Damian Thompson of the Telegraph writes that legalized gay marriage, which just arrived in England and Wales, could finally be the thing that breaks the weakened Church of England. He cites a suffragan Anglican bishop saying that even though the Church officially does not accept same-sex marriage, that priests can and will “creatively” defy Church order. Excerpt:

How will Archbishop Justin Welby respond? “I think the church has reacted by fully accepting that it’s the law, and should react on Saturday by continuing to demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being,” he told the Guardian in best Rev J C Flannel mode. Uh-huh. Oh, and there will be “structured conversations” to help resolve the problem.

Here’s my prediction. As of today, pro-gay clergy will begin to unpick Cameron’s “triple lock” banning parishes from holding gay weddings; during the next Parliament it will cease to exist. Priests who want to marry same-sex couples, or indeed marry their own gay lovers, will just do it. Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical parishes that reject the whole notion won’t be forced to host such ceremonies, but both these wings of the C of E are moving in a liberal direction, and in the long run demographic change will finish the job.

It’s hard to overestimate the weakening effect this will have on the central structures of the Church. The General Synod’s deliberations will be rendered irrelevant. The fiction of the “Anglican Communion” will be abandoned. Conservative provinces in Africa will repudiate the C of E; the last Lambeth Conference’s disciplinary action against the anything-goes American Episcopal Church will cease to mean anything.

I don’t say this snarkily, but I’m not sure what’s left to be weakened. From Andrew Brown in the Guardian last year. He’s talking about Southwark, which is London, south of the Thames:

Out of a population of about 2.6 million, roughly 45,000 attend Anglican churches most weeks. And whereas the Diocese of London, north of the river, has managed to show some increase in attendance, in Southwark it continues to slide. Even the kind of belonging measured by baptism has diminished, so that there are now about half as many every year as there were in 1980.

This in turn points to the most worrying figures for the Church of England in the reworking of the census statistic published last week by the Office of National Statistics. That shows that the median age of Christians in this country is 45; the median age of Muslims is 25.

It would be comforting to conservatives like me to think that the clergy are more liberal than the people, and are thus out of touch. But it doesn’t appear that this is the case:

Yet the decline of the Church of England, and of Christianity generally, does not mean that people are rushing towards atheism. “There absolutely isn’t a national decline of religion,” says Linda Woodhead, professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University and one of the organisers of the Westminster faith debates. Those have been based on surveys of public opinion that have shown with great clarity that the congregations in all the mainstream churches are much more socially liberal than the clergy.

“What has happened is a complete disjunction between the values of the church and the values of the population,” says Woodhead. “The church has clericalised until it’s just clergy and lay ministers talking to each other. The public are not an audience for this debate. And you can’t have a minority gospel for a majority religion.”

A slightly more hopeful outlook for the C of E is here.

I highly doubt that if the C of E changed itself to fit every social liberal’s ideal, that it would win a single more convert or Sunday worshiper. It just doesn’t happen. This is the great liberal hope: that if the Church changes itself to suit the times, that it will revive. Yet as we know, the churches that have done this in the United States are continuing their historic collapse, in spite of trying to accommodate the world. Those churches that have resisted are also in decline, but generally speaking, doing so more slowly. I’m not sure what Linda Woodhead means about there not being an “absolute decline” in religion in her country, unless she’s talking about self-reported religious sentiment. But that doesn’t do the C of E, or any institutional church, any good.

Anyway, as an outside observer, it seems to me that as a matter of sociology, a church whose clergy feel no compunction against following the church’s rules about something as foundational as Christian marriage is not a church that’s coherent, or has a future within its society. It’s notable how quick progressives within these Protestant churches — for example, this Methodist bishop — refuse to play by the rules of the church, and dare the orthodox within those churches to do something about it. Which, increasingly, they won’t do. Interesting times.

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