Angela Tilby’s Church Times articles have a reputation for rattling cages, indicating (if nothing else) the effectiveness of a certain sort of quiet English prose style.
This week, in ‘Deliver us from the Evangelical takeover’ (27 April), she has applied a crowd-dividing scalpel to her readership and my Twitter feed, attracting support from some, but criticism from others who have ‘liked’ seeing her piece described as ‘pathetic’ ‘dreadful’ and ‘victim-like’. Someone else has simply called it a #SloppyColumn. ‘Roll up! Roll up!’ one might well say. This way to the ducking-stool!
Except, of course, there’s nothing new to see. As we come to terms with the apparent demise of at least parts of the Church of England, there is understandably much passionate arguing about how best to bail out the water, plug the holes and rebuild the sinking boat so that it’s fit to carry the Lord across the Lake once more. I’ve done a bit of it myself, and am clear that there must be room for many different kinds of ‘church’. We know this instinctively as Anglicans and my friend @educationpriest is right to say that there is ‘no evangelical takeover’. Where ‘Catholics and others show life, enthusiasm, energy and good management’, the doors of support and funding are indeed ‘open’ to all kinds of parishes and projects.
Perhaps there’s a ‘takeover’ in the appointment of bishops? I’ve no idea. As a general rule, and as Professor O’Donovan’s CNC review recently illustrated, the usual request is that there should be more bishops ‘like us’, whoever ‘we’ happen to be. So if the evangelical churches are full, and if both of the archbishops are evangelical, it might mean a superfluity of evangelicals in purple. There are those who are convinced of it, but I cannot say.
Besides, the old labels have been inadequate for years: many evangelicals have shown an eager appetite for liturgy with all the trimmings, and while some catholics seem to be looking more conservatively at Scripture (perhaps seeking support for convictions about ordination), yet other evangelicals are reaching wonderfully surprising conclusions on human sexuality, and are consequently beginning to lighten their own hermeneutical grip.
Or so it seems to me. I’m not sure how you would ordinarily check such impressions, and it’s unfortunate that we are usually reduced to the level of the merely anecdotal. It is this, perhaps, that accounts for the threat of slight scorn with which much of the ‘conversation’ is uttered. When only the proper anoraks have any data, the rest of us rely on increasingly forthright assertion and the profile picture’s hard stare.
Canon Tilby’s concern, however (which I share), has more to do with communication between Church and society than within the Church as it arranges the delivery of its priorities. If it is the case (as she reports) that patients are flocking to their GPs with ‘existential distress’, then it means that for all our outreach, our men’s breakfasts, our cafés in the crossing and post offices in the choir vestry (all of which I entirely support), we still aren’t persuading enough citizens to look to the Church as a community among whom they can ‘open their grief’ and seek ‘comfort and counsel’ (BCP Communion).
Her article suggests that this is because of the current ‘assumption that there is simply no other way of speaking of the Christian faith’ than as one in which ‘individuals let Jesus into their hearts and lives one by one.’ (And do note that it’s not the second of those quotations that expresses her concern, but the first.) The problem, presumably, is that the enthusiasm of ‘the saved and the certain’ is scaring off the more reticent, a situation perfectly satirised by the Fast Show in their Christian Cops sketch. Again, I’m unclear how one would go about verifying that suspicion. There’s certainly nothing new in a very mixed attitude to enthusiasm in the Church.
It is Canon Tilby’s last two paragraphs that most closely reflect my own experiences, and attracted my eager support for her unpopular article. She juxtaposes two worlds: one, a warm, smiling, Messy world of cutting and pasting, chatting and sharing, with perhaps a few choruses before home-time. The other, a more austere and reserved, silent and private world of ‘the slow nurturing of the person through unconsciously memorised texts.’ This is much more self-consciously RS Thomas-type territory, the way ‘church’ used unapologetically to be. The parson wasn’t a chat-show host; the organist wasn’t a pop star. And one’s existential anxieties were kept at bay by the sure and certain hope that God was in His heaven, and that all would be well with the world.
Now, whether we should have been playing with tea-lights and cutting out paper flames all along; or whether our failure to do so is the reason some of the churches are emptying, the quieter days that Canon Tilby describes are surely gone now. And it’s perfectly possible to mourn them with nostalgia, sorrow and regret (which Tilby pours out in abundance) without for a moment being guilty of ‘unhelpful bleating’ or victim-like writing. She’s not ‘dreadful’. She’s just not dreadfully happy.
In the end, it’s surely all a matter of psychology, certainly once you’re retired or safely beyond the siren bray of ambition. For everyone convinced that the mission of an accessible and brightly smiling Church is the only way ahead (sans vestments, sans ecclesiology, sans Canon B5), there are others who are certain that only a liturgical diet of lacy albs and Palestrina, or a relentless programme of protest marches and Iona songs are capable of communicating salvation. Why? Because these are the things that they need to avoid their own existential crises. But what gets you through the day gives me nightmares. What soothes my soul is like fingernails down a blackboard to yours.
Yet, to miss what has gone and to be unimpressed by what has succeeded it is no crime. To say honestly what you discern or fear does not make you pathetic. And if it gets other people thinking and talking, planning and praying, then so much the better. Indeed, if you’ve done all that, you’ve performed a truly Evangelical takeover of your own.