Traditional Britain Group October 2017 Conference: Reverend Peter Mullen on the Church of England's Future

by The Editor

Traditional Britain Group October 2017 Conference: Reverend Peter Mullen on the Church of England's Future
The Reverend Peter Mullen comments on the current state of the Church of England. This speech was delivered last month at the Traditional Britain Group's October Conference.

Those calling themselves members of the Church of England now number only 15% of the population . Seventeen years ago the figure was 30%. You don’t need to be a maths genius to notice that there are only half as many of us as there were at the Millennium. How many will there be in another seventeen years? Did you ever see the entertaining sci-fi film The Incredible Shrinking Man? This poor chap inhales part of a gas cloud over the sea and he begins to shrink. At first imperceptibly. But inexorably until he becomes smaller than a cat, then smaller than a spider. Until finally he disappears altogether. This is a metaphor for the Church of England.

But don’t despair. We always have the bishops. The congregations may have dwindled but we now have three times as many bishops as there were in the 19th century when the Church was pretty full. Why has this catastrophe befallen us?

Sixty years ago the Church was booming. Congregations increased and so did Christenings and weddings. Many men offered themselves to be trained as priests. I grew up in an industrial suburb in Leeds and from the churchyard you could see New Wortley gas works and the forbidding fortifications of Armley jail. 150 turned up every Sunday for the Sung Eucharist and fifty for Evensong. There were three of us in our parish accepted for ordination training. St Bartholomew’s Armley was not unusual. The same thriving could be seen throughout the country. And there was nothing sectarian about this. There were lively flourishing Anglo-Catholic parishes where the priest offered the solemn elevation of the Host. There was also Low Church where the sidesman offered the solemn elevation of the collecting plate. Evangelical churches with hell-fire sermons and rousing hymns. And then there were middle of the road parishes where they took pride in having nothing fancy or extreme. All  these churches were well-attended. Now there was one thing which all these different traditions had in common: they all used The King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer at all their services. Ah yes, and there was another thing they had in common: High, Low, Evangelical or Broad Church were full of people who believed the faith. They believed in God, of course. They believed in Our Lord’s Virgin Birth, his death on the Cross for our sake and his glorious resurrection. In other words, people said or sung the Creed every week – and they believed it.

This happy state of affairs came to an end – and pretty quickly. D’you remember Philip Larkin’s verse about sexual intercourse beginning in 1963 and he added, “Which was rather too late for me.” Yes, the 1960s were a time of social revolution: divorce law reform, and abortion law reform – though I’m not sure the word “reform” is appropriate. The abolition of the death penalty and the decriminalizing of homosexual acts between consenting male adults in private. It was the time of the Lady Chatterley court case and the Profumo affair. There was a burgeoning youth cult, The Beatles, the mini-skirt, late night satirical programmes on television. It was the height of the post-war consumer boom and prime minister Harold Macmillan told the nation, “You’ve never had it so good.”

The mood of the country was, you might say, loosening up. The new generation of politicians talked of an end to stuffiness and the discarding of old taboos. Harold Wilson was an apostle of this new and thrusting world. He bestowed the MBE on The Beatles and preached, at Scarborough in 1963 about “The white heat of the technological revolution.”  The Church of England did its usual Vicar of Bray act. Some bishops and cathedral deans wanted a piece of this fresh, let-your-corsets-out scene. For the Church always follows secular fashion only, like a good prince consort, one dutiful pace behind.

The radical hub was the Diocese of Southwark with its outspoken socialite bon viveur Bishop Mervyn Stockwood and his suffragan Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson. There were others dotted around: Alec Vidler in Cambridge, John Habgood at Durham and David Edwards who edited the radical Student Christian Movement Press.

Also in 1963 there occurred what has been referred to as “a theological earthquake.”  David Edwards published Bishop Robinson’s paperback book Honest to God which went into nine reprints in almost as many months. This book was advertised in a front page article by Robinson in The Observer. His article was called “Our image of God must go.” Robinson cast doubt on the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection and, in chapter six of his hook, he said our religion should no longer be based on the Commandments but should rather practise “situation ethics” which he defined as “doing the loving thing in whatever situation you find yourself.” In other words, make  up your morals on the spot. This famously got called “the new morality” – though a wit commented it was only the old immorality in a mini-skirt. Robinson followed up his iconoclastic bestseller with another paperback which was even more extreme. It was titled But That I Can’t Believe – where what were now no longer, it was said, believable were the central doctrines of the Christian faith as expressed in the Creed. Others were on the same bandwagon: a book by Christian theologians called Objections to Christian Belief. Another title The Secular Meaning of the Gospel . The iconoclastic trend continued for decades. John Hick’s book The Myth of God Incarnate. The talkative David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham whose heretical views, it was said, caused God to strike York Minster with a thunderbolt. The general sense was that the cat had been let out of the bag.

