The Church of England Just Wants to Be Liked
Few things give me more pleasure than landing a solid kick on the bloated reputation of a walking, talking, wad-of-bank-note-depositing insult to art like Jeff Koons or Damian Hirst. I get no such satisfaction from insulting David Hockney, who has made beautiful paintings and seems like a decent man. Still, the stained glass window that the dean of Westminster commissioned him to design for Westminster Abbey is embarrassingly out of place—downright childish-looking compared to Alan Younger’s contemporary contribution. The dean welcomed Hockney’s efforts, which contain no religious content, as “directly accessible.” What does that mean? What does he even think it means?
It is possible that the dean had pure intentions. It’s hard to shake the thought, however, that Hockney was called upon because of his status rather than his talents. In commissioning one of Britain’s best known modern artists—rather than an expert in glass as they did with Younger—the Church might be attempting to appear relevant and in tune with its time. One can only be thankful that Emin was not commissioned to recreate My Bed around the altar.
Anglicanism faces steep demographic decline in Britain. Only 15 percent of Britons, and only 2 percent of Britons aged between 18 and 24, are affiliated with the Church of England. Fewer than a million British men, women, and children typically attend church services. Britain, then, quite probably contains more practicing Muslims than practicing Christians.
Dame Sarah Mullally, the Bishop of Crediton, has optimistically suggested that Anglicans should not be concerned because people can encounter God “through church or youth groups or…social media.” It is a nice thought but I am unaware of a steep rise in attendance among church and youth groups, and rarely see religious content jostling for prominence with the baby pictures, stale memes, and holiday snaps on Facebook. Mullally’s comments, it seems to me, are indicative of a dangerous temptation to stretch the meaning of the word “religious” so far as to make it, well, meaningless.
Radical action is needed to secure the continued existence of the Church. Instead the Church has reacted with desperate attempts to be liked. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has spent much of his time campaigning against the gig economy. One can oppose or applaud his sentiments regarding “economic justice,” but it is the Church of England’s recent laser-like attention to this matter that is curious. If Christ descended from the heavens, I am sure he would have strong words regarding corporate greed—he was not, after all, famous for his friendliness towards merchants—but I am equally convinced that he would be startled by the Church’s avoidance of matters like fatherlessness and abortion. The Anglican hierarchy seems frightened of conforming to popular stereotypes regarding stern, officious, socially conservative churchmen.
This is not just a moral failing but a tactical mistake. The Church is simply not going to win followers without being controversial, and without distinguishing itself as an institution. Economic leftism alone makes it nothing more than a becassocked wing of the Labour Party, likeable, perhaps, but irrelevant.
Rowan Williams, the previous archbishop of Canterbury, was nice but ineffectual, and Welby has continued that mild-mannered tradition. In 2016, he told Anglicans not to speak about their faith without being asked. Evangelism, he suggested, “is all based around loving the person you are dealing with, which means you seek their well-being and you respect their identity and their integrity.”
It is true, of course, that being a loudmouth is obnoxious, but so is being modest to the point of reticence. Sometimes seeking people’s well-being means raising ideas they might not have considered for themselves. Welby might ask himself whether his new friends on the left have ever hesitated before evangelizing. One can dislike their principles and still admire their recognition that beliefs need powerful advocacy to become important.
Sometimes we must make enemies to win admirers, a fact that flaccid ecumenicism has obscured. A low point of Welby’s time as Archbishop of Canterbury came when he welcomed Muhammad Naqib ur Rehman to Lambeth Palace to discuss interfaith relations. In his home country of Pakistan, the Muslim cleric had displayed his openness to those of other faiths by applauding the assassin of the politician Salmaan Taseer, who had been killed for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Doubtless, Welby was unaware of his comments, but the insufficient diligence of church authorities reflected an indefensible lack of seriousness regarding the persecuted church.
Welby’s fear of ruffling feathers is not groundless. A year after he had met the cleric, and perhaps a little chastened, he mildly but clearly drew attention to the anti-Christian words and crimes of radical Islamists. This was enough to provoke an outbreak of huffing and puffing from the Guardian‘s Andrew Brown. Should the Church fear criticism from the Guardian, though, or should it fear praise? While I am sure that Welby knows he would not be doing his job if he never discomfited the uncaring rich, the same is true of Islamist clerics and secular progressives.
The Church cannot take its lead from society. Adopting the cultural and moral norms of its time might earn it a few backslaps from journalists and politicians but it also gives it subordinate status. Quite apart from anything else, no one is inspired by a mere follower. To survive, let alone to flourish, it must build an independent identity, and assert itself as an essential force in Britain. It must want to shape its times and not merely to reflect them.
In Philip Larkin’s famous poem “Church Going,” the staunch atheist reflects on the reverential feelings that he nonetheless experiences when he visits churches. In the future, he imagines, people may still visit churches not to worship God but to appreciate them as serious houses on serious earth. There:
…someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in.
The very least the Church can do is to remain dignified in an unfriendly age.
Ben Sixsmith is a British writer living in Poland who has written for Quillette, the Spectator USA, the Catholic Herald, Public Discourse, and Unherd.