It is not by chance that the vogue word Establishment derives from the Church of England. With the monarch its titular head, and a largely pagan parliament responsible for its governance, this curious body has hitherto been one of the main props of the social and economic status quo. Nominally, it remains so still, but the actual support it offers proves on examination to be largely illusory, like one of those painted pillars one sees on Italian Renaissance buildings. Though the Archbishop of Canterbury may take precedence at ceremonial functions over other officers of the Crown like the Prime Minister, his effective authority, such as it is, scarcely reaches beyond the ramshackle institution over which he presides.
In matters like divorce, homosexuality and the so-called 'New Morality' the tide is flowing strongly against the traditional Christian position, often with the connivance of eminent churchmen. Witness the Archbishop's own attitude towards the Wolfenden report, abortion and divorce. Doctrinally and administratively the Church of England is in a parlous condition; liturgically, such disorder reigns that, with the best will in the world, one is hard put to it to decide whether one is attending Matins, Evensong, Holy Communion or some weird blend of all three begotten by the B.B.C. out of the Tractarian movement with Toc H intervening.
The simple fact is that, were the Church of England to be disestablished, it would infallibly fall flat on its face, revealing the inward decrepitude which the emoluments and trappings, the pomp and circumstance, derived from its nominal participation in the pageant of government, serve to disguise. It is not only in the rafters and pews of its edifices that dry rot and the deathwatch beetle are at work; the whole body and structure of the Church are likewise in an advanced state of decay, which would immediately become apparent in the event of disestablishment. Ironically enough, today it is the Church's identification with the State, so often in the past a source of humiliation and despair to its best servants, that provides its only remaining strength.
The connection, in any case, is unlikely to be broken in the near or ascertainable future. A moribund Church and an ever more hedonistic civil power cling together, each one knowing he will collapse if he looses hold on the other. One may get a wry laugh out of the spectacle of parliamentarians resolutely refusing to countenance changes in a prayer book they have rarely had occasion to open; of Honourable and Right Honourable Members ardent for the Thirty-nine Articles embodying (as the Royal Warrant puts it) 'the true Doctrine of the Church of England agreeable to God's Word,' about which they know nothing, and care less, and which few of the bishops and clergy on whose behalf they are legislating any longer even pretend to believe, though all have solemnly assented to them to become ordained. A ribald scene indeed. Who would ever suppose that a secular enterprise so conducted could possibly thrive, or, for that matter, be permissible? Current professional, and even business, standards would preclude acceptance of a salaried post on the strength of a consciously fraudulent declaration. This. however, is the recognised practice among the Anglican clergy. Hilaire Belloc used to say that, when he considered the manner in which the Roman Church had been conducted, and by whom, he realised that it must have been divinely inspired to have survived at all. The saying applies with even greater force to the Church of England today; always assuming, of course, that m any real sense, it has survived.
Because of its identification with the State the Church could be relied on in times of crisis, like a war, or trouble over the matrimonial intentions of a recalcitrant monarch or princess, to rally to the side of those, as the Prayer Book puts it, set in authority over us. In the various wars of our time the Church has been insistent that God was on our side, and has given its unqualified blessing to whatever methods of waging them the generals and politicians might consider expedient. Even the annual party political conferences have thought fit to procure a benediction from the local vicar before settling down to the more serious business of jostling for position and devising appropriate electoral bribes and allurements.
If one were to pick on a single eminent ecclesiastic as marking the switch-over from supporting the traditional Establishment to looking benignly on the up-and-coming Leftist one, it would unquestionably be Archbishop William Temple. This burly prelate set a fashion, which has been assiduously copied, for translating hopes for a posthumous place in paradise into expectations that more comfortable and easy-going circumstances may be forthcoming in this world. Nothing, from the Church's point of view, could have been more disastrous. Who gets to heaven and what conditions are like there are matters about which the clergy can speak without fear of contradiction. By associating themselves with a prospectus for a kingdom of heaven on earth they, and their religion, were necessarily implicated when, as was inevitable, realisation proved disappointing. The trouble with earthly causes, however enlightened, is that they sometimes triumph. One of the wisest of the sayings of the founder of the Christian religion was that his kingdom was not of this world. Had he and his followers fallen into the snare of associating themselves with Jewish nationalism the Churches today, along with all their other worries, might have felt bound to offer a Christian defence of the State of Israel.
