The pandemic and the idea of a national church

Has the Church of England had a good crisis? Well, it rather depends on what you think the CofE is for.

Image: Flickr (vinylspider), CC BY-SA 2.0

Just as was the case in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, the salience of parish churches in local communities has made them a focus for many without a habit of churchgoing, or who would not even profess any very particular faith themselves. I don’t doubt that the feeling is real. But it has led to criticism of the decision not to open the churches for private prayer (although the vast majority of urban and suburban churches would not have been open in normal circumstances, and have not been for many years). And this particular focus on the building has led columnists and pundits to lament ‘the absence of the Church of England’ in the pandemic response (the phrase is that of Will Self).

The pandemic has, perhaps not surprisingly, brought out some of the cliches that make discussion of the role of the established church rather difficult. One is the sense (rather fanciful, I would suggest) that the nation, still Anglican at its heart, cries out as one from Bradford to Basingstoke, from Camden to Combe Magna, for the archbishop of Canterbury to take the lead. The bishops may also reflect with a rueful smile that they are accused of being a mere mouthpiece of government public health propaganda, yet are too ‘political’ when it comes to the Prime Minister’s chief adviser and his conduct during the lockdown. And the rhetorical setting of a stout, honest laity against a perfidious clergy is a trope that runs through many disputes of the last century, to the Prayer Book crisis of 1927-8 and beyond.

Not a few have responded with details of all the things that those fixated on the building have missed: a revolution in online activity, as well as volunteering at food banks, debt counselling centres and all manner of other vital social relief work. To close the churches and help stem the spread of the virus to persons unknown may be as pure an expression of loving one’s neighbour as is to be found. Few of the critics have been able to explain why the church should have put its volunteer members – many of them elderly – at risk in order to staff churches for private prayer, police the wearing of masks or the washing of hands, and carry out all the additional cleaning.

There will in time be some reflection into the Church’s reaction to the crisis, and there will no doubt be lessons to learn. But in play here are quite fundamentally opposed ideas of what it means to be a national church. That the crisis has caused many people to ask the kinds of questions which had hitherto not forced themselves upon the mind is certainly true, as the remarkable levels of engagement with online worship suggest. And many, if not most, within the Church of England would still recognise a vocation to serve everyone living in the parish, to at least some extent. (One might want to question the idea that the non-Anglican churches are indifferent to the needs of their communities, but I set that aside for now.)

But the language of vocation is important, and precise. I return to Will Self, in a column in the New European (June 11th-17th), because as a novelist and as one brought up as an Anglican, his choice of words cannot be accidental. In criticising the Church, and Archbishop Welby in particular, he writes: ‘the fact remains that we have an established church in this country, one whose remit is to minister to the spiritual requirements of every single citizen, regardless of their beliefs or lack of them.’ Everything in this sentence is compatible with a sense of vocation, save for the word ‘remit’. The NHS has a remit for the provision of healthcare; local authorities have a remit to run schools and empty the bins. Whatever the people of England may expect from the established church, to speak of it in these terms is to make a category error.

Were the Church of England funded directly from the public purse, with statutory duties set and maintained by government under Parliament, then this might be a meaningful way to speak. The current entanglement of the Church with the law in no way amounts to the same. Critics often refer to the ‘privilege’ the Church enjoys, of having some of the bishops sit in the House of Lords. That’s a debate I shall not go into here, but I’m not sure that the presence of the bishops in the Lords constitutes one side of a quasi-contractual relationship, in return for which the Church writes a blank cheque to every pundit who occasionally enjoys a spot of archbishop-bashing. Whatever the Church offers is (or should be) a gift freely given; to frame it as an entitlement of citizenship, or (worse) a service purchased by the nation from the Church, is to misunderstand it fundamentally. Whatever it means to have a national church, I’m not sure this is it.

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