13 September 2018
Cakes and Prayers
The State of the Church.
By J R Thomas
From the place where this column is often given its final polish, there is an attractive view of an early Wren church. Or, to be correct, an early Wren café. It was built, of course, as a church but the Church of England, always eager to move with the times, has “repurposed” it as a café, an expensive upmarket café at that. The church bit still goes on, 1pm on Thursdays (“St Nick’s Talks”) and 11am on Sundays. The café used to close for the Thursday talks, but it is never good for business to close at peak times, so now the talking bit is held in a corner, and instead of hymns there is the background clink of china and whoosh of the coffee machine.
It is easy to make fun of the modern Church of England (Ed: Please don’t) with its earnestness and relentless urge for hipness, but the church has suffered such a long period of decline in the number of worshippers (and income) that its sometimes eccentric, if not desperate, attempts to bring its message to a world that has almost forgotten about it and yet wants spiritual grounding is understandable. Last month the church announced a new initiative to make it more “relevant”, by opening up in coffee shops and cafes. This follows a trial of a new form of worship in east London, where maintaining churches has become a problem among a young mobile and poor population, and where it is thought informality might prove attractive. So services and gatherings and talks can be held in warm and friendly premises with tea and coffee and other goodies available before and after. Much grumbling among the traditionalists but it seems a possible way forward for a modernising church which has to count its pennies.
The church has long been troubled by the amount of resource and effort which goes into what it calls, in unguarded moments, the “plant”. Churches tend to be architecturally and historically the most important buildings in many parishes, both urban and rural, the legacy of a time when commitment to God was demonstrated by building in the finest possible manner. A wonderful legacy to have, but of buildings not really fit for purpose (no kitchens, no loos, inadequate heating) and with often formidable costs of maintenance and repair. Even when in good order, they are rarely used to even a fraction of capacity – and now that every stately home, rural barn, and riverboat is competing in the weddings business, one of the main money spinners of the plant has gone. Admittedly, the church is exempt from many of the provisions of listed building legislation and planning (internally at least; your local parish council do not need any consent other than within the church to rip those Georgian box pews out) that ordinary owners have to bear. But it does take its role of architectural custodian seriously, with proper processes of procuring best advice and an impressive decision making bureaucracy all of its own, and has to bear the costs of all that. So getting rid of the Victorian monster church for residential redevelopment and holding services in a caff is an answer to a lot of problems.
The issue is different, it should be said, in many rural parishes. The church and its activities are more of a symbolic centre of rural life, and whilst congregations may often be capable of going to church in a single taxi, the upkeep of the church building is often good for money raising jamborees, and social events, and generally bringing country people together. People are very attached to their ancient churches, even if they rarely go into them. Hence the C of E has tended to keep open as many as it can, even if with just a service once a month, with rural rectors often having monster parishes of six to ten churches.
The church does know the symbolic importance of the steeple and cross symbolising that the mission is still available. Last month the Dean of St Pauls raised strong objections to yet another City of London glass and steel monster, proposed to tower over St Pauls Cathedral from the east. Many Londoners love their cathedral, and the wartime image of the dome and great gold cross seemingly floating above the burning City, a symbol both of defiance and hope, remains an emotional symbol which symbolises London and faith. No developer has yet suggested demolishing the cathedral to build on the immensely valuable land on which its sits (most other churches in the City, many also by Wren, have been so threatened; around half of what there were have indeed succumbed in the last 150 years). But the leering towers of glass press ever closer and higher.
Harold MacMillan, one of our most erudite and best read Prime Ministers, said in the 1950’s, that if people wanted moral guidance they should get it from their Bishops, not from politicians. This was at a time when most Bishops were Tories, and most clergy kept well out of politics and political debate. Not all of course, Hewlett Johnson, the “Red Dean”, dean of Canterbury Cathedral, was famous for his left wing views and his outspoken support of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, espousing Communism for the rest of his life. At the time he was the exception; now he might be seen as the norm. Seek political guidance from your neighbourhood vicar now and you are likely to find a man or woman of leftish views with sermons to match.
Justin Welby, 105th and present Archbishop of Canterbury might be expected to be more of a traditional “Conservative-Party-at-prayer” type of bishop, with his background as Treasurer of a multi-national oil company. That can have done his candidature no harm when his name appeared before David Cameron in 10, Downing Street. He turns out to be nothing of the sort, with increasing interventions into political matters. He began by attacking the policies of energy companies in pushing up prices faster than inflation, and of multi-nationals in avoiding local taxation (subjects on which he should be well informed indeed). His latest, last week, does seem to have taken the biscuit (or chocolate brownie) among Conservative Anglicans. Archbishop Welby called for increased taxation of the rich (i.e.more than the average) to enable government spending to be funded to attack issues of poverty and deprivation. It was a call for economic policies that would be welcomed by Mr Corbyn. It has certainly not been welcomed on the government side at Westminster, with, in the House of Lords, Lord Tebbit, not a man to mince his words even now, telling the Archbishop to do his job in getting the pews filled, rather than the Chancellor’s in determining economic policy. Lord Tebbit pointed out that only a seventh of English now describe themselves as Anglicans, a 16% reduction in the five years since Mr Welby took office.
Does that matter? It does financially, the church having many obligations to its buildings that are very difficult to avoid, let alone the need to pay its clergy a living wage, and carry out charitable and missionary works. But most Bishops would say that their core mission and that of the Church of England is to reach to those who believe and support them in that. Offer them coffee, and some trendy comfortable doctrine adjusted to the times, and keep the sermons short and stirring. If the faithful still come, whether it be to cathedrals or cafes, then job done. But if the congregations continue to shrink, what then? Sometimes cake is just not enough.