It is a truth universally acknowledged that a lot of people are fed up with the Church of England. It is important to say (in the name of inclusivity) that there are also other churches available where you can be having a tiresome time, but I’ll stay in my own lane just for now.
In the last fifteen years or so we have witnessed an evangelical takeover in The Church of England: Steaming backwards out of Holy Trinity Brompton, creating an enormous bow wave of Pioneer Ministry, Alpha, and Church Planting. A tsunami of initiative that has, ironically, pushed people out from the edges of the church where they were happily lurking, and into the neat lycra clad bosoms of a thousand yoga teachers, all biding their time like bears, mats at the ready, waiting for the salmon to swim upstream. Many of those who got washed ashore by this wave of evangelicalism have discovered that Yoga is better for their mental wellbeing than spending a Sunday morning listening to two ladies in the middle row bitching about the vicar, to the accompaniment of an old Graham Kendrick song, played on an organ at half speed. I think it was hoped that we might replace these hopeless pew-warmers with a new community of the committed but so far this doesn’t seem to be panning out, does it? They are in bed on a Sunday morning and they aren’t coming back.
Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead, in their book ‘That was the Church That Was: How The Church of England Lost The English People’ (2016), argued that The Church, when faced with the unprecedented cultural changes of the last forty years, completely missed a trick. It could have delved deep into it’s mystical, Celtic, contemplative roots: Into its centuries of charismatic wisdom, spirituality and tradition: Into all the ways in which it has learned to hold its own fragile life together. Delved, and offered up, all of that life affirming spirituality, to society, as a gift. Instead, it pulled up the drawbridge and hung the dirty washing all over it, adopting the language of business and leadership in order to get bums on seats. During the pandemic the parish clergy still buried the dead, drove people to food banks, and moved their services online – because despite their foibles, affairs, and strange shoes, they are largely a heroic bunch of people who do all sorts of stuff that you have no idea about, in return for bugger-all pay, a draughty vicarage, and one day off a week. A very dear friend who is a prison chaplain spent lockdown dodging Covid on the wings of a high security prison. Kneeling on the floor, saying prayers, for the prisoners who had hanged themselves in their cells. In the arena of public discourse however, public encouragement, and spiritual leadership offered to the nation, an arena where senior clergy would once have been visible, there was tumbleweed. The national ministry of encouragement and support was instead led by a P.T. instructor; and something became apparent: The West London Bow Wave, as well as washing away the seekers and the pew warmers, had also washed away the church’s understanding of itself as the national church. Required to offer spiritual care, the sacraments, and public service, in return for its established status. There for everyone with a great story to tell that might just save your life, if you let it. Replaced now with a policy of following the money back to big evangelical churches, holding the church to ransom over issues of sexuality and biblical orthodoxy. Describing the church’s clergy, buildings and structures, built up for a thousand years in every local community, as ‘limiting factors’ that need to be removed.
In Lancaster the local ‘Churches Together’ used to organise a series of services at Easter: Beginning with a walk of witness from the city centre up to Williamson Park on Good Friday, ‘We have come out of our city to the place of the cross’. The story was told in real time so you could place yourself wherever you needed to be. People would camp out in the park over Good Friday and Holy Saturday and there would be a fire at dawn on Easter Sunday with a view of Morecambe Bay. We danced on the hillside eating hot cross buns. We were free to watch, scoff, hang around the edges of the story, step up and carry a cross or wash our hands of the whole thing, but it played out, whether you were there or not. Bearing witness to ancient truths. And it was understood in that Holy Saturday was an important space. A liminal space. To bring your liminal self, waiting, “While Jesus is in hell looking for his friend Judas…” as Bishop Jack Nicholls used to say.
When I came back to the city in 2014 the walk of witness remained but the played-out narrative had gone, replaced by a self-conscious parody of its former self. Now we were walking around the city, “So that people can see us.” And it was devastating to discover that The Bow Wave, the one that had washed me out of my East London parish, had also carried away the understanding that the Easter narrative needs to be lived out and repeated every year, in real time, for people to feel it in their bodies, performed in the service of the human need of God, not the need of The Church to draw attention to itself. We need spaces to reflect and mourn our mendacious human life, with others and alone. Holy Saturday does all of that, but it works best if you have walked to the cross on Good Friday and can feel the Easter Morning sunshine creeping up behind your back while you wait. There was no waiting for resurrection in Lancaster on Holy Saturday 2014. Instead, there was a ‘Faith Festival’ in Dalton Square. With stalls. A recruitment drive. To get people to come to services on Sunday morning. Jesus might be in the pit of hell ‘looking for his friend Judas’ but we haven’t got time to reflect on that and follow him down there because we still need someone to run ‘Tiny Tiddlers’ on a Sunday morning. We need to keep The Archdeacon off our backs. Or whoever is our denominational equivalent. I have rarely felt so sad.
