Traditional Britain Group Conference Address: The Apostate Church – 1 Theological Iconoclasm

by The Editor

Traditional Britain Group Conference Address:  The Apostate Church – 1 Theological Iconoclasm
The Reverend Peter Mullen describes modern liberal theological developments in the Church of England and its consequent decline.

Throughout the 1950s, the Church of England was thriving. Attendances at Sunday services actually increased and there was a boom in the numbers of Christenings and Marriages. For three hundred years there had existed three main parties in the church: the High, the Low and the Broad. The high churches were heirs of either the old high churchmen of the late 18th century and their roots went back to such as Archbishop Laud, or the anglo-catholic movement of a hundred years later. The low churches were either lively evangelical parishes with a strong emphasis on the Bible and preaching, or quietest places with the minimum of ceremony, Matins and Evensong from The Book of Common Prayer (1662). In the high churches the priest elevated the Host at the Eucharist, while at 11am Sunday Matins, the Minister performed the solemn elevation of the collecting plate. Broad churchmen were liberals of the old-fashioned sort, light on dogma and doctrine, vaguely deistic, practitioners of the sort of “freethinking” that we find in the writings of George Eliot. All three main parties differed widely in doctrine and practice but united in their use of the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible. There was some mild sectarian rivalry, a little entertaining joshing of a generally gentle sort, and many jokes – not all of them bad.

At the beginning of the 1960s, two sorts of innovation destroyed this largely unspoken but affectionate traditional arrangement. The first of these was theological iconoclasm and the second was liturgical change on the grand scale.

In this theological iconoclasm, paperback books became all the rage. These were some of the titles: Objections to Christian Belief; The Secular Meaning of the Gospel; The Gospel of Christian Atheism; But That I Can’t Believe!; Radical Theology and the Death of God and, one of the earliest tracts and most successful of them all, Honest to God by John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich. He launched this talkative religious bestseller – it was reprinted half a dozen times inside a year - with a long article on the front of The Observer newspaper entitled Our Image of God Must Go.

In his book, Robinson sought thoroughly to undermine our notions of the being of God. He writes: “In place of a God who is literally or physically 'up there' we have accepted, as part of our mental furniture, a God who is spiritually or metaphysically 'out there'." But Christians for 2000 years had held as their core belief the objective, metaphysical existence of God. Honest to God was an explicit denial of this. Robinson’s book was catastrophic in another way. In chapter six – the corresponding chapter number of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic in which he had announced the meaninglessness of ethical terms! - Robinson preached the utilitarian morality of Jeremy Bentham – with a faintly churchy veneer – and invented the term “situation ethics.” This denied the authority of the Ten Commandments and instead declared that our moral decisions should be guided by whatever we decide is “the loving thing to do” in any particular set of circumstances. In other words, you make up your own morality on the hoof. Situation ethics soon became known as The New Morality – while a wit remarked that it was only the old immorality in a miniskirt. This appalling book had enormous influence, going into half a dozen reprints in as many months. I say it was appalling because it was philosophically incompetent, theologically illiterate, ethically nihilistic and sensationalising. The mass media, which at the time was performing a frenzy of irreverence to all authority and a general debunking of traditional values in what were misleadingly described as “satirical” television programmes, seized upon Honest to God with a drooling relish, talked endlessly of the “atheist bishop” and the bandwagon began to roll. Ironically, this infantilised craving for novelty was described by its perpetrators as “Christianity come of age” – a phrase coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The bandwagon rolled on and gathered pace through the decade of student radicalism, campus unrest, inner city riots and the new feminism. The climate was radical-chic and antinomian. In 1977 John Hick edited a book of essays by radical priests and theologians and published under the title The Myth of God Incarnate. The authors denied the traditional view of Jesus as God and Man. The New Theology and the New Morality were enthusiastically taken up by the most prominent people in the church; bishops, deans, principals of theological colleges and the like. It thus resembled a churchy form of the Frankfurt School, undermining traditional institutions from within. The radicals in positions of authority promoted their like-minded friends to high office and a new modernising Establishment perpetuated itself.

You might say that the Church of England effectively resigned. But the iconoclasts and virtual atheists who became the new Establishment were left with a big problem on their hands. If you denied, as they did, that Scripture and traditional church teaching actually meant what they said, what did you do with the words of the Bible and the doctrines of the Christian Fathers? Answer: in the phrase used by Professor Rudolf Bultmann of the University of Marburg, you demythologised them.

