Is conservative morality causing decline in the Anglican Church?

This morning, as I was doing my daily routine of “Facebook Time Line Catch Up” I noticed that someone had posted a link to an article entitled, “RIGHT WING MORALITY IS COSTING THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND DEARLY”. Interesting, I thought. So I had a read. I post the article below, with my comments following.

At last. The Church of England’s General Synod has voted to allow women bishops. A disastrous failure to do so in 2012 preceded Rowan Williams’s departure as Archbishop, and led to huge public and political pressure to secure the “Yes” vote this time. It’s taken so long to get here (women were first ordained priests in 1994), and created such bad feeling, that the “victory” feels a bit hollow. The whole tale reveals a lot about the Church of England’s problems, and the position of religion in a liberal society.

The CofE remains the largest religious constituency in Britain, with a third of the population still calling themselves Anglican. But whether we look at church attendance, adherence, or baptism and funerals, decline is sharp. For those aged over-60 Anglican is the majority identity; for each younger generation it’s increasingly a minority identity. Only about five percent of young people now call themselves Anglican.

There are many reasons for this, but one is a church hierarchy which has fallen out of step with the moral convictions of its members. Since the 1980s the latter have been getting more liberal on moral matters, and more committed to freedom and equality, while the former have been travelling in the opposite direction. For a broad church, and one of the last remaining national state churches in Europe, this is particularly serious—for it’s a church that exists for the whole of society, not just active churchgoers.
My surveys of Anglican beliefs and values show just how much the “values gap” between leaders and people has widened with every generation. Only 1% of Anglican churchgoers now say they rely on their religious leaders when seeking guidance and making decisions. When it comes to the two most controversial contemporary moral debates—on same-sex marriage and assisted dying—a majority of Anglicans are now in favour, whereas their leaders are united in opposition.

A similar gap has long been evident between the Church’s official teachings and its members’ views about women clergy. A mere 11% of Anglicans and 8% of the general population say that they approve of their church’s policies on women. As long ago as 1979 a poll found 85% of Anglicans in favour of women’s ordination, and last year the same proportion was found to support women bishops.

Whatever their personal views, church leaders have stalled on the ordination of women because of their deference to two small but vocal minority parties within the CofE: Anglo-Catholics at one end of the ecclesiological spectrum, and the conservative evangelicals at the other. Together they represent less than 15% of Anglicans.

Anglo-Catholics opposed women clergy on the grounds that the sacramental priesthood has always been male, that the priest symbolises a male Christ, and that there is no good reason to depart from 2,000 years of tradition. Like Rowan Williams, they worried about maintaining good relations with Rome and with Orthodoxy. Conservative evangelicals opposed women bishops on the grounds of Biblical texts which they interpret as proof that women should not have authority over men in either home or church.

An unlikely alliance of these “male headship” Protestants and Anglo-Catholics has called the shots on this issue until now. Their hand has been strengthened by selective alliances with Anglican bishops in Africa. This has created resentment amongst many Anglicans, and incomprehension amongst the general population. When I ask young people who have a negative attitude to the CofE why they hold that opinion the most common reason is that the Church is sexist and homophobic.

The story of the Anglican (Episcopal) Church in the USA is different. Despite opposition, they approved women priests, bishops—and now an archbishop—earlier and with less damage. But the English Archbishops have chosen to side with the African churches rather than the north American.

There’s a popular argument that illiberal forms of religion do better than liberal forms, even in liberal societies. I don’t believe it’s that clear-cut. It’s true that religious authorities have taken a “post-liberal” turn since the 1970s, but the growing rise of “no religion,” first in Europe and then the USA, is in part a reaction against this. The idea that your average Anglican in Britain yearns for “stricter” religion is demonstrably false. They would, however, have preferred a church which was more responsive to their moral convictions, and better able to accommodate the diversity of their views.

View the original article at religiondispatches.org

After reading this article, I was saddened. Some thoughts:

Church leaders are called to lead the Church – I found it disturbing how the article seemed to want to adopt a role reversal approach to how the Church is run and in terms of defining what it believes. The article states that one reason for decline in church attendance within the CoE is, “…a church hierarchy which has fallen out of step with the moral convictions of its members.” Who is following who here? Or should I say, who is meant to be following who? OK, we could give the Sunday School answer, “Jesus!”, but seriously. Let’s look at the charge given to Bishops at their consecration:

To serve this royal priesthood, God has given particular ministries. Bishops are ordained to be shepherds of Christ’s flock and guardians of the faith of the apostles, proclaiming the gospel of God’s kingdom and leading his people in mission. Obedient to the call of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, they are to gather God’s people and celebrate with them the sacraments of the new covenant. Thus formed into a single communion of faith and love, the Church in each place and time is united with the Church in every place and time.

