The BBC and the Church of England are two rather similar institutions, both designed for the comfort and consolation of modest, well-meaning Englishmen who don’t like to be shaken about or threatened by anything disagreeable or jarring. The BBC is in trouble because it allowed a major current affairs programme, Newsnight, wrongly to accuse a ‘leading Conservative politician’ of monstrous sex crimes against children without even the most basic of traditional journalistic checks. In the midst of this crisis came the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, in the person of Justin Welby, the Bishop of Durham. Welby seems like a very decent fellow, but could he nevertheless constitute a threat to the essential character of the Church of England?
Such a threat, if it exists, wouldn’t be from any improper impulse on his part but, quite the contrary, from a keen enthusiasm for the Church’s mission. There is, of course, nothing wrong with Welby’s faith; the worry is the enthusiasm. For he has come out of the evangelical movement associated with the church of Holy Trinity Brompton in Knightsbridge, which since the 1980s has developed its own highly successful style of popular, rock music-backed worship and an eagerness to make converts comparable to that of any American television preacher.
Alastair Campbell once famously interrupted an attempt by Tony Blair, as prime minister, to answer a question about his religious faith with the remark: ‘We don’t do God.’ Bishop Welby unquestionably does do God, but that, paradoxically, is what could put him at odds with many of the Church of England’s traditional supporters. The Church has been in vertiginous decline. Only about one million people now go to church at all regularly, pathetically few compared with the numbers who go regularly to the cinema or to football matches. And that, of course, has led many Anglicans to conclude that the Church must modernise or die, that it must become more ‘relevant’ to younger generations if its decline is ever to be reversed.
They note how charismatic churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton that feature singing and dancing and speaking in tongues enjoy packed congregations on Sundays. But it would be a mistake to think that, if all Anglican churches were like that, they too would be full. There is no evidence to suggest that the number of people speaking in tongues is enough to fill more than a handful of them. In his article last week about English parish churches, Roger Scruton first quoted George Orwell’s observation that ‘the common people of England are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries…And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.’ He then went on to say that ‘this “tinge of Christian feeling” had a source, and that source is the Anglican Church, whose messages have not been shouted in English ears like the harangues of the Ranters and the Puritans’, but filtered through England’s landscape, its churches, and the music and liturgy of the Church of England. I agree.
I no longer count myself as a Christian, but I think I still have the ‘tinge’ that Orwell described. And I sometimes like to go to church just to indulge it. But more often than not, this is a great disappointment. Not that efforts to make the Church ‘relevant’ are anything new. I remember as a boy in Hertfordshire in the 1950s one parish priest would take the texts for his sermons from popular magazines like Everybody’s or Picture Post, and his successor would pluck the Cross from the altar and run up and down the aisle shrieking: ‘What does this mean to you?’
But more recently, just a few years ago, I provoked rather a large readers’ response when I wrote somewhere about an Anglican church service on Easter Day to which a vicar in Oxfordshire brought a cardboard model of a washing-machine and fed it with items of underwear to illustrate the cleansing power of Christ. The best letter I got was from a woman in Lincolnshire who, describing how difficult it had been for her to find a properly conducted Sunday service anywhere in the country, concluded: ‘I was brought up in the Church of England, and although I don’t think I ever believed, I was perfectly prepared to attend irregularly and contemplate my spiritual failings. But there is now no place for quiet, thinking non-believers who are prepared to conform. What is to become of those of us who have the religious temperament but not the faith?’
Justin Welby, please remember us.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 November 2012