Since Temple's time Leftist clergymen have proliferated. A few, like the late Bishop Barnes of Birmingham and the former Dean of Canterbury, Dr Hewlett Johnson, have been rewarded with preferment in periods of Labour government; others, like the present Bishop of Southwark, Dr Mervyn Stockwood, have received their reward vicariously from Conservative administrations; yet others, like Canon Collins, have lent an air of clerical decorum to causes, like nuclear disarmament, which might otherwise be considered subversive and disreputable. Most, however, have had to content themselves with shocking their ever more minute and somnolent congregations, and with finding an outlet for their, as they hope and believe, explosive views in their parish magazines.
In such circumstances it is not surprising that the ministry should attract crackpots, eccentrics and oddities who in happier times would have appeared as characters in Waugh's earlier novels rather than as beneficed clergymen. Scarcely a day goes by but some buffoon in holy orders makes an exhibition of himself in one way or another, more often than not on the subject of sexthat pons asinorum of our time. Can it be wondered at, then, that the Church's voice, when heard, is more often than not greeted with derision or just ignored?
In an average English village today Anglican worship has become little more than a dying bourgeois cult. A small cluster of motor-cars may be seen outside the parish church when a service is in progress; the bells still ring joyously across the fields and meadows on Sunday mornings and evenings, but fewer and fewer heed them, and those few predominancy middle-class, female and elderly. It never occurs to most villagers chat the Church is anything to do with them, apart from the need for baptism, marriage and burial; three ceremonies which continue for no particular discernible reason, to draw them to church.
It must be desperately disheartening, and the incumbent often gives the impression of being dispirited and forlorn. Whatever zeal he may have had as an ordinand soon gets dissipated in an atmosphere of domestic care and indifference on the part of his flock. Small wonder, then, that in the pulpit he has little to say except to repeat the old traditional clerical banalities, as invariable as jokes in Punch; sometimes, in deference to the twentieth century, lacing the sad brew with references to the United Nations, apartheid and the birth pill. He doubtless feels himself to be redundant. The villagers stoically die without his ministrations; they would resent any interruption of their evening telly if he ventured to make a call, and have for long accustomed themselves to cope, without benefit of clergy, with minor misfortunes like pregnancy and delinquency.
In the large cities the situation is not dissimilar. Only in the suburbs and new towns is there a drift back to the churches, though one may presume to wonder how far this is due to the sheer agonising boredom and emptiness of this particular way of life, and how far to an authentic spiritual awakening. In any case, such pockets of a revived interest in the Church scarcely offset the otherwise prevailing apathy. An ardent Christian evangelist remarked to me recently that, when he preaches the Gospel nowadays, he finds no hostility, still less any tendency to argue combatively; only total indifference and incomprehension.
Agnostics of my generation, whether consciously or not, wcrc still part of a Christian history and tradition, which has coloured all their moral attitudes and assumptions. This is so no longer. The very language and terms of the Christian religion are incomprehensible to a generation which hears nothing about them at home, and for whom religious instruction at school consists more often than not of civics, sex or mental arithmetic. It is, perhaps, absurd to suppose that the Church of England in its present state, or, it may be, ever in its history, could measure up to so desperate a situation. It never has been much given to fervour, and has usually lost its zealots, like Newman and Wesley, to the Roman Church or Nonconformity. Moderation has been its watchword. I remember reading an eighteenthcentury sermon which referred to the 'truly extraordinary behaviour of Judas Iscariot,' and there was the famous case of a bishop who allegedly remarked that the Ten Commandments were like an examination paper, with eight only to be attempted.
All this is not without its charm. Yet in existing circumstances such bizarre offerings are like a sweet liqueur to thirsty men. The thirst is very great; much greater and more widespread than is commonly supposed, as anyone who has dealt at all with religious matters on television must be aware. There is a conscious and passionate awareness that this morally appalling and spiritually impoverished afflecnt society in which we live, with its accent everlastingly on consumption and sensual indulgcnce of every kind, is no better than a pigsty. I know of no more satisfying statement of the case for lifting our snouts out of the trough than the words and music of Anglican worship. Alas, they sound hollowly today, intoned by dispirited priests in near-empty churches.
Daily Telegraph Magazine, 28 January 1966
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