Daniel French

Could an underground church now emerge in Britain?

Could an underground church now emerge in Britain?
A sign announcing the closure of a church in Wales in the wake of the pandemic (Getty images)
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Coronavirus and the fallout from it could have been a chance for the Church of England to talk about the grand vision of Christian hope and mortality. The Bible warns us of plagues and pestilence. It tells us that we live in a broken world. It makes it clear this pandemic is far from unprecedented. Yet it also has a message of good news. Instead, too many of the Church’s senior figures have ditched this vision, choosing rather to scare us or play politics when it comes to coronavirus.

This missed opportunity, sadly predictable, uncovers a deeper Anglican crisis than push button issues like gay bishops, transgender liturgies, or declining congregations. Ultimately it stems from a lack of confidence among bishops and theologians when it comes to the supernatural. This is little surprise given how dominant secular progressive theology is in the Church. But the result is depressing: at a time when so many were reevaluating their lives – and realising how easily the things they took for granted might not always be there – too many senior figures in the Church were absent.

Since the 1960s, liberals have been eager to demythologise Christianity to death. The supernatural – the resurrection, for example – has been swapped for a progressive mélange of critical theory, wokeism and management science. Yet just like the utopian dreams of Blairism, this supposed theological revolution came to little, manifesting itself in dwindling church attendance. 

As numbers of worshippers have fallen, the paperwork for many vicars has mounted: SWOT analysis, mission statements, task force reports, policies, are all being pumped out by an army of supernumeraries within the CofE. The zenith has been Covid-19, where the Church House website went into overdrive with volumes of pithy directives that would be the envy of any government quango. Ironically, timely existential explorations were absent, especially anything on salvation of souls. The Church has fallen into the trap articulated by C. S. Lewis: ‘Aim at heaven and you will get Earth thrown in, aim at earth and you will get neither.’

More and more Christians are fed up with this. But could there be positive change to come? And might this be the watershed moment when the protracted supremacy of Anglican progressivism finally departs?

Since lockdown started, and in the church’s absence, a theological underground movement has taken root online, attracting zealous orthodox clergy. These men and women, predominantly under fifty and typically working in less affluent parishes, offer a welcome relief to the trendy vicars and theologians who brook little dissent from their dull newspeak. Whether this is the seed of a Gothic Revival has yet to be seen. But one can only hope.

For this group, three thinkers are shaping post-Covid orthodoxy; C S Lewis, Jordan Peterson and Rod Dreher. Despite all the odds and the animosity of the ecclesiastical establishment, the stardom of C.S. Lewis continues to rise. His vision of a material universe as part of a greater cosmic reality is a magnificent catharsis to plague and riots. His message is as relevant now as it was around the time of the Second World War, when his Mere Christianity talks were broadcast to a tired and deflated audience.

A contemporary thinker attractive to this group of Christians is Jordan Peterson, who has been instrumental in puncturing Richard Dawkins’s New Atheism project. YouTube videos of his sellout Biblical lectures are proving popular among those cooped up indoors. This surely gives hope that Westerners retain a religious appetite. Millennials are lapping Peterson up and cheering him when he hollers, ‘Go clean your room sonny before you dare to share your plans for planet Earth!’ Can you imagine some of our bishops annunciating this from their pulpits?

If this post-Covid orthodoxy is becoming a reality, it was one predicted by the journalist Rod Dreher in his bestseller ‘The Benedict Option’. Dreher argued that Christians opposed to progressivism may end up driven to form ‘under the radar’ moral communities and networks. He bases this observation on Soviet countries where underground churches paralleled the official state-run churches. A lot of us (not just ministers) feel vulnerable to the so-called ‘Cancel Culture’ and cannot see that the Anglican establishment will be able to shield us from the rising politically correct barbarians at the gates. To support people in troubled times, orthodox clergy need overseers, mentors and a support network of spiritual combatants. This new network – unlike the Cof E establishment – could plausibly offer just that. Could an underground, online church emerge from the lockdown? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Daniel French is an Anglican priest in Salcombe