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6.8.14

Is Right Wing Morality Costing the Church of England Dearly?

I have responded to Linda Woodhead's perceptions of the Church of England before. The most recent piece of writing comes from USC Religion Dispatches.

To summarise: The article claims that church attendance is sharply declining. That one reason for this is that the hierarchy is out of step with its members - the latter being more liberal on moral issues, and the former having become more conservative. The article explores the dynamics between three parties in the church liberals, conservative evangelicals and traditionalist anglo-catholics in relation to the ordination of women to the episcopate, concluding that despite a post-liberal turn in leadership since the 1970's the average Anglican would
"have preferred a church which was more responsive to their moral convictions, and better able to accommodate the diversity of their views."
So let's start with church attendance: The last Statistics for Mission was in 2012. It shows a small decline year on year:




Meanwhile in London Diocese there has been growth in church membership running up to 2010:


Whilst these figures don't suggest that everything is rosy in the Church of England they don't tell a story of 'sharp decline'. I am not convinced they tell as story of stagnation either. With the average age of an Anglican stable at 61-62 over the last four years there has had to be growth to compensate for death or residential care of church members. 

Some of this growth must be coming from younger people to balance 'ageing congregations'. However it is not just younger people coming to faith. On the ground the Church of England seems to be effective with engaging with the active, fit and recently retired. It is a certain type of ageism which places the 'retired' into a single category rather than recognising that Baby Boomers are a very different generation to their parents. As a generation X Christian I am delighted to see the Boomer generation coming to faith later in life.

In reading Prof. Woodhead's wider research I am uncertain as to what 'Christian' means. I do not disagree that cultural Christianity has sharply declined. However practised faith is still present.  

Prof. Woodhead's description of Church of England as a three party system is also confusing. The term 'liberal' is particularly meaningless. Following C.S.Lewis I would define liberalism in Christianity as the exclusion of 'any real supernaturalism'. This may be manifested in the denial of the supernatural action of God in the sacraments, through the church, in scripture, in spiritual gifts or miracles. Different traditions focus on God's supernatural action in different areas - my own catholic tradition endeavours to embrace all five.

Many of the proponents for the fullness of women's ordination are then simply not liberals. I trained with and have worked with a number of charismatic evangelical women and men who believed God to be calling both men and women to all orders of the church, and understood this to be compatible with the (supernatural) witness of scripture. An increasing number of evangelicals and charismatics are gently reviewing their views on human sexuality too, again in a way they see as compatible with the (supernatural) witness of scripture. To label this broad group as liberals does violence to their spiritual tradition and convictions. 

Prof. Woodhead at least speaks of conservative evangelicals but makes no distinction between groups of anglo-catholics. There are those opposed to the ordination of women - 'traditionalist catholics' but also those who fully support women's ministry. The term 'liberal catholic' is unhelpful here. The Society of Catholic Priests fully supports the ordination of women and requires members to believe in the supernatural action of God in the sacraments and to assent to the historic creeds. Because of anglo-catholic's different theological method to evangelicals the matter of same sex relationships was settled earlier with the SCP being 'inclusive'. To label this group too as liberals also does violence to their spiritual tradition and convictions. 

I cannot speak for evangelicals who share my views, but as an  anglo-catholic and charismatic who supports de-gendered sacraments, Prof. Woodhead, please stop calling me a liberal! 

I do not deny that there is a broad or more liberal party in the Church of England. - I embrace them as fellow Christians and as friends. But I do not believe that they are the active part who enabled the recent legislation to pass through synod. It would not have happened without evangelicals and catholics who firmly believed that God could act supernaturally through female bishops, and that such faith was consistent with orthodox Christianity. 

At the end of the article Prof. Woodhead muses over the 'popular argument that illiberal forms of religion do better than liberal forms, even in liberal societies.' With Prof. Woodhead I recognise that this is not clear cut. Where the focus of research needs to be is not on different views of gender and sexuality but on the thoroughly un-liberal and un-modern idea that God acts supernaturally in the world. 

Are congregations which embrace this idea, and seek to share God with others, seeing people come to faith, and those which reject it waning? I suspect that it is the latter form of liberalism which has cost the Church of England dearly, and that it is the former form of non-liberalism which will ultimately save it.