What does the consecration liturgy ask the Bishop about true doctrine?

Will you teach the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it, will you refute error, and will you hand on entire the faith that is entrusted to you?

Some people will shout louder and louder about interpretation and how the Bible is a dusty old book written in a previous time, but it is precisely good interpretation and contextual study that will show us the timelessness of the Bible and that actually, there are high standards for the Christian. Yes, it’s about love, and forgiveness, inclusiveness and freedom – it’s about relationship. But all good relationships have rules and boundaries.

The second thought of mine is that liberal morality does not equate to freedom and equality. I go back to what Jesus (the guy who we are meant to worship with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, if you didn’t know) said. “…the truth will set you free” – John 8:32. And this truth that He talks about is the linked to the very being of Jesus Himself who says that He is the Truth. So what are we gonna do about that? Say that Jesus was bound by culture and context, and that his teachings don’t bear the weight today as they did in Biblical times? Jesus was about unconditional love, yes. But he was also about Kingdom living, and with Kingdom living comes moral responsibility; high moral responsibility, actually.

Also, watering down our moral values is a poor evangelistic tool. Exactly what are we trying to achieve by doing this? The article made the point that, “For a broad church, and one of the last remaining national state churches in Europe… it’s a church that exists for the whole of society, not just active churchgoers.” Absolutely, we do exist for the whole of society. In fact the Church generally is the only organisation that exists for those outside of it. But simply watering down our message isn’t really going to benefit those outside the Church or those inside. The Church is about equipping and making disciples of Jesus Christ. We’ve touched on Him just a moment ago (just to reiterate, the one who said He hadn’t come to abolish the law, but came to fulfil it. Oh and, with all due respect, please don’t start quoting the mixed fibres and shellfish references… again, it is all about context). Only by the Church making disciples and proclaiming the Good News to be found in the person and work of Jesus Christ is society going to benefit.

Lastly, statistics are a poor tool for arguing a point. We cannot rely on studies and statistics to work out our moral and doctrinal positions in the Church. The Church is called to be a prophetic voice in the worlddespite culture and society, not because of it. This way of working will only kill the Church, not grow it. As I said in my previous point, we’re here to make disciples, not gain bums on pews.

There’s so much more I would like to say, but I think this will do for now. Some stuff I haven’t covered which the article raises is the objectivity/subjectivity of doctrine and interpretation, pigeonholing women in leadership with same sex marriage (big no no!) and also areas/pockets where the Church of England (and the Anglican Church generally) is growing, not just numerically, but more importantly, spiritually. And just to give a hint; it isn’t in a church that’s confused itself with a social club.

I’ve just come back from New Wine, and one phrase during a talk which a speaker gave is ringing in my ears. The Church isn’t called to a mission called “Church to be nice”, the Church is called to be “Church for Christ”. Let’s change our view so that we are pursuing Christ, not the approval of society.

Your thoughts?

Note: Post Image is of the Charles Church  – not a closed Church due to liberalism, but bombed in the Blitz. I chose the picture because of the contrast between the church building and “modern society”. Very good picture. Original image here

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Dean Roberts

Dean is an Ordinand training for ordination in the Anglican Church. He was born and bred in Wales, is married to Megan, and has a dog called Taliesin and a cat named Eira. He graduated from Cardiff University with a B.A Hons. in Theology and Religious Studies. He also holds a Cert.RSCM from the Royal School of Church Music. He loves playing music, walking, reading and blogging as well as going to the cinema and theatre. Read More @ http://deanroberts.net/about

  • The Church Mouse

    The Bishops will tell us all what to think, and the people will flock to the church in gratitude for their wisdom?

