Novelist and screenwriter William Nicholson was profiled in last Saturday’s Guardian Review. He attended Downside, the Catholic boarding school, in the early 1960s, coinciding with the radical theological agenda of the Second Vatican Council. He wrote:
“The monks, infected by all the excitement, taught us something they wouldn’t have taught us a few years earlier or a few years later, that you should pursue the truth wherever it takes you. Eventually it took me out of the church, as it took many of them, but it left a lasting impression.”
This is the blog I’ve wanted to write for a long, long time. Yes, we members of the Church of England believe in different Gods.
This is a truth hard to declare against the judgmental environment of the Church, held captive by Biblical literalists and fundamentalists who believe that only those with a very concrete, ‘secure’, certain faith are true Christians.
I don’t believe in this way. My faith is not of this character. The Bible is core to my faith. I engage with the Bible every day. I know the Bible is a book revealing the most profound wisdom and truth about life, creation and God; about ultimate things. And at the same time, full of the most appalling stuff, myths, abuse, false images and ideas of God, naive and immature, historically inaccurate, badly edited and needing constant interpretation and attention to detail; never, ever, ever the simple, plain truth claimed by conservatives.
Their addiction to naive, simple, plain truth and a dogmatic assertion of faith is one of the reasons why the Church is in decline and at the same time a reaction to decline. Like the election strategy of the Conservative Party, the strategy of the Church (though strategy dignifies the Church with too much thought and deliberation) is to appeal to the elderly and those addicted to the past and the familiar.
The Alpha and HTB brands appeal with great success to a much wider and more youthful age range not because it is Biblically conservative and orthodox – it has abandoned commitment to the so-called Biblically orthodox reading of the clobber texts – at least in public.
The brands are successful because the worship and pattern of church life is lively, relational, rooted in small groups and shared meals, human fellowship and friendship. That’s Christ-like. And it’s successful because success breeds success. Who wouldn’t want to belong to a full, lively church?
But the mass of people have abandoned the Church, like William Nicholson, in part because its understanding of God no longer rings true to their experience. There are other, familiar reasons, of course – dramatic changes in social life, freedom to think outside the box, increased leisure, resources undreamt of half-a-century ago, seven day weeks of work, leisure and shopping, and social networks no longer dependent on the church at the centre of the community.
But it’s the idea of God as read literally from the Bible and a simplistic Jesus, of hymns with memorable tunes (though not always) but words meaningless to modern sensibilities, sermons that never connect with real lives and the complexities of the modern world and fail to energise and inspire, these are some of the reasons why people are indifferent to the Church.
The Church has no idea how to teach people to enter deeper levels of faith and awareness, how to practice prayerful mindfulness and find deep confidence in God’s infinite, unconditional love.
Worst, by far the worst of all, the Church is infected by deeply shocking, appallingly bad practice, abusive clergy, indifferent senior clergy, clergy whose core being is woefully inadequate, fragile, easily threatened, addicted to simplistic, unexamined belief systems, unimaginative and unadventurous, who simply don’t ‘get’ Jesus and are therefore unable to communicate Jesus to their congregations.
This is why people don’t come to church. Because from the little they know about Jesus they know he has to be more inspiring and life transforming than the vapid Jesus they encounter at weddings, baptisms, funerals, Christmas and Easter. On their rare visits to church and in media reports, they hear of a Church that supports prejudice and, claims it needs protection from persecution rather than a Church which is inspiring, takes them deeper into themselves and life, is radically challenging and resourceful at the personal, social and societal level.
I am angry, very angry about this, working with this real, dispiriting presence every day of my life.
I know the huge majority of my friends will agree with this 110%, the faithful Christians and the lapsed Christians and the despairing clergy and the functioning clergy.
And I think of the bishops I know, who are warm, thoughtful, beautiful, prayerful, intelligent people. And I have to say – you’ve got to take risks, find courage, and do a whole lot better – because your report card doesn’t look good. The best clergy I know are caught in the Church’s trap – and many step out into sector ministries to survive. It’s impossible to achieve inspirational parish ministry in the context of diocesan structures and ineffective senior staff. There is little understanding of people’s experience and grossly, shockingly inadequate support.
I drafted this blog earlier this morning before reading the Guardian Review. Passages from two articles imposed themselves on me, two from the article about William Nicholson. They speak for themselves. Would to God I heard and encountered such truth in church.
“I read to grow in understanding and empathy of other people. And that’s also what drives me as a writer. Part of that is belief in truth telling. I hold to the view that the more truth you tell, including about yourself however uncomfortable that might be, the more valuable that is to everybody. We all put up a front and we are all frightened of each other’s fronts. So I try to work against that.”
And writing about his nomination for the Bad Sex award:
“It is not to do with just describing sex, it is to do with discussing our hopes and fears about something important. We have no idea if our sex lives are aberrant or not. We don’t know whether we are undersexed or oversexed. People can actually benefit from these things being talked about more openly and thoughtfully.”
There’s a review a compilation of letters written by the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. In one letter, he identifies:
“that phenomenon which has come to obsess me: the death of the spirit which threatens every man (sic) unless he is conscious of the danger and has a real purpose which can keep it alive and enable it to thrust its way through the choking weeds and thorns to the air and to the sun.”
On the subject of religion, says the reviewer, he was both sensible and funny:
“Surely the whole point of having an Established Church is that we pay our clergy to believe doctrines which we cannot believe ourselves (and indeed, why shouldn’t we? It was they, not we, who invented them), just as we pay the electrician to mend a fault in the wiring which, if meddled with ourselves, might well give us a fatal shock.”
I wish I encountered such playful wisdom in church. Wisdom there is in abundance in the Bible, and having read the Guardian, I turned to today’s readings.
“By God’s act you are in Christ Jesus; God has made him our wisdom, and in him we have our righteousness, our holiness, our wisdom.” 1 Corinthians 1.30
Indeed we are in Christ Jesus, whatever conservative Christians might think about my Christian faith, worshipping as it seems we do, different Gods.