“I’m always angry when I’m dying,” says the ‘Father’ in John Mortimer’s play A Voyage Round My Father. And so is the Church of England, it seems, with fractures and irritability liable to break out at regular intervals. If it’s not Angela, it’s Alexa.
The allegation of our dying is itself hotly contested. Some gleefully announce the imminent end of it all, reeling off statistics like a malign diagnosis. Others jump valiantly up and down insisting that it’s not too bad at all. Look! It’s just a flesh wound. What about Cathedrals! Evensong! On-line! Messy Church!
And now, Alexa! I confess that my spirits slumped the extra mile when I saw the story break. It felt so woefully wannabe, wilfully cool, nuzzling up to the IT giants with a sort of ‘love me, love my Jesus’ simper. But my reaction was wrong, misplaced. It is, in fact, a notably conservative device, principally designed to connect people with their parish church. The Delphic software might seem gimmicky, and certainly cannot meet people where their faith deficit lies. (There can’t be many writing to their bishops to say that the only thing keeping them from belief is a more vibrant Anglican web presence and greater clarity on how to organise a church wedding.) I do see that Alexa could effect an introduction to faith for some and maintain links for others (notably the housebound), so as a means of communication it is to be warmly welcomed. It’s just the bullish optimism that’s so very exhausting.
Another one in whom hope cannot be extinguished is the Most Revd Michael Curry, a man thrust into an even brighter spotlight in the last fortnight than that illuminating Alexa.
The fact that an African-American preacher preached a sermon in an identifiably African-American rhetorical tradition is not in fact a story until you add the detail of where and why and for whom he preached it. And this juxtaposition of Bishop Curry’s style-and-substance and a gathering of the chieftains of the British Establishment has given rise to some interesting comment amid the journalistic bilge, including this Theos piece by Simon Perfect (@SimplyMrPerfect).
His main thrust is that there was significantly more Christianity in Bishop Curry’s sermon than we have come to expect on State and Civic occasions, where overt references to faith are passed through the Church of England embarrassment filter, leaving a wash of warm words that are patient of any broadly positive interpretation. This reflects the more general shift that has taken place, principally post Welby. Once distinguishable by a hallmark of subtle understated proclamation (dismissed by the more fervent as scarcely Christian), the Church is now “flexing its missional muscles and becoming more vocal in its message.” A sort of Evangelical takeover, if you will.
But this is not a caricature that quite fits. The idea that the Church of England habitually delivers a diluted Gospel on State occasions and that the congregation is bewildered by anything more potent is false. When Church of England bishops preach, they speak in a manner markedly different from an African-American raised on the memory of Birmingham, Alabama. But this does not make them Christianity-lite. Even Archbishop Runcie (whose undulating parsonical voice gave him a wickedly unjust reputation for being wishy-washy), preached a rich and entirely orthodox homily for Charles and Diana in 1981, talking precisely of the difference between secular and Christian views of marriage, emphasising that a wedding is not a fairy-tale ending but the beginning of a life in which the couple cooperate with God in the divine task of renewing creation. (He was also hauntingly prophetic in his reference to future ‘miseries’ and ‘setbacks’.) For William and Kate, Bishop Richard Chartres quoted not Dr King but St Catherine of Siena (“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire!”), speaking of the path to truest selfhood that is reached through following Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Again, at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, Archbishop Rowan Williams focused on dedication and sacrifice as complete availability to God. Rooted in St Paul, he observed that ‘we live less than human lives if we just think of our own individual good.’
But if it’s unfair to caricature Civic religion as just Iolanthe with prayers, it’s still reasonable to say that many expect it to be dull. All too often church is, and it was Bishop Curry’s subversion of this that proved risible for some. Others will have found his words full of grace and truth, genuinely transformational, made all the more so by the heightened emotion of the wedding itself.
You can never quite tell what’s really going on. An audience that looks passive, unreceptive or bored may in fact be pondering a sermon intently, eyes tightly closed but ears wide open. By the same token, a congregation being whipped into an emotional frenzy may enjoy a spectacular ride while the service lasts, but when the show is over and the shine evaporates, all that they experienced and resolved may also have vanished strangely. (Alexa, what are the roots that clutch?)
Simon Perfect leaves us with the question of whether the Church of England can perform these discrete rôles successfully, combining the broader “task of serving the whole nation, with its task of calling people to God.”
I am clear (as David Jenkins used to say) that we can. People recognise that the Christian past of our nation continues to contribute to our present identity. They understand that for the foreseeable future it is within the cultural and theological norms of the Church of England that part of this identity will be expressed. Most even seem to rejoice that it should be so. They are consequently open to any thoughtful and attractive presentation of that faith, which can be authentic without being exclusivist, confident without jarring, and competent without descending to the merely flashy.
As we’re saying frequently in these difficult, sometimes short-tempered days (and relax, I won’t be saying it again for a while), prayerful discernment and mutual respect remain critical, as is the good sense not to abandon the best of our past as we embrace our always unknowable future.