Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Last Rites: The End of the Church of England

A review of the book by Michael Hampson.
Click 'full post' for text.

Michael Hampson is an Anglican priest formerly based in Harlow (same diocese as me), who now works freelance as a retreat director. The book is a polemic against the current situation of the Church of England, and a prediction of its imminent fragmentation. I'll work through his chapters in order.

He begins by describing the pains of vicarage life, and how antiquated and unsuitable the present arrangement is for sustaining ministry, contrasting it with a catholic model which sees a cluster of celibate priests working together and sustaining fellowship. As you might imagine, I have a lot of sympathy with his position, but not total agreement; I think there are distinct differences between priests and other professions - indeed the professionalisation of the clergy is itself somewhat suspect, theologically. He goes on to rail against the hierarchical nature of the Church, and to argue for a polity that is more congregational in form - and he is right that this is something of a non-starter in Anglican circles. Again, whilst I hear much of what he says, I think congregationalism as a model is too open to corruption from the wider society, and whilst bishops are hardly immune themselves, I can't see any benefit in getting rid of what they represent - the connection with the apostles, their teaching and their practice.

The next few chapters give a potted history of the Church of England, arguing that there were three parties existing in broad and balancing tension - the Catholic, the Evangelical and the Liberal - and that the ordination of women, with the provision of 'flying bishops', has effectively eviscerated the Catholic element within the Church, leading to an imbalance (as there are now fewer people to oppose the 'fundamentalists'). The liberal faction, lacking the fixed commitments of the Catholics, are now in retreat, giving concessions in the name of consensus, and handing over the government of the church to the hard-liners - Hampson sees Rowan as a clear example of this. I think there is much truth in this analysis, but what Hampson doesn't appreciate is that the spectrum of opinion on the evangelical side is itself mutating, and that the struggle now is less between the 'liberal' and the 'evangelical' as within the evangelical wing itself - between fulcrumand reform, to name names.

However, what that misses is the particular salience of the homosexuality debate, both generally and for Hampson in particular. The next few chapters describe what happened to Hampson, as a gay man, first in growing up in the church, and then when his Bishop was lobbied by someone who objected to Hampson's being appointed to a position as director of the diocesan retreat house. This was both moving and shocking, and made me appreciate why Hampson has now left the church. I see no reason to disagree that the hierarchy are, in general, some way behind most of the laity who have come to their own conclusions about the issue.

However, the real kick comes in the last two chapters when Hampson draws on the foregoing analysis and brings to bear a consideration of church finances. The short story is that the Church of England has, in a very short period of time, shifted away from a devolved model of finance to one that is driven from the bottom up by a 'quota' system, called 'parish share' in Chelmsford. The Church on the whole cannot pay its way without the support of the parishes, and this means that a small number of large churches in any particular diocese have a disproportionate influence over church policy - that is, if they withdrew their parish share, the dioceses would go bankrupt, and suddenly lots of clergy would have no monthly income. Hampson uses this to analyse what happened with Jeffrey John's appointment as Bishop of Reading, and it goes a long way to explaining why Rowan pressured him to resign - a deeply disturbing episode in all sorts of ways.

Hampson finishes with a manifesto - a call to set the parishes free to employ their own clergy, and drive their own agendas. This will necessarily lead to a fragmentation of the Church, but Hampson welcomes the prospect, as one which will allow each group within the church to be itself. He may well be right. Certainly if the situation with regard to TEC proceeds in the way it is at the moment, there will be a severe breakdown within the CofE itself, and it is not beyond the realm of imagining that there will be three or four separate 'daughter' churches - one of which will be, effectively, a branch of TEC itself (Affirming Catholicism); one will be linked to the Nigerian church (Reform); one will be (possibly) a continuing CofE of some sort (fulcrum); and one will, in time, join Rome (Forward in Faith). That's not a terrible outcome. Indeed, the thought of the parishes being set free is one that I find tremendously exciting and attractive - it would liberate Mersea hugely if we were able to be autonomous in that sense. At the moment we are the largest net contributors to the Deanery, and one of the largest in the diocese - we pay about 50k per year in parish share, and get one full-time priest (me) in return (my work being nominally worth about £25-30k). To be able to exercise our own discernment over the placing of those funds would significantly strengthen the ministry that is possible here.

One final point. I had skimmed this book some months ago, and read the passage in the middle where the author has a conversation with Rowan, and Hampson writes: "He was going to defend the Anglican Communion. It was an important global non-governmental organisation. Africa had been treated badly: we owed them a major role in the Communion as some kind of payback for the harm we had done to them." I really, really hope that this is not an accurate description of Rowan's perspective. It's one that I have no sympathy with at all. In the end it is only truth that sets us free.

On the whole, an excellent book, very readable, and provoking much food for thought.

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