How? Well, take the feeding of the five thousand. Obviously, the new non-believing theologians could not by any means accept that this was one of Our Lord’s miracles, but there it remains in the Bible – so how to deal with it? Answer: it was a socialist picnic. Turn it into a banal story about sharing and make it part of the social-gospelling ideology which eventually grew and developed into today’s rampant egalitarianism and levelling down.

What about the resurrection of Christ? The modernisers did not believe it. For they had been taught by But That I Can’t Believe, Bishop Robinson’s sequel to Honest to God, that the resurrection of Christ is one of those things which no one in his right mind could believe. But there it stubbornly remains in all four gospels. So what to make of it? What they did was to deny that it happened and instead they psychologised and subjectified it. These leaders, who were supposed to be our spiritual fathers in God, our religious teachers and defenders of the faith, did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. So they said instead that after his death “His disciples experienced new life.” Thus they left entirely unexplained where this experience of new life came from if Jesus remained dead. And it left unanswered the other question too: would the first Christian men and women preach what they knew to be a lie? Would they really have had the courage to suffer martyrdom for what they knew was a cock-and-bull story?

This secularisation of Christianity has accelerated over the years so that the church is now run by practical atheists. This is why you never hear many of our bishops and other senior clergy speak directly about scripture or the doctrines of the Creed. They don’t believe what the Bible and the Creeds actually say. And so they retreat and re-interpret Christian doctrine in terms of the secular opinions of our time. These opinions are always merely political. And of course they are always the fashionable left wing prejudices of the day.

There are pockets of reaction here and there. Not every parish in the land has bowed the knee to the new secularised Baal. But they are rare and, when they are identified, the bishops and deans who are the new Establishment, do all they can to stamp them out. I speak whereof I know, for I am one who has been stamped out. Over fifteen years, the priest, churchwardens, parochial church council and faithful parish clerks of two historically renowned but declined and moribund churches in the City of London revived these parishes by reinstating the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version and by teaching the traditional faith. The congregation increased tenfold. When the priest – that was me! - retired, the Bishop of London appointed in one church an arch-moderniser who had done more than most to devise and promote the inferior new church services – of which more in due course – and to the other church a theologically ignorant, “happy-clappy” priest with his guitars and overhead projectors, “worship songs” and the full repertoire of the Jiving for Jesus liturgy.

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. 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 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 that 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 except 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 “Be ye not conformed to this world”?

2 Liturgical Change.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find an Anglican church which still uses The Book of Common Prayer. The modernising senior clergy hate the BCP because, as Eliot reminded us it:

“Tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts. They constantly try to escape From the darkness outside and within By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

The Bishops and the leadership in the General Synod believe above all in progress and so they are offended by the BCP which insists that, however emancipated and liberated they imagine themselves to be, they are yet sinners who fall short of the glory of God. Therefore in the 1960s the progressive hierarchy set about devising new forms of church services which would reflect their progressive and optimistic mindset. Of course it would not have been possible to throw out the BCP at once and replace it with new inventions, for the Church of England was, disagreeably for the modernizers, firmly attached to the old book. The rank and file would have to be weaned off it in stages. So the revisers proceeded by stealth. They began by introducing something called Series One – a collection of booklets containing Matins, Evensong, Holy Communion, Baptism, Wedding and Funeral which were only slight modifications of the BCP. These booklets were followed by the rather more radical Series Two and finally by Series Three in which the services bore little resemblance to those in the BCP. In 1980 the General Synod’s Liturgical Commission collected all the Series Three revisions in a volume three times as long as the BCP. This was published as The Alternative Service Book and the Synod spent millions (of churchgoers’ money) advertising it as “The greatest publishing event in four hundred years.” And the Archbishop of York was to be seen blowing his trumpet in Church Times, saying: “The publication of the ASB has made a handsome profit for the Church’s Board of Finance.”

Actually, the book which was acclaimed by its devisers as the greatest publishing event in four hundred years enjoyed a mere twenty years of life before the bishops and the Synod banned it! How ironical that the ever-so-politically-correct and impeccable “liberal” hierarchy of the church should copy the book-burning practices of Nazi Germany and dictatorships everywhere.

In 2000 they replaced it with something else, something much longer and much worse…

Common Worship (2000)

The prevailing revisionist party among the senior clergy and the General Synod prefer to describe themselves as liberals. But they are nothing of the sort. Even John Stuart Mill understood that liberalism is not about counting heads but involves consideration for dissenting minorities. The so called liberals who rule the Church of England will have none of this: their desire is to establish hegemony and they tolerate only with those who agree with them.