The radicals began to get the positions of rank in the hierarchy and they have simply promoted one another ever since. And of course their brave new Church must be provided with a brave new liturgy. And so, gradually at first in all those booklets Series One, Two and Three, and then in the massive Alternative Service Book of 1980, a trashy, illiterate liturgy was produced and The Book of Common Prayer deliberately sidelined. “Nothing new can survive,” said Samuel Johnson and indeed it is a measure of the flakiness of the Alternative Service Book that, twenty years later, the Church banned it. (Fancy – the Church banning books, eh? Just like Adolf!). They had launched it with the slogan “The greatest publishing event in 400 years“  It was discarded as out of date by the year 2000. There are now priests in the Church who have never opened The King James Bible or The Book of Common Prayer.  Astonishingly trainee priests are now being handed a lexicon to help them understand the words in the Prayer Book. They shouldn’t need a lexicon for the book is in the best English ever composed. Have we strayed so far and fallen so low that people need to be taught their own language nowadays?

The congrgations began to vote with their feet. It’s not difficult to see why. D’you remember when Mr Ratner described his jewelry as “crap.”? The hierarchy of the Church was doing the same. First, they told us that the basic tenets of the faith are now unbelievable. Then they produced orders of worship that are utterly banal. Would you buy a new car from a garage with the sign on its forecourt: ALL OUR MOTORS ARE RUBBISH AND THE AFTER-SALES SERVICE IS AWFUL TOO? No wonder people stopped going to church.

What other things did the Church do to guarantee its terminal decline? Some members of the hierarchy supported the World Council of Churches’ backing for guerilla movements in South Africa. Respected church charities such as Christian Aid turned themselves from their former honourable purposes to become left-wing, agitprop pressure groups. At the height of the Southern Rhodesia crisis in the mid-sixties, Archbishop Michael Ramsey assured the prime minister that he would have the Church’s support if he decided to use military force against Ian Smith.  This is what Ramsey’s letter to Harold Wilson said exactly: “If you should judge it necessary to use force, I am sure a great body of Christian opinion would support you.” More recently the ordination of women to the priesthood and their consecration as bishops – whatever you think of these innovations – have been divisive and they have alienated many. So we have suffered fifty years of theological iconoclasm, liturgical vandalism and a political lurch to the left by almost all the bishops. To these deficits must be added financial incompetence. The Church Commissioners so badly invested the funds entrusted to them, that they lost £1billion. The Commissioners used to pay the clergy stipends. Now that money has to be raised by the parishes in the exorbitant tax known as the diocesan quota or the parish share. In places this has proved too much of a burden and many parish churches have had to close down. Also, forty years ago, the Church authorities decided – at the bottom of the property market, by the way - to sell off all the old parsonages. So if you see a sign nowadays saying THE OLD VICARAGE, you will not find in it an old vicar: it will be occupied by a successful architect or a senior chartered accountant. The vicars have been rehoused in four-bedroom detached houses on the local estate. These houses are now falling into disrepair and so the financial burden relentlessly increases upon the perpetually declining congregations.  

Now here is a strange phenomenon: while Christianity is dying in Europe, it is burgeoning in Africa, South America and much of Asia, including China. The faith thrives in these places because its bishops and priests believe, teach and practise the traditional un-demythologised faith. These traditional churches are despised by the secularised bien pensants who run the church in England. But the non-believing new hierarchy has got itself into a delicious jam. Every ten years, all the Anglican bishops worldwide are summoned to a conference in Lambeth. As I write, I note that the Archbishop of Canterbury is trying to make up his mind whether the next Lambeth Conference should be postponed or even cancelled. Why? Because the last thing he wants is to host what would soon turn out to be an embarrassing confrontation between his secularised English bishops and the believing black prelates from foreign parts.  

Now all we hear from the bishops’ palaces, the archdeaconries and the theological colleges is endless palaver about “diversity”, “equality”, “under-privilege”, “deprivation”, “social exclusion”, “saving the planet” and the whole panoply of claptrap. If you don’t believe in God who is a metaphysical reality; if you believe the feeding of the five thousand was only a socialist picnic; if you think the resurrection was a mere shift in the disciples’ mood; then there is nothing left for you to engage with than the secular dogmas of this world. And that is exactly what the Anglican hierarchy has done these last forty years – and with great enthusiasm. They have supported every one of the government’s innovations in social policy since the 1960s so that now services of blessing for same sex couples – scarcely distinguishable from Gay “marriages” – are widely performed. This conformity to secular mores has gone so far that, in his last address before his retirement, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury declared, “The church has a great deal of catching up to do with secular values.” What, the traditionalist might ask, ever happened to St Paul’s injunction, “Be ye not conformed to this world”?

This, by the way, is the same Rowan Williams who told us that the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon were our fault. He also said that Britain would be a better place with more sharia law.

T.S. Eliot spoke of “a dissociation of sensibility”. This is what he meant: If you are floating steadily downstream in your little boat, you always have the chance to seize the oars and row back upstream. But there are also weirs and waterfalls. Once you’ve plunged over one of these, there is no return. Over the last fifty years, the Church’s boat has gone over quite a few waterfalls and the next one is approaching fast. It is the issue of homosexual “marriage”. This has long been permitted in The Episcopal Church of the USA and it has recently been approved by the Scottish Episcopal Church with which the English Church has strong connections. It is only a matter of time before it becomes the practice in the Church of England too.

The Scottish decision is highly significant for the Church of England: for these two churches teach the same Creed and they are institutionally and emotionally close. Let me say precisely why the Scottish vote was so crucial for members of the C. of E. We must understand the background…

Back in November 2013, the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality recommended that:

“The subject of sexuality, with its history of deeply entrenched views, would be best addressed by facilitated conversations or a similar process to which the Church of England needs to commit itself at national and diocesan level.”

These facilitated conversations have been going on in various locations for the last three years.  According to the bishops, the key question on which the church has been reflecting in these talks is:

“Given the significant changes in our culture in relation to human sexuality, how should the Church respond?”

The Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler, told us what these talks are all about:

“The church could support the process by praying for us and by holding back in its natural curiosity to wonder what is going on.” He said that there would be “no outcome” to the conversations: “Do not expect a press release saying that we have solved the problem.”

The problem, which Canon Butler dances around with all the finesse of a prima ballerina, is in plain language, “How can the C. of E. authorities achieve the required majority of votes in Synod in favour of homosexual ‘marriage’?”

If it is decided beforehand that there will be “no outcome” to the talks and no claim to their having made progress towards a solution to the perceived problem, what is the point of talking at all? But, more importantly, what is there to talk about? The church’s teaching on human coupling has not changed in 2000 years: the rule is one man married to one woman or abstinence. Of course, many of us fall short of this standard and so we must be careful to exercise the utmost charity and forbearance to all. The old rule still applies: hate the sin but love the sinner.

But what can we make of the bishop’s question: “Given the significant changes in our culture in relation to human sexuality, how should the Church respond?”

Why should the church, under the authority of scripture and tradition – and particularly the very explicit words of Our Lord on the matter – think it has to “respond” at all to “changes in our culture”? There has been no change in the Gospel over the centuries. It appears that the church is being asked to attend to secular mores and opinions, fashions and fads which are changing all the time. To make a comparison, should we “respond” differently to burglary if we notice that “changes in our culture” mean that thieving has become more popular?

The conversations now ended, the authorities have moved on to the next phase of their master plan by which they aim to bring about the church’s acceptance of homosexual “marriage.” Their technique is exactly the same as that used by Lenin: gradualism and dissembling. Say one thing and do the opposite. So they claim there will be no change to the church’s doctrine, while at the same time they implement radical changes to its practice. Insisting that the church must “show love” to practising homosexuals, they turn a blind eye to homosexual behaviour. So, for instance, known, active homosexual clergy are not disciplined. In very short time, a culture of de facto acceptance is established; and this leads inexorably to acceptance de jure. Softly, softly catchee monkee. And the biblical Commandment is undermined. Death by a thousand cuts.

One of these thousand cuts is that vote in the Scottish Episcopal Church. In fact it is more than a cut: it is a great gaping gash. No wonder it was greeted with extravagant cheers of approval by the modernisers and homosexualists in the C. of E. which will quickly fall into line. If you ask me how soon it will be that homosexual “marriage” is accepted south of the border, I would say within the next two years.

There are wider political ramifications of great significance. Theresa May has managed to cobble together a government with the aid of the Democratic Unionist Party whose members oppose homosexual “marriage.” Meanwhile, the Scottish Tory lesbian Ruth Davidson – who is shortly to be “married” to her girlfriend – is demanding “sexual tolerance” in return for her support for the beleaguered Mrs May. May will not be able to please both the DUP and Ms Davidson. So the question of homosexual “marriage” could easily bring down the Tory government. The irony is that it was Mrs May – the vicar’s daughter who is always telling us how much her Christianity means to her - who persuaded David Cameron to make homosexual “marriage” part of Tory policy. Christianity/ What Christianity is this?

Before I leave this discussion of the crisis in the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, I should like to make one thing clear. When the Bill to decriminalise homosexual acts between consenting adult men in private was being debated, I argued in support. But consenting adults in private is a million miles away from what we have today: the obscenity of Gay Pride marches defacing the high street and homosexuality promoted as a lifestyle choice. The love that dare not speak its name now shrieks at us in high camp on those gaudy processions of propaganda. As usual, St Augustine tells it how it is. In his great book City of God, he wrote:

“Full publicity is given where shame would be appropriate; close secrecy is imposed where praise would be in order. Decency is veiled from sight; indecency is exposed to view. Scenes of evil attract packed audiences; good words scarcely find any listeners. It is as if purity should provoke a blush and corruption give grounds for pride.”

The church is trying to cure its mortal failures and reverse its relentless decline not by the only action which could achieve this: a return to sanity and the faith of our fathers. Instead it conjures up an endless series of gimmicks, each one more inane that its predecessor. We’ve had guitars, rock music services and aisle-dancing. St Sepulcher’s  in the City of London is the National Musicians’ Church where Henry Wood learned the organ as a boy. I used to be its parish priest. My successor has thrown out the musicians and instituted something called “caged football” in the nave. Churches throughout the country are setting themselves up as Pokemon sites. (No, I didn’t know either!)  

I am desperate to find some signs of hope. Is there anything at all, even at this late stage, which might reverse the decline of the Church of England? What can traditional British Christians do, if anything, to stop the rot? I think we have to notice first that there have been momentous changes in how the various parties in the Church square up to one another. When I began this talk, I spoke of High, Low, Evangelical and Broad. I suggest that today these differences of emphasis in doctrine and practice are trivial when compared with the fundamental divide which is now between traditionalists and the so called “liberals” – who are actually, modernisers, iconoclasts and really unbelievers in that Christian faith which flourished fifty or sixty years ago.

Some wear vestments, swing incense and celebrate High Mass. Others wear surplice, scarf and hood and eschew elaborate ritual. Still others worship in lounge suits or even jeans and t-shirts. But within all these parties there are traditionalists who still adhere to the biblical and doctrinal essentials. These traditionalists need to set aside old differences and disputes and come together for the common good which is nothing less than the survival of the Church. Can this be done or is it only a pipe dream?  Before I try to answer this question, I should like to propose an even more radical solution: co-operation and working together among the various parties in the Church of England will be a good thing, but it is not enough. We need to identify fellow traditionalists in the Roman Catholic Church, among Dissenters and in the lively new Pentecostal churches which are so successful. There are traditionalists in all these institutions. We need to get together. I’m not talking about bureaucratic schemes for formal unity but about grass roots co-operation. I have more in common with the Roman Catholic priest at Our Lady of Ransom where I live in Eastbourne than I could ever have with Justin Welby and the modernised, secularised hierarchy he leads. I have more in common with a Bible-believing Pentecostalist than with all the debunking, scarcely believing gallery of theologians.

And here I’m not being merely theoretical. I can give you a little case study of what such interdenominational co-operation actually means in practice. Over the last few years I have written regularly for The Church of England Newspaper where I have a fortnightly column; for the Catholic Herald and for The British Church Newspaper. The Church of England Newspaper is what it says it is. The Catholic Herald is one of the leading Roman Catholic weekly papers in Britain. The British Church Newspaper describes itself as Protestant and non-denominational. What they all have in common is that they are produced for and read by traditionalist, Bible-believing, sacraments celebrating, doctrinal Christians. I have found that the old denominational boundaries mean nothing here. I write much the same orthodox Christian theology and philosophy for all three papers – with nuance to reflect their different but ultimately unimportant emphases. I’m sure I’m not alone and that there are other practical ecumenists who share my experience of this interdenominational co-operation among traditional Christian believers of different hues. If the Church is to have a future, I suggest it will be thanks to this alignment of traditionalists wherever they are against the iconoclasts and the modernisers. If there is hope, here is where it is to be found. 

The slow death of the English Church is being mirrored throughout Europe while further afield Catholic and Protestant churches are thriving – in Africa, Central and South America and in China Christianity is experiencing lively growth. Why then is Christianity in Europe so moribund? It’s a long story but at least susceptible to summary. In Europe the presence and influence of the churches began to decline at the time of the 18th century Enlightenment – that Copernican revolution of the psyche which displaced God and put man at the centre.  It’s all there in Renaissance paintings which reflected the new humanism. As T.E. Hulme wrote:

“You get the first hint of it in the beginnings of the Renaissance itself, in a person like Pico Della Mirandola. You get there the hint of an idea of something which finally culminates in a doctrine which is the opposite of the doctrine of Original Sin: the belief that man as a part of nature was after all something satisfactory. You get a change from a certain profundity and intensity to that flat and insipid optimism which, passing through its first stage of decay in Rousseau, has finally culminated in the state of slush in which we now have the misfortune to live.”

Interesting word, “Enlightenment.” Don’t forget  the name Lucifer means “bringer of light”. He was the one who would rather rule on earth than serve in heaven. By dethroning God and placing ourselves at the centre, we have made Lucifer-Satan our model and exemplar.

We see the same symptoms in the literature of the early modern period. In the 13th century, St Thomas Aquinas had constructed his great theological system on the single sentence, “There is an IS.” This affirmation is replaced in the greatest of the modern plays, Hamlet with a question: “To be or not to be?” For 1600 years of Christian history – and the 1000 years of Jewish history which preceded it – morality originated in God and his Commandments. In the 16th century man made himself the measure of all things and the only moral authority. Shakespeare again: “There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Since that time, God has been increasingly marginalised until he has now disappeared from the reckoning altogether. The first signs of this were in the atheistic, positivistic philosophy of David Hume. And, of course, the French Revolution was militantly atheistic. You might say this was the beginning of secularisation. This process accelerated in the 19th century when Nietzsche put it plainly, “God is dead”. There followed the invention of the three atheistic, deterministic ideologies which have dominated all our thought and culture for more than a hundred years: Marxism, Darwinism and Freudianism.

Now we inhabit a philosophical nihilism in which there is no such thing as truth – only your truth, my truth, anybody’s truth: post truth in fact. The Deconstructionist critic Jacques Derrida has even told us, “Texts do not have meanings.” He said that in a text, by the way, which tells you all you need to know about modernity’s capacity to contradict itself. We have replaced the Gospel of the Lord with the Gospel according to Pontius Pilate.

So what should the individual Christian do in this predicament? What should you do and what should I do? What can anyone do? As T.S. Eliot said, “I think we’re in rats’ alley where the dead men lost their bones.”

For the best practical course we might look to C.H. Sisson who wrote:

“What then is the position of the theological rump in our now lay, secularised clerisy? There are three possibilities. They can stay and fight their corner, struggling for an intelligibility which might come again, and will come, if it is the truth they are concerned with. They can sit on pillars in some recess of the national structure, waiting for better times. Or they can let their taste for having an ecclesiastical club carry them into one or other of those international gangs of opinion – that which has its headquarters in Rome or that which has a shadowy international meeting-place in Canterbury. In any case it will be a political choice that is being made. For my part, I shall prefer those who stay and fight their corner, content to be merely the Church in a place.”

At St Mary’s Eastbourne, I am content to belong to a church in a place.

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