What’s the purpose of the Church of England

I apologise to my followers for my absence from this blogsite for the last few weeks. I had written what follows some time ago but have been without broadband for the last three weeks. My service is still very unstable, so please do forgive if you post a comment and it takes me a while to approve

16Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ 17And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

Genesis 28:16-17 – NRSV

12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer” but you are making it a den of robbers.’

Matthew 21:12-13 – NRSV

In recent months, some Church of England cathedrals have been in the news. Rochester opened an ‘adventure golf’ project, based on the design of famous bridges; Lichfield unveiled a ‘replica of the moon’s surface’ and Peterborough planned to hold a ‘Gin and Prosecco’ festival in the cloisters (although it was postponed due to bad weather). But the winner of the most newsworthy idea was Norwich, whose ‘Helter-skelter’ hit the headlines.

At the same time, Norwich announced a ‘Lie down, look up’ initiative, to encourage people to lie down on Yoga mats to look up at the ceiling, also a ‘Canvas labyrinth’ to encourage people to ‘consider things differently in their lives’, a ‘Bible Box’ where you can sit ‘inside the Bible’ and a ‘Blind Trail’. In the summer of 2020, they’ve announced that the nave will accommodate ‘Dippy’, the famous Natural History Museum’s Diplodocus.

It’s been interesting (and perhaps unintentionally revealing) to read some of the statements that have been made by the various Cathedral representatives. They include the following:

We’re “dropping seeds to…..continue to inspire and encourage people to question the life they have”

We’re offering people “the perfect summer’s day out, celebrating the nation’s favourite beverages”

We want to use (the helter-skelter) to “give people an opportunity to engage with this wonderful building and the story it has to tell, which is the story of salvation”

The ‘Bible Box’ will encourage people to “read the Bible in a new way”

We want people to view the ‘crazy golf’ bridges, learn about the engineering of bridges and “reflect on the bridges that need to be built in their own lives”

Through the ‘Blind Trail’ we want to “challenge people to trust their own senses”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said: “Cathedrals are fun. If you can’t have fun in a cathedral, do you really know what fun is?”

However, the one that most caught my eye was this:

“I also want to affirm the fact that this cathedral is about the whole of life”

Some friends have suggested to me that the Church of England has gone crazy, like the Rochester golf. My own feeling is that it’s rather more serious than that; I fear that the Church of England no longer understands its purpose and has completely lost touch with what are, or should be, its priorities.

Some of the cathedrals involved have since reported an increase in visitor numbers, but actually you could achieve that simply by offering free beer. I fear that the Church of England at an institutional level, exemplified not just by the list of ‘initiatives’, introduced by these cathedrals, but also by the statements made to the press subsequently, is looking like a badly-managed 1970s marketing department, with more money than sense.

The give-away is in the use of language. Many years ago, on a visit to the Tate Modern, I came across the infamous display of metal tiles – square tiles simply laid loose on the floor. The caption said that the artwork emphasised the relationship between the sculpture and the floor and that one of its most important features was that the number of tiles was potentially endless; in theory the ‘sculpture could stretch out to infinity’. The choice of words resulted in many visiting the display finding it impossible to hold back their giggles. I was one of them.

At a time like this, when the Church of England faces so many monumental challenges, not least how it is going to survive the next twenty years against all odds, the actions of these cathedrals are not merely odd and crazy, they point to something far more serious; a lack of understanding of the real world and real people.

Ten years ago, I was disappointed to hear that Norwich Cathedral was spending £12m on a new refectory, at a time when the hundreds of exquisite medieval village churches in Norwich Diocese were desperate for modest amounts of money to stop rain coming through the roof. Before you rush to point out that Cathedrals and Dioceses are different legal entities, I know that, but the vast majority of the public don’t know, don’t care and have no desire whatsoever to grapple with the arcane and labyrinthine structure of the Church of England.

Instead of affirming that the cathedrals are ‘about the whole of life’ or are where you go to ‘have fun’, I would really love the organisation that I’ve worked so hard for, instead to start to get a grip on some of the following really vital and, dare I say, existential questions:

  • What is the Church going to do to educate the public about Christ’s real teaching (not what a small section of the Church would like his teaching to be)? The world is crying out for this, whilst the C of E’s playing around with ‘adventure golf’ and ‘helter-skelters’.
  • How are we going to deal with the fact that the Church of England is seen as a bigoted and small-minded organisation, to a whole new generation of young people?
  • How is the Church going to face up completely, openly and honestly to the fact that it’s presided over terrible abuse of those in its care over many decades and is actually continuing to do so? So far, the C of E looks again like a badly-run 1970s organisation that’s putting all its efforts into trying to ensure that ‘no mud sticks’.
  • When is the Church going to deal with its arcane, ‘ruritanian’ rules and practices that make the organisation look and sound as though it’s completely unfit for purpose in the 21st century?
  • How is the Church going to make itself relevant to people in 2019, rather than an organisation that’s subject to derision?
  • What’s the Church of England, actually for? Surely not golf, gin, funfairs and ‘pseuds’ corner’ statements?

5 thoughts on “What’s the purpose of the Church of England

  1. That is a very interesting topic. I welcome your chosing to share your views on this and I must say that I personally agree with you but with everyone desperate to show an increase in numbers attending church there may be alot more of this sort of thing on the cards.

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  2. Really thought provoking James. As someone who is passionate about the place of Cathedrals and what they can offer I’m not sure what is happening apart from getting some headlines.

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  3. Many thanks for today’s mailing. I had simply no idea of what was happening. We pursue our usual practice of not reading a newspaper except on a very occasional basis and the topic has not formed any part of recent conversations.

    What I have been reading is a collection of lectures given by Arthur Quiller Couch on the occasion of his appointment to the position of Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, starting in 1915, he devotes a whole lecture to the subject of Reading the Bible. It’s great to find someone with whom one can discover a kindred spirit whose ideas are acceptable and sensible.

    I am totally out of sympathy with what has been happening in Rochester, Lichfield, Peterborough and Norwich. It is so misguided and I feel that the stated means and their purpose are both unacceptable.

    O weh !

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  4. Thank you James, as often happens, you make me think about something outside of my daily experience.
    Earlier today whilst contemplating the gospel reading for Trinity 16 (Luke 17: 5-10) I came across a bullet point thought:
    Churches that are truly serving God prioritise faithfulness (to Christ’s teaching and the kingdom values) over numerical success, no matter where this might lead.
    It immediately came to mind whilst reading this blog. I think I shall rest my case.

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  5. Well done James, the only thing I can think of is Luke. I’m sure he quoted Jesus as saying in the last days he wonders whether people will have any faith. With the C o E going into steady decline and the lack of morals in the life along with all the desecration of the world, maybe Christ will be back before we know it. Keep doing acts of good, praise and worship God with all your hearts, very best, Clive

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