There were so many alternative rites and prayers in the ASB that C.H. Sisson was led to refer to it as “the book of variants.” But in CW the concept of variety was raised almost to infinity. In fact, it is hard to determine whether there is a single item which we can refer to as CW: there is such a plethora of permitted alternatives and downloads that the very existence of the book might be a topic for speculative metaphysics. A better title for CW would have been Prayers for the New Babel .

Let us look first at CW’s Baptism, Marriage and Funeral Services because these are the offices used by the occasional churchgoers who represent the largely, and increasingly, unchurched general public. In the BCP, The Public Baptism of Infants is a rite which takes sin and devil seriously. But in CW it is re-titled Initiation Services, which I’m afraid only makes me think of masonic lore and corny witchcraft films on late night television.

CW is full of little explanations in the language of baby talk: “This is a demanding task for which you will need the help and grace of God.” It is the infantilised form of expression used by condescending adults when speaking to unruly children: “And don’t forget to brush the back of your teeth as well as the front!” Many of the intrusive injunctions in CW look as if they have been culled from the secular, psychotherapeutic culture or the self-help guide books on the Mind, Body and Spirit shelf in the bookshop: “God invites you on a life-long journey and Christian formation must allow an individual’s story to be heard.” Hearing this, one requires no emetic.

Successful liturgical language effects an immediate presentation of the spiritual mystery. Liturgical language is less than successful when it is overwhelmingly discursive and tries to explain the mystery. But attempts to explain what is inexpressible – because transcendent – are bound to result in bathos. The BCP service The Public Baptism of Infants says, “.,.by the baptism of thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ in the river Jordan, thou didst sanctify water to the mystical washing away of sin.” This is beautiful. And the use of particular names and places roots the prayer in tangible reality. The reference to Jesus Christ draws us close to him – which is just what is required at a Baptism. CW rewrites this passage, removing all the evocative, homely detail and the result is something which sounds like instructions for operating a washing machine: “Now sanctify this water that, by the power of your Holy Spirit, they may be cleansed from sin and born again.” Even if we ignore that peremptory Now - are we really meant to issue ultimatums to the Almighty? – the sensation produced by the CW version is of a peculiar flatness of tone in which the priest does not by image and rhythm evoke a mysterious spiritual landscape but merely describes what (he hopes) is going on.

Holy Baptism is a full and holy cure of the most dread disease, and this disease is sin. It is dreadful because, as Scripture tells us, its wages are death. The BCP makes this terrifyingly clear right at the start: “Dearly beloved, forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin...” CW does not get round to a mention of sin until the candidate makes his “Decision.” In fact the Pelagian tendency permeates this new book. It is as if we must not be led to think badly of ourselves but should at all times keep up what practitioners in our psychotherapeutic culture call our self-esteem.

Modern liturgists have frequently tried to explain to me why they omitted the words “conceived and born in sin.” They say we must not use language which suggests there is something unclean about sexual intercourse or giving birth – language that is also said to be “offensive to women.” But the BCP rite neither implies physical uncleanness nor disparages women: the sin it refers to is Original Sin which, according to such un-progressed minds as the author of Genesis, the Apostle Paul and St Augustine, is the heritage and mark of all men. CW’s Initiation Services are theologically feeble because they contain no suggestion of this deep sore with which we are all marked. So we are left wondering about the purpose of CW’s Holy Baptism. Of course it is a family occasion when we publicly welcome a new member of the human race, but there is meant to be more to it than that. We receive her into the fellowship of Christ’s flock which is the company of those God has redeemed from the severe stain of sin; and in this company the infant will have to learn that there is a fight on, against sin, the world and the devil. To play down the sheer evilness of evil and its spoiling presence in the human heart is at the same time to play down the redeeming work of Christ. Surely that cannot have been the intention of the revisers?

These revisers also show a disquieting unfamiliarity with the nature of traditional liturgical language. In The Commentary by the Liturgical Commission on Initiation Services, there is a section entitled Accessible Language which says, “The full and rich imagery surrounding Baptism and the comparative ignorance of this imagery in many sections of modern society pose a major problem in the drafting of services of Christian Initiation.” This is certainly true – and whose fault is this, by the way? But their solution to this problem for evangelism is to abandon the full and rich imagery; whereas a better solution would be to present the full and rich imagery so that “sections of modern society” might hear it and become enriched by it. People have to be taught.

The BCP includes all those stern and psychologically accurate words in the Introduction to The Solemnisation of Matrimony in which the couple (and indeed the whole congregation) are admonished concerning “…carnal lusts and appetites...a remedy against sin and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry and so keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.”

Compared with this, the moral teaching CW’s Marriage Service is unrealistic and shares with the Hollywood musical elements of sheer fantasy. There is no mention of carnal lusts and appetites or of the moral, personal and social dangers which these failings involve. Instead, the bridegroom and bride are made to say to each other, “All that I am I give to you.” But do they give each other their bad temper and their indigestion? It is like the first line of a song crooned by Elton John. If we believe that the marriage ceremony exists in order to bestow, through the sacrament, some help and protection – some “remedy against sin” – then to leave out all mention of sin is to leave the couple to their own devices.

Later in the service, the priest prays, “Let them be tender with each other’s dreams.” Perhaps there should be an additional rubric printed at this point: “The congregation shall now throw up – bride’s family’s side first.” Such gooey phrases are just another example of the vague, untheological, touchy-feely language that has displaced firm words such as “I require and charge you both as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgement.” But there is no judgement here – neither of the theological nor the literary sort – only sentimental self-indulgence. It is hard to attach a clear meaning to “Let them be tender with each other’s dreams.” Does it mean, “Don’t let them disillusion each other?” But the marriage service is meant to be an example of illusions being swept away at the very beginning of the couple’s shared life together. The Solemnisation of Matrimony does just that: it lets the couple know that they are always in the presence of so many and great dangers arising out of their own corrupt desires. Moreover it insists that one of the main causes for which matrimony was ordained is “the procreation of children.” Of course, we know that children may be procreated outside marriage but, says the BCP, it is marriage which confers their legitimacy. CW is vague at this point. It says, “It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are born and nurtured” – as if there were something not providential but merely accidental about this birth and nurturing. We know why the compilers insist on this studied evasiveness and systematic ambiguity: it is out of their fear of being thought judgemental and of excluding those who beget children out of wedlock. But if it makes no difference, why bother with the institution of marriage at all? Or is the remedy against sin merely optional?

The smoky romantic atmosphere also pervades CW’s Funeral Services. Perhaps the most disturbing and awful verse in the whole Bible is the one reporting Jesus’ reaction to the news of the death of his friend Lazarus: St John tells us “Jesus Wept.” In CW he is only “moved to tears” – as if he had been watching Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslett go down in Titanic for the umpteenth time. “Jesus wept” is a terrible saying about the nature and extent of the divine compassion, but “was moved to tears” suggests only emotional incontinence.

“Though worms destroy this body” has been replaced by the bizarre expression, “After my skin has been destroyed.” What – after sitting too long under the sun-lamp?

Some thought that the four Eucharistic prayers in the ASB were three too many: CW has eight. Banality here is piled upon banality. In the BCP’s (single) Prayer of Consecration, it says most movingly “In the same night that he was betrayed, he took bread.” CW’s Prayer “E” informs us “He had supper with his friends” – which only makes us want to ask, Chinese takeaway or Pizza Hut?

Prayers for Various Occasions reveals a radical shift in the perceived order of precedence as the bishops pray for themselves before they pray for the Queen. In the BCP the Queen, as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, comes first in the list of petitions. In the ASB Her Majesty came second. But here in CW’s most recent demotion, she comes ninth. One might suspect a creeping republicanism, a suspicion not dissolved by the prayer which follows, “for members of the European Institutions.” In all this, what might at first appear to be a minor adjustment, we see a profound shift in theological understanding. It is not a matter of no importance that the bishops put themselves above the Sovereign, but a fundamental change in the understanding of what the Church of England is. For the BCP the Monarch is Supreme Governor who appoints the bishops. To put the bishops before the Queen is therefore to announce a change in the order of authority: the bishops are the masters now, and the Queen is prayed for as an afterthought.

In the Commission’s Introduction to Common Worship, Planning for Change: Suggestions and Ideas, it says, “When the ASB was published, no one knew which (if any) of the new services would stand the test of time.” Twenty years! It is an eccentric notion of what constitutes the test of time. Cranmer’s book has stood that test since 1549.

We should, after all, have some sympathy with the task facing the revisers. They could not ignore the comprehensive failure of the ASB to halt the catastrophic decline in church attendance during the period of its issue. Something had to be done. But what? I suggest the best thing would have been for them to instruct the churchwardens to find the cupboard in the vestry where the Vicar had hidden all the copies of the BCP – and put them out in the pews again.

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