Saturday, May 05, 2012

Faramir, Fraser and the folly of a fast church

One of the many deeply moving elements in the Lord of the Rings is the story of Faramir, younger brother of Boromir, and his quest to gain his father's approval - leading, in the end, to his sacrificial attempt to retake Osgiliath.

I was reminded of this when reading Giles Fraser's latest column in the Guardian (which seem better than his Church Times articles - perhaps it is his new context). Fraser writes: "my former therapist made much of the pathologies of the English boarