What would the Vicar of Dibley have to say?
This Green and Surprisingly Pleasant Land - religion nowadays
Like many of today’s serious students of theology I have learned all there is to learn about the Church of England by closely studying The Vicar of Dibley on the telly. What the tribulations of the vicar and her verger can’t tell you about church affairs is probably not worth knowing.
Now I have discovered, from admittedly another source, is that an overwhelming majority of the Anglican clergy believe that Britain is no longer a Christian country and, more shockingly, that they are favour of quite radical reform.
This survey* shows that more than half of the Anglican clergy predict that church attendance will continue declining, and, rather amazingly, over 9 per cent, think it’s unlikely that their own churches will be able to continue to hold weekly services on Sunday, over 6 per cent have already ceased to do so.
The clergy are divided on how to stem this decline, most controversial a majority of them now back same-sex marriage in the church where, according to traditional belief, unions are only permitted between a man and a woman. The appetite for reform also extends to overwhelming support for allowing women to become archbishops. Where oh where will this reforming zeal end?
No wonder these findings unleashed a barrage of tut tutting, accusations of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and dire predictions of ‘everything we hold sacred’ being dispatched to the burning cross in the sky.
The critics seem to believe that the Christian religion should be eternally unchanging or, as fundamentalists would have it, confined to the very strictest interpretation of the bible. Were total consistency to be maintained the burning of heretics would still be in place, shocking sexual abuse carried out by members of the clergy would be allowed to flourish on grounds of the sanctity of the priesthood and interpretations of the Bible not satisfying to readers of the Daily Mail would be summarily discarded.
Fundamentalists do however seem to support retrograde reforms which they describe as getting back to basics. This includes, for example, moves to outlaw abortion and commends the subjugation of women. Honestly, where is the Spanish Inquisition when you most need it?
The crisis in Anglicanism (us journalists are very fond of the word crisis) may well stem from the 2021 UK Census which found that, for the first time, only 46.2 per cent of the population in England and Wales identify as Christian while the numbers of people saying they have no religion is growing by the day.
Combine this with the findings of a recent opinion survey conducted by Gallup and reasons for Anglican optimism dwindle even faster. The international Gallup poll revealed that the British were uniquely less likely to find happiness in religion. In every other country they surveyed people who saw religion as an important part of their lives experienced higher levels of satisfaction and enjoyment than non-believers.
This is despite the fact that you can hardly go anywhere in the United Kingdom without stumbling on a church, many of which are really nice, albeit a tad drafty and prone to profound outbreaks of village politics of the kind highly familiar to us learned students of events in Dibley.
I am rather conscious of the fact that some readers might consider it a bit of a chutzpah for an atheist Jew to intrude on the angst of the Christian community.
Yet there is something open and inviting about Anglicanism that welcomes intrusion. It is, as the name suggests, a quintessentially English offering of a brand of Christianity that has evolved as being not too demanding, not too doctrinal and generally rather reassuring.
Unlike some other religious brands of a more austere nature, that make rigid demands on adherents, the Anglican church inserts itself into British life in a flurry of bell ringing, floral rotas and clergy who are keen to be inclusive.
I therefore suspect that the fashionable doom surrounding the future of Anglicanism might be rather overdone. Nonetheless the church will probably need to evolve, perhaps somewhat more rapidly than in previous times, not least because it appears that a large swathe of the clergy are up for change. All they need to do now is persuade their parishioners of the virtues of reform, arguably a more demanding task.
There is also an opportunity to capitalise on the woes of the National Health Service, which is often said to be Britain’s only true religion. As doubts about the NHS grow maybe there is a chance for the actual established state religion to reassert itself. In these circumstances there may yet be opportunities for the Anglican church to get back its mojo.
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