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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.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "The Church of England Just Wants to Be Liked"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On October 10, 2018 @ 10:22 pm

Let us not forget that the Church of England was, as Brendan Behan put it, founded on the bollocks of Henry VIII

#2 Comment By Fazal Majid On October 10, 2018 @ 11:25 pm

As a former oil industry executive, Justin Welby cannot afford to appear lenient with corporations. The Church of England had previously campaigned against payday lenders, but that is an easier target.

The Church of England was started to side with the King of England in his struggle with the Pope. It’s not surprising it defers to the secular over the sacred, as indeed does its Episcopalian offshoot here.

As the Established church of England, it holds tremendous wealth, and control over a big chunk of the UK’s educational system, utterly out of proportion with its dwindling heft, even if it isn’t quite as far gone as the Scottish Presbyterians. There are more practicing Catholics than Anglicans in the UK today.

It’s long past time the CoE were disestablished, the Lords Spiritual banished from the House of Lords, and the anti-Catholic provisions of the 1701 Act of Settlement fully repealed. It beggars belief that a Muslim or Jewish person could ascend to the throne (and thus become the head of the Church of England) but Catholics alone are barred.

#3 Comment By Reed Andrew On October 11, 2018 @ 8:59 am

So what if the Anglican Communion falls? The author seems to suggest that the Anglicans are the only body of Christians present in England, which is simply false. Many Roman Catholics reside in the isles, alongside many various smaller Protestant institutions, and a growing number of Orthodox churches brought in by immigrants in recent years. Perhaps it’s simply becoming readily apparant that Anglicanism was always a bastard child, the lukewarm mix of Roman Catholic tradition and the extreme zeal of the Reformers, which could not fully claim either, and instead stood in the middle as a sort of Anglo-Frankenstein’s monster. If the Church of England crumbles away, it is merely a sign that it was never Christ’s Church to begin with.

#4 Comment By Neil Novi On October 11, 2018 @ 10:05 am

Nope on dignity. Dignity is elitist. Get down on the ground and roll around like the rest of us.

#5 Comment By mrscracker On October 11, 2018 @ 10:29 am

It’s very sad.
I have family in the UK & was over there visiting a few years ago.

In most British cities it’s pretty easy to spot the Catholic churches. With some exceptions, they’re the ugly ones with the bad 1970’s music & “folk” choirs.

The CE churches are the attractive ones built in good taste which, if old enough, *used* to be Catholic churches. They have the lovely music & choirs but sparse congregations. I saw any number of rural churches that were only used for weddings & special occasions.

Catholic churches seem to have much greater attendance these days, especially by immigrants.

Not to disrespect the CE, I love the traditional book of Common Prayer & Anglican hymns, but if current demographic trends continue perhaps deeding those ancient buildings back to Catholics -who erected them in the first place-would be fitting. At least they’d see some use each week.

#6 Comment By Jack On October 11, 2018 @ 11:34 am

Memo to the last Anglican: don’t forget to turn off the lights.

#7 Comment By cg On October 11, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

Who edits these articles? “Britons” in Scotland or Wales cannot attend Church of England parishes, which only exist in … England.

#8 Comment By cka2nd On October 11, 2018 @ 12:48 pm

If you can’t, or won’t, stick up for what you believe in, what’s the point? What do Anglicans believe, about God, about Christ, about anything?

Of course, when I really put that question to myself about my Catholicism, I dropped out and became an atheist.

For all of the inarguable beauty of Anglican choral music or two millenia’s worth of Christian art, I think religious belief of any sort will have a tough time of it sustaining itself as more and more of t he mysteries of life are answered more plausibly by science.

#9 Comment By Rossbach On October 11, 2018 @ 2:17 pm

“Anglicanism faces steep demographic decline in Britain…[which] quite probably contains more practicing Muslims than practicing Christians.”

When confronted with a crisis, the Liberal solution is always to do more of what caused the original problem. The CoE has no one but itself to blame for what has happened to it.

#10 Comment By Maria On October 11, 2018 @ 2:38 pm

The Church of England aka Episcopal Church in the US is a State Operated Religion. As such, it has the ethics of the state government which is population control. So it accepts abortion, same-sex behaviors that don’t reproduce, euthanasia, etc. The state can build a perfect society, but not everyone can live in it without strict population control measure to limit the population. With effective propaganda you can convince people they made individual choices and thus delude them into believing they have a democracy. The state religions were designed to take care of “widows and orphans” or the most vulnerable. That is expensive. State ran ethics finds it easier to just exterminate the unwanted population groups with abortion, euthanasia, and promoting same sex behaviors.

The Roman Empire had its own religion and temples with Caesar as the deity. St. Augustine analyzed the errors as to why the Roman Empire fell from within in his classic “City of God and City of Man.” Limiting the population is essential to building the city of man. Religion is necessary to care for the vulnerable, but must be ethically compromised to also eradicate the vulnerable as well.

Who wants the Church of England agenda which is packaged as social justice? I fail to see any difference in morals between the Church of England and the pagan Roman Empire religion as the ethics are just the same.

#11 Comment By Gerald Arcuri On October 11, 2018 @ 2:44 pm

Well, perhaps Britons have decided to follow the church of Cyndi Lauper: “Girls just wanna’ have fun!” Being an Anglican means having fun!

#12 Comment By Tom Cullem On October 11, 2018 @ 10:54 pm

It is interesting that the CoE doesn’t ask itself why Islam, which never apologises for itself and does not hesitate to make clear that being liked isn’t high up on its list of priorities, is doing so well in Europe. It is the fastest growing religion in the region, particularly in Ireland and the UK. In Muslim-Christian marriages, the non-Muslim spouse is far more likely to convert – because Muslim families are far more invested in their faith than Christians – or rather, gentiles, because that’s what most everyone is nowadays who isn’t demonstrably Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, or Buddhist.

The term “flaccid” is aptly chosen, because the term I use when thinking about Islam is “muscular”.

In surrendering its right to make judgements, as well as its role as steward of its ancient traditions without apology, and its miserly rejection of the grandeur, including the matchless music and art that once framed its exquisite liturgy, the CoE gave up everything that leant its communion the timeless magic without which no religion can survive.

Flaccid, indeed. Every time I see a photo of rows and rows of men in huge mosques kneeling toward Mecca, I realise how horribly wrong the CoE got it.

Like Britain itself, especially England, which gave up its cultural specificity to spurious myths about the superiority of multiculturalism, the CoE gave away the very specificity that gave it its power, and instead tried to be all things to all men.

It is depressing beyond measure to watch its increasingly rapid death.

#13 Comment By Tom Cullem On October 11, 2018 @ 11:06 pm

@cka2nd – Science explains plausibly the biological mysteries of life; religion addresses a quite other sphere and is also supposed to present a guide to living life. As He said, “Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and render unto God that which belongs to God.”

Secularism has elevated self-fulfillment, individualism, and self-realisation to religious tenets. The result is a weakening anything goes society that is too self-absorbed to replace itself. The turn to much maligned populism and nationalism is a backlash against the loss of culture – one of whose primary planks is religion.

#14 Comment By kingdomofgodflag.info On October 12, 2018 @ 10:08 am

I would take Anglicanism more seriously if the last line of Article 37, “It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars” would instead read that it is unlawful.

Paul said: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” and “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 12, 2018 @ 11:32 am

“Memo to the last Anglican: don’t forget to turn off the lights.”

Response: One cannot nor should one try to turn off the light(s) of the one and only living God in our midst. Even if it be but one soul that enters. For the believer, even the worst carries light within to eternity.

#16 Comment By cka2nd On October 12, 2018 @ 3:39 pm

Tom Cullem says: “Secularism has elevated self-fulfillment, individualism, and self-realisation to religious tenets. The result is a weakening anything goes society that is too self-absorbed to replace itself. The turn to much maligned populism and nationalism is a backlash against the loss of culture – one of whose primary planks is religion.”

For all of its many and terrible flaws, the Stalinist system in the USSR, Eastern Europe, China and Cuba did not elevate “self-fulfillment, individualism, and self-realisation to religious tenets.” Those traits have flourished under modern finance and consumer capitalism, and judging from what I’ve read about evangelical Christian mega-churches over the years, primarily at TAC, it doesn’t seem to me that either secularism or religion have been able to withstand the tide of “self-fulfillment, individualism, and self-realisation to religious tenets” in the face of consumer capitalism. And it doesn’t help when other institutions that foster community bonds, such as labor unions, are broken on the wheel of finance and consumer capitalism, or when the demands of survival – working multiple jobs, chasing employment opportunities from one state or nation to another – tear apart or weaken other institutions that bind people together, from Little League and bowling leagues to nuclear and extended families.

I am very much of the “Stalinism” is a corruption of Marxism-Leninism school of thought, so I believe the revolutionary road is necessary for the advancement of mankind, one where communal solidarity exists alongside self-fulfillment and self-realisation. However, finance capital has undermined to a greater or lesser degree the more mild reforms of society, as well, including those of the social democracies of Europe and the similar, if not quite so “socialist,” reforms of Winston Churchill’s Anglosphere (the New Deal in the US, and similar social and labor reforms in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK). I believe that until we have an economic system that fosters real social cohesion, the culture will continue down the road that it has been following these last 40+ years, and no religion will be able to stop it.

#17 Comment By cagedvole On October 15, 2018 @ 10:33 am

mrscracker –
“….. deeding those ancient buildings back to Catholics -who erected them in the first place-would be fitting…..”

Bear in mind the churches were not “taken from” “the Catholics” as is sometimes lazily assumed.
Those who built them and those who turned them into Protestant churches were the same people, the English. They were Catholic for centuries; but then they changed their minds and became Protestant, still attending their parish churches (usually redoing the decor in far better taste).
Now they’ve changed their minds again and become whatever the CofE is – secular, complacent, apostate, irreligious.

I do wonder how thrilled the Catholics would be, to be handed the burden of upkeep :-s

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 15, 2018 @ 11:05 am

““For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”

I have always found it interesting, that neither Christ nor a single apostle chastised service in law enforcement, the military or government. I think the context here is more pointedly to religious wars or wars on behalf of the faith —

And while I fully accept pacifism, I think it clear that Christ and the apostles recognized that living in the world would include christians be part and subject to all its glories and tragedies — including wars for all manner just and unjust reasons.

The struggle for people of faith is understanding the just from the unjust and despite being en-lived by the spirit of christ – our flesh humanness can get in the way.

There is spiritual warfare and there is

warfare manifest in the world.

#19 Comment By The Rev. Dr. Samuel E. Pinzon On October 15, 2018 @ 11:53 am

Asi como la Iglesia Romana es una secta de la Iglesia Cristiana fundada por Jesucristo, ya que ha anadido dogmas y practicas que no son Biblicos sino puramente humanos, tales como la infalibilidad del papa, el celibato obligatorio, el purgatorio,la venta de indulgencias y el sincretismo que promueve la adoracion de imagenes paganas con Cristianas y otras muchas mas, la Iglesia Episcopal en los Estados Unidos de Norte America y la llamada Iglesia Anglicana del Canada son dos nuevas sectas de la Iglesia Anglicana ya que se han apartado de las verdades y ensenanzas Biblicas sobre el matrimonio Cristiano como una institucion sacramental y han adoptado una filosofia humanista-materialista y feminista basada en las emociones y deleites puramente humanos, admitiendo el homosexualismo, lesbianismo y la union de parejas del mismo sexo como una nueva moral que debe ser admitida sincreticamente con las demas ensenanzas morales que Dios ha establecido en el Antiguo y Nuevo Testamentos de la Biblia Cristiana. Estas dos nuevas sectas Norte Americanas-Episcopales no deberian llamarse ni identificarsen como Anglicanas.

#20 Comment By mrscracker On October 15, 2018 @ 12:53 pm

cagedvole says:

Bear in mind the churches were not “taken from” “the Catholics” as is sometimes lazily assumed.
Those who built them and those who turned them into Protestant churches were the same people, the English. They were Catholic for centuries; but then they changed their minds and became Protestant, still attending their parish churches (usually redoing the decor in far better taste).”

Well, yes I hear what you are saying & I was only half serious about deeding buildings back to Catholics, but some of that “mind changing” wasn’t brought about without coercion. To be fair, blood was shed on all sides.

And redoing church “décor” in better taste sometimes involved terrible & wanton destruction.

My son & I visited the site of a distant ancestor’s home in the UK a few years ago. It was so far off the beaten track in the 1600’s that a Catholic bishop was allowed to live & I guess practice his faith there. He’d previously been imprisoned in the Tower of London after not taking the oath of supremacy.

The chapel, within the house, has wonderful religious artwork which completely escaped the iconoclasts. When you see what kind of beauty existed before the destruction, even in the remotest parts of the UK, it really speaks of the enormity of what was lost.

#21 Comment By cagedvole On October 15, 2018 @ 2:53 pm

mrscracker –
Well, of course decor is largely a matter of taste :-p

It’s more a case of minds being changed in SPITE of coercion though, I would say.
An ancestor of mine was one of the 300-odd burned alive for no crime but refusing to affirm transubstantiation.

#22 Comment By mrscracker On October 15, 2018 @ 4:24 pm

cagedvole ,
Yes, there was violence enacted on both sides. Terrible things were done to Protestants & Catholics alike.

My own UK ancestors were Protestants. What we’d call hardcore Protestants. Excepting one in Scotland who chose to convert to Catholicism while visiting the continent. His people wouldn’t even bury him after he returned to Scotland. No one knows his burial spot to this day. Hopefully someone took pity & did the right thing.

Sure, CE churches are lovely inside. I regret the sacred art that was demolished but the plaques & memorials erected later are very interesting & moving to read.