The battle for the soul of the Church

As the dust settles people are beginning to realise that more was at stake in the debate over women bishops than breaking the church’s glass ceiling? According to Linda Woodhead, ‘the vote for women bishops strikes a blow against sectarian ‘male’ Christianity’. Woodhead, who is President of Modern Church, has emerged as the leading proponent of an ecclesiology that emphasises the need for the Church of England to remain a national Church, in tune with the values and beliefs of a large number of its members who are not active churchgoers. Research undertaken by Woodhead suggests there are four types of Anglicans: a small group (five per cent of her sample) she terms the ‘God-fearers’ who attend regularly and are orthodox in belief; the ‘church mainstream’ (put at 12 per cent), regular in attendance but not so orthodox in belief; ‘non-churchgoing mainstream’ (50 per cent) who share the liberal beliefs of the church pentecost_news1338041413mainstream but rarely attend; and the ‘non-churchgoing doubters’ (33 per cent) who are less orthodox in belief and rarely attend but still claim to be ‘Anglican’. Woodhead would like the church to listen more to its nominal members and not think its mission is to turn everyone into a God-fearer. She claims that, first under George Carey and then under Rowan Williams, the church moved in a ‘sectarian’ direction and tried to emphasise its distinctiveness from secular society. In the 60s and 70s the Church of England was travelling in a broadly liberal direction in tune with the rest of society but the extension of equal rights to women and gay people was hard for the Church to swallow. She hopes the vote on women bishops signals a change although she confesses to worries about Archbishop Welby’s stand on gay marriage and assisted dying. There is a good deal of truth in this analysis of the current situation facing the Church. One of the troubling aspects of the debate about women bishops is that some bishops were apparently ready to introduce the measure into Lords if it failed in General Synod and push it through with Parliamentary approval. After the measure failed in Synod in November 2012, we heard anguished cries from bishops about the future of the establishment and threats from politicians like Frank Field that they would take matters into their own hands. It is interesting to compare the situation with the 1928 vote on the Prayer Book. Then, as now, liberals in the Church were keen to preserve the link between church and nation. So, too, were the evangelicals who did not scruple to appeal to what they saw as a ‘Protestant’ nation over the head of a Church too much influenced by Anglo-Catholicism.

Only the Anglo-Catholics were ready to support the independence of the Church against the state. Today conservative evangelicals have no illusions about the danger of control by a secular Parliament. They have discovered ecclesiology and see the need for a theology of the church that underpins its independence. A much-diminished band of Anglo-Catholics remains faithful to the teaching of the Oxford Movement and they are joined by a small but theologically very creative group who call themselves ‘Radical Orthodoxy’. Rowan Williams is close to this movement, which is why Woodhead puts him in the sectarian camp although she unfairly ignores his emphasis on dialogue with the wider culture. Behind the debates over sexuality and assisted dying lies a battle for the soul of Anglicanism between liberals like Woodhead and those who want to see a Church faithful to gospel and tradition and speaking with a distinctive voice. The same battle is raging elsewhere. In Australia liberals have scored a victory and made a big concession to secular society with the General Synod ruling that the secrecy of the confessional does not apply to serious crimes (including cases of sexual abuse). As one Catholic commentator pointed out on the ABC ‘Religion and Ethics’ site, this undermines the priest’s role as the minister of God’s forgiveness and the church’s calling to be what Pope Francis called ‘a field hospital for sinners’.

Woodhead sees Fresh Expressions and other forms of missionary outreach as attempts to boost the God-fearers. She puts her faith in both the churchgoing and non-churchgoing mainstream. There are several problems with this strategy. With admitted exceptions, clergy tend to be recruited from the committed. As numbers shrink, it becomes more difficult to recruit able candidates, especially able young candidates. Studying American evangelicals, Christian Smith has suggested, teaches us that churches thrive when they have a distinctive message but remain in dialogue with the secular society. What is crucial is that Christians choose the right issues on which to make a stand. Woodhead ignores signs that the number of those who claim church affiliation but are not active members or believers is in decline as more claim to be ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’. Woodhead herself has studied this pattern in Kendal. One move would be to make the Church more welcoming of spiritual seekers and turn clergy into what the NHS already terms ‘spiritual care givers’. Questions need to be asked about how far the Church can go in this direction and still be Christian.

5 Responses to "The battle for the soul of the Church"

  1. Tricia Little   15/09/2014 at 20:01

    As Ms Woodhead is President of Modern Church, I feel I need to ask -What church? She needs to go and set up her own as the one she envisages obviously has no reference to Christ as Lord and Saviour. Sins are certainly not part of her remit and without sins, what is the point of His death and resurrection. We are an Easter people of the cup and the book. Ms Wooodhead wants us to be absorbed into the sinful world that He came to save us from. As Paul said “shall we carry on sinning and crucify Him again?” His rhetorical answer was emphatically “no”. If women Bishops are going to lead us into error then I am sorry that I supported women in ministry.

  2. Cynthia Katsarelis   20/09/2014 at 17:57

    There is plenty of room for Anglican via media here.

    Jesus broke taboos when he healed, taught, and hung out with women. Women were the first witnesses to the Resurrection. It is very possible to be “Christ centered” and welcoming of women clergy. One can quite legitimately take the view that WO and WB’s re-establish the example set by Christ himself. It puts women back into the story and tradition before we were nearly erased from history by misogynistic cultures.

    From this article, I can’t tell much about Ms. Woodhead’s theology (is it Dr. Woodhead?). But of course, there are differing views on why Christ was murdered and if “for our sins,” then what sins were they? We live in an individualistic society where there’s a tendency for some to think of sin as boxes to tick in our own individual lives. As long as we don’t lie, steal, etc., then we’re go to go (to heaven, presumably).

    Maybe the sin that Christ died for is corporate sin. The sin of the powerful oppressing the weak, widows and orphans, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. Maybe our sin is the consumption of rich nations at the expose of the the poor. For example, grievous crimes have been committed in the name of extracting oil, “precious” materials, and natural resources from poor countries for profit in rich countries. Perhaps the communal sins of racism, misogyny, homophobia, blaming the poor for their condition, etc., are the sins that Christ died for. I never hear that from conservatives, but I do from liberals.

    I’d like to hear more about Modern Church.

  3. Pluralist   20/09/2014 at 18:29

    Linda Woodhead is correct about Rowan Williams. His narrative theology works at a level of detail that confuses story and history to the outsider – his is story and not history. As a person who has commented on the Qur’an and Bhagavad Gita, it’s because he does the same with the approaches there. He is a multiculturalist, so each person should be in a narrative group. But we are not – we take from the general as much as the specific, and the general is technological, scientific and secular. The general ethic is also other than the Church and religion. This is the sectarian dilemma of the Church of England now. Constitutional reform might include its disestablishment.

  4. etseq   21/09/2014 at 03:42

    Best to disestablish you lot and leave you to wither away with your homophobic and sexist reactionary doctrine. Its telling that Evangelicals are so desperate to maintain institutionalized homophobia that they are willing to embrace catholic ecclesiology, once considered heretical popish innovations. This leads you to champion the anachronistic rights of a medieval priestly caste over the safety and wellbeing of children they abuse. Disgusting…

  5. james mcilwraith   03/10/2014 at 22:46

    I wonder how the ‘non-churchgoing majority’ will stand on judgement day. Much the same as poor old etseq I suspect. The issue with homosexuality is that it just a sin, not some special lifestyle choice, it’s no different to many other sins, no better, no worse.
    “9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God
    (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NIV1984)