I am aware that I sound like a post-evangelical re-moaner and it’s certainly true that I tend to steer clear of big evangelical certainties. I’m more of a Richard Rohr girl. Everything belongs. Everything is sacred. I don’t want to have conversations discussing if people are ‘in or out’. I never did. The world has become far too scary for the church to be indulging that. That’s not the promise of salvation. It’s what the promise of salvation saves us from: Exclusion and division.
In my work as a University Chaplain, I’m aware that I fall right into that division among our students. The majority seem to be generally horrified at the church. To them most Christians are farty homophobic bigots whose faith got stuck in the ark. They regard me with suspicion until they discover I have biscuits. The students who identify as Christian don’t help their own cause. They are mostly incredibly theologically conservative and they think I’m a heathen and an unbeliever because I consort with sinners, gay people and Muslims – and don’t go around casting things out of other things and unyoking people from unbelievers in my spare time- well, not much anyway.
And yet the truth is that I went to an evangelical theological college – Ridley Hall in Cambridge- and I have impeccable evangelical credentials. I came to faith as a student at Trinity St David’s University, in West Wales. A long way from home. At a friend’s baptism in Derby, in February 1992, an evangelist called Gary Gibbs led the altar call in the most time-honoured way possible: “If you want to give your life to The Lord tonight, raise your right hand!” – and I did. And I would do it again. In a heartbeat. Because the church saved my life. The message of salvation through faith answered my question at the time. “How do people who are having a rubbish life get transformed?” I understood from being quite young that change was both individual and systemic. I worried about why there were people sleeping out on the streets in Nottingham in January. I loved Arthur Miller’s assessment of attention as the antidote to despair: “Willy Loman never made a lot of money; his name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character who ever lived. But he’s a human being and a terrible thing is happening to him. Attention. Attention must finally be paid to such a person… “. In those first weeks of college, I needed a bit of attention myself – and support – and someone to help me think about who I wanted to be. There was a Chaplain, Rachel : Tartan tights: dog collar made from a fairy liquid bottle. I asked her if she was sure about this thing and she said, “No, and if it’s not true I’m going to look very silly!”. I still love her for that. There was Jo who lived in the room next door and who went to Christian Union but who was not typical fodder. She had an enviable leather jacket and a lot of Metallica posters. Jo had a friend called Kim, and Kim had a friend called Jenny, and suddenly I was held. I went to Christian Union once or twice, but they were all a bit serious and seemed quite focused on not having sex with each other. Which I found annoying. In the chapel though there was Taize and liturgy from The Iona Community, and a nice smell of polish. Parts of the service, and some of the hymns, were in Welsh. On Sunday nights there was Book of Common Prayer Evensong, “Lighten our darkness, Lord we pray, and save us from all perils and dangers of this night..” It was enough. It was more than enough. The church wrapped itself around me like a blanket. I didn’t feel coerced. I felt loved. My new friends took me to Spring Harvest, an evangelical Christian conference that used to take over Butlins holiday camps over the Easter weekend. Seven of us in a double room. Four on the bed: Two on the floor: One in the bath. A pillow acting as a barrier so that the person on the floor who hated spiders could get some sleep. Later In the same year I went to Greenbelt with Zoe and listened to Henri Nouwen and Walter Wangerin, both gentle and profound men of God. I went back the following year and danced on a hillside to The Worldwide Message Tribe (neither gentle nor profound) with my friend Liz. Back at college chapel, Luisa and I tiptoed in trepidation into a Feminist Theology Conference, full of circle- dancing women pissing off the evangelicals by calling God ‘Christa’. They were all reading Gyn-ecology by Mary Daly. I didn’t understand it then and I don’t understand it now. I didn’t care. It pushed the possibilities for living a life with meaning one centimetre further away from my reach, and I had never been so relieved. Feeling as if I was standing in soil that I could dig down through forever and only find more unfathomable contradictory depth. There was no script. And that’s really my point. I started with a bit of evangelical certainty, but it wasn’t the only place to inhabit. Other versions of faith were available to grow into as my training wheels came off. I could push out in any direction in a church full of mavericks and misfits. The Iona Community Jesus would “Bring to our house all those who hurry or hobble behind him!”
