rec and back. King doesn’t take a salary for either the Rec or at the Eternal Restoration Church of God in Christ, where he serves as minister; he works for a gas company.”

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