    • http://deanroberts.net/ Dean Aaron Roberts

      Not at all! My point is more about defending orthodoxy (and I genuinely believe orthodoxy can be found in moral code within Christianity). I also don’t believe the book stops at Bishops either, it should be on a presbyteral level as it is included in the ordination vows for priests too. People will flock to a church in gratitude to those who are sympathetic towards liberal views of morality, but it doesn’t mean that it is beneficial to them physically, emotionally, or spiritually. It also doesn’t mean it will make them Christ followers.

      • The Church Mouse

        Which version of orthodoxy must they defend and who gets to define this “orthodoxy”?

        • http://deanroberts.net/ Dean Aaron Roberts

          As I hinted in my post, people often hide behind this question to allow more liberal approaches to Christian living. We simply cannot throw over 2,000 years of theological reflection, Biblical study, Church tradition and reason/experience away. We need to look at all these parts of our heritage and faith seriously and come to informed conclusions. And let’s not leave this at earthly level – Christians are supposed to be Spiritual people who have a high view of Scripture (it’s a core part of what it means to be an Anglican, so it says in every book on Anglicanism that I own) and look to the Holy Spirit for inspiration. As for who gets to define orthodoxy, well I would argue that God has given it in the Bible which is the orthodoxy we follow and it is to be safeguarded and expanded on by those whom the Church has recognised an apostolic calling on. This is NOT to give them permission to totally reinterpret key, often historically held teachings that are deemed orthodox, but to take scripture as a whole and see how moral issues are worked out throughout old and new testaments. Key for me is how moral issues are redeemed from old to new testament. Yes, tricky. But not impossible to define orthodoxy.

          • The Church Mouse

            I’m not sure what you mean by ‘liberal approaches to Christian living’. And like I said, I’m not here to defend any particular argument. All I’m trying to explain is that Linda was expressing an issue with the church leadership becoming disconnected with the wider society and its own membership in a way that it hasn’t been before. And that is a problem. I think that is something which conservatives, liberals, charismatics, anglo-catholics, affirming catholics, open evaneglicals and everyone else should agree on.

            I must add, however, it is not an attempt to ‘hide’ to ask the perfectly reasonable question about why some seem to think that Christian morality should have become fixed in the 1960s. It unquestionably developed in unimaginable ways for the 1960 years prior to that. In fact, if we were having this debate then, we would be discussing whether it is right for the church to sanction divorce, remarry (or even give the sacraments to) divorcees, support Sunday trading, and a host of other issues which don’t seem to be controversial topics any more. Those people having that debate in the 1960s themselves probably wouldn’t have dreamed of going back to the morality from 50 years earlier – at the outbreak of the first world war women were not even permitted to take the collection in the Church of England.

            I’m sure they would all have argued it was a simple case of Biblical orthodoxy.

          • http://deanroberts.net/ Dean Aaron Roberts

            By “liberal approaches to Christian living”, I mean having a liberal/over accepting nature when it comes to morality.

            As for leadership in the Church becoming disconnected, I don’t know whether I agree completely. I’m sure there is disconnectedness, but not to the scale at which the article assumes. The thing is, the Gospel message isn’t about making people like us is it? It’s hard and tough with a lot of sacrifice and it will offend.

            With regards to the orthodoxy question… I guess I would contribute that there is a massive difference between canon law and Biblical standards. As far as I see it, canon law serves the church in two ways: 1. To reinforce scriptural truth in the form of doctrine and/or 2. To build a system of ecclesiastical polity. The examples you have mentioned fall, in my opinion, into number 2. Sure, divorce and remarriage was/maybe is a big issue in the Church and in the Bible, but there are grounds for divorce (and not just for adultery) if one reads passages about marriage in context. And of course, just because the Anglican/Roman Catholic church have struggled with it, it doesn’t mean that the Eastern Orthodox church have. As for women not being allowed to take the collection… well.

            I think above all, it is about not sacrificing scripture and tradition for the sake of our own human reasoning and experience. Scripture and Tradition should actually inform our reasoning, not be subject to it. For me, it’s about working out our faith in real fear and trembling, and to actually move aside and let God speak. I’m not saying that liberals don’t do this, but if one wants to move to the more liberal end of the Church, they must ask themselves whether God’s standard changes from generation to generation, whether they’ve really looked at both sides of the coin, and of course, whether they’re simply looking for an easy way out of difficult moral, ethical and/or pastoral situations. There’s so much I could/want to say, as I’m sure there is with you, but blogging can only go so far! We need to commit it to prayer and healthy debate & discussion.