I know that many people might question my memory of a time when women were yet to be ordained as priests and homophobia was rife. But I might argue the socially conservative church of that time existed at either end of a continuum between conservative evangelicals and traditional Anglo-Catholics. In the middle was a certain kind of freedom to be yourself in a broad church that was ever so slightly mad and eccentric. In which the ever so slightly mad and eccentric were welcome. Now I’m just not sure that’s the case.
There is an incredible sadness for me now when so many of my friends just don’t want to engage with the one-eyed version of faith that much of the church is presenting as truth. Homophobic, individualistic, climate denying. Presenting substitutionary theology as the faith, when it’s simply one way that early Christians used to process what happens on the cross. If you don’t believe the negative impact of how the church is doing at the moment, If this is making you bristle, you may want to consider this : Out of all my contemporaries, the ones I’ve mentioned earlier in this piece, I am the only one who still goes to church. Smart, professional, people who when they were young were all passionate about their faith.
Where did they go?
One such friend explained, “I just got fed up with the guilt..”
When I used to see ordination candidates, I often had to tell them that what they were presenting me with was an evangelical ‘script’ not a vocational narrative. When I have ordinands on placement, I must remind them that this thing only works if you can do Being as well as Doing. Something I shouldn’t have to say to people in the final stages of ministry training. Back in London an ordination candidate once told me that she had been in the discernment process for a year but that I was the only person who had asked her about her ‘emotional and spiritual life’. I was asked about that continually when I was in that process.
When did the script become a substitute for Holy Saturday experience? Well I might reflect that about a third of our ordination training is now done by St Mellitus College which was set up by – you guessed it – Holy Trinity Brompton. That West London Bow Wave. Training the next generation of clergy. I am not saying it’s all bad. But it does start to make the church look 2D and like a shadow of its former self, when so many clergy are trained by one organisation, and one with such a massive evangelical agenda.
My own history with the church has been far from easy since those halcyon days in Wales. My selection process and early ministry could be written up as a PhD on intersectional enactment. My years of discernment for ministry filled with people who didn’t have my best interests, or my back. Male selectors who didn’t agree with the ordination of women but who had still been asked to say if they thought I had a vocation: Women who were so horribly damaged by the church’s misogyny that they could only see my bumptious bright young self through an envious defensive lens.
The first service I ever led on my own was Book of Common Prayer Evensong at St John Hills Road, a lovely church in Cambridge, but the organist didn’t like women clergy. So when I got to the sung versicles and responses, he gave me the note for a man. I believe the more feisty members of the choir relieved him of his testicles in the vestry soon after.
As a young female curate in the early 2000’s I regularly had groups of male clergy, black shirted and hostile, turning their backs on me en mass when I walked into rooms and refusing to walk next to me in processions or sit next to me at meals. It was standard. Quite a lot of them were gay men. They existed in the same cramped space as me, outside the temple, the mavericks whom the church couldn’t figure, but they were men, so could still claim a spot a bit higher up in the pecking order. And they did.
At my exit interview from my London parish, my first incumbency, the Bishop of Stepney made it clear that he wasn’t interested in my seven years of ministry in Bethnal Green. He wasn’t interested in The Toddler group: The After School Club: The East London Pensioners trying to run a séance in the church hall: Early morning assemblies in three different schools: Running a night shelter : Burying the dead: Trying to do creative stuff on Sundays: Being a trustee for a local counselling service: Dealing with the suicidal, the pigeons in the tower, the fox in the under-croft at 7am. He wasn’t even interested in the parishioner who we had supported through an asylum claim who said to me, “If it wasn’t for this church I would be dead”. He wasn’t interested. He just reminded me that I hadn’t got the church to grow. In a hugely transient area, where nearly half the population were Muslims. I hadn’t got the church to grow. I should have been more like the H.T.B. ‘church plant’ down the road. If only I had had their resources and support. Bye then. Off you go. That conversation, being told I was a failure, is lodged in my soul and it won’t go away.
These days, in addition to the chaplaincy work, I also work as a psychotherapist in private practice. Quite a few of my clients are clergy and I know a bit more about where the The Church buries its bodies. And yet. And yet. I took a service a few weeks ago on a Sunday morning at St Peter’s Heysham. As I preached about Jesus calming the storm I could see the tide coming in, through the windows to my right – as they say in Morecambe – ‘faster than a horse can run’. I also baptised a little girl called Olivia, and her pink bunny. The magic and the charisma aren’t lost. I love it still. The church taught me how to love people and the earth. I mostly fail at it but at least I have a mentor in God.