18There will come a day when you will cry out against the king whom you have chosen…’
1 Samuel 8: 18 – Revised English Bible
23For all alike have sinned, and are deprived of the divine glory;
Romans 3: 23-24 – Revised English Bible
13Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces; you do not enter yourselves, and when others try to enter, you stop them.
Matthew 23: 13 – Revised English Bible
I’ve been continuing to follow the ‘irreverend’ podcasts*, which are a weekly dose of sanity in a mad world. I’ve been struck when listening to them that here we have two young curates and one vicar, commenting weekly on the total lack of any theological and moral leadership from the Church of England. If they can see it, why is the hierarchy of the Church apparently completely blind?
As some of my followers know, I was for several years the Director of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust (currently the National Churches Trust). In this role, one of the issues with which I had to grapple constantly was the fact that some of those who were fans of church buildings could not have cared about their position as live places of worship, but simply wanted them to be ‘preserved in aspic’ for their historical and architectural qualities. There were others who viewed architectural, historic and heritage aspects to be a complete waste of time and distraction, getting in the way of their work as centres of public worship and community service.
My job was to try to hold these contradictory ideas in tension; the reality was that one cannot exist without the other.
What I quickly learned was that the key to understanding the buildings was not generally the architecture (although sometimes it was) but the key to understanding them was to see them as living testimony to the huge ‘cloud of witnesses’ who’d gone before. Often the most inspirational buildings are those that become alive through the histories of the people who’ve worshipped there over generations; it feels like the very walls speak of these people.
Those who like to visit church buildings will be only too aware that often the walls are adorned with memorials to members of one or maybe two hugely rich and influential families, who historically lived in the area, paid for the church to be built and often provided the money for it to continue over many centuries. In extreme cases, these buildings can become almost like mausoleums to a few individuals. And despite the fact that often the wording of the memorials is incredibly flowery in portraying how pious and moral the individuals were (see the example above), it doesn’t take much research to reveal a much shadier side.
Currently, more than 14 months into the national COVID story, most churches are still not functioning as they were before the first lockdown, when the seniors in the Church of England decided that they were going to prohibit even their own vicars from entering their churches. This even went beyond the restrictions that the government sought to impose.
Now, more than a year later, even those with the most rose-tinted spectacles would have to accept that there may well be hundreds of churches that never re-open. There may be many that have fought to keep their doors unlocked over decades, but will now decide that they can only be unlocked when there’s a service. But even that isn’t the sum total of the challenge faced by churches. There may be many which are merged with other neighbouring churches and reduce to a once-a-month service or less. There may be many that can just about afford to keep open, but won’t be able to afford major repairs, or even routine maintenance, when the need arises.
And there are likely to be a large number that simply limp to a sad, slow death over years to come.
What’s the Church of England hierarchy’s response to this very real, existential threat to the future of the churches for which they’re responsible? What indeed.
The Church has very recently put out a requirement for every church to research what it calls ‘Contested Heritage’ and ‘Offensive material’ in memorials, tablets, gravestones and so on. The requirement on local churches is to engage with everyone in their community to understand how physical artefacts may ‘impact their mission and worship’; a 29-page document has been published to show how this should be carried out, and it includes details of how such artefacts might sometimes have to be removed and donated to other organisations.
This is why I feel that the Church of England isn’t just ‘re-organising the deckchairs on the Titanic’ but actually setting fire to them.
Those making this decision have demonstrated their ignorance of what church buildings are. They are not holy places (certainly they may be spiritual, and there may be holiness in the chancel areas of some churches). Instead they’re testimony to the lives of those who built them, lived there and worshipped there. We should not judge them by condemnatory, 2021 values!
What’s more, with some exceptions, these buildings were not built using money from the Church of England, but from the very people whose memorials the Church of England wishes to consider removing. The Archbishops are assuming a legal and moral power to themselves that they simply don’t have in most cases.
It’s unclear also what the Archbishops hope to achieve through their actions. As the ‘Irreverends’ have said (and they would know, being at the ‘coalface’) the people whom the Archbishops are trying to appease generally are totally uninterested in the Church and its activities, whereas some of those who care deeply about the monuments and memorials may even be the direct descendants of those whose monuments the Archbishops find ‘offensive’.
The Archbishops are also, embarrassingly, showing their complete ignorance of theology. There’s only one standard by which we should be judging those who have gone before, and it’s the quotation from Romans that I’ve shown above. How could the Archbishops possibly think that those commemorated must somehow be completely without sin and blemish? It’s complete nonsense! How many of those commemorated in Westminster Abbey, for example, do they think would stand up well to any kind of test of the type they envisage?
So the Archbishops consider some monuments to be offensive?
Well, some of us find plenty of things about the Church of England to be offensive.
Some of us find it offensive that the Church has exempted itself from many secular, planning, employment and other laws (including the right to refuse to marry homosexual people in church and the demand for celibacy from its gay and lesbian clergy). Some of us find it offensive that the Church has found multiple excuses to ignore many historic abuse cases; some of us find it offensive that the Church is arrogant enough to feel that it can impose its biased requirements on hard-pressed clergy (I could name many parishes where there would be 10 or more memorials for every live worshipper); some of us find it offensive that the Church demands obedience of its ministers, both clerical and lay; some of us find it offensive that the Church has not stood up for those who have been hugely damaged by lockdown, but have slavishly supported the government; some of us find it offensive that the Church is increasingly top-heavy with highly-paid management; some of us find it offensive that the Church imposes ‘taxes’ on parishes (the imposition of the so-called ‘parish share’); some of us find it offensive that those at the receiving end of the Church’s ‘justice’ have no right of appeal; some of us find it offensive that the Church retains the right to appoint Bishops to the House of Lords; some of us find it offensive that the Church often uses silence and shunning to silence those who disagree with its actions.
And, perhaps most importantly and topically, some of us find it really offensive that the Archbishops have not spoken out against the totally immoral idea of vaccinating children against COVID.
In fact, if we were to apply the Church’s own standards to itself, the entire edifice of the Church of England would be found to be offensive and have to be torn down.
So what should those responsible do about the Archbishop’s requirements? I feel strongly that they should resist and refuse.
After all, that’s what our Lord did for most of his life, as I hope to show in my next blog post.
Heavenly Father, please encourage the Church hierarchy to look in the mirror, focus on the things that matter, and try to learn from our Lord’s teachings on hypocrisy. Amen
*The ‘irreverend’ podcasts can be found here:
and on Youtube at:
Irreverend: Faith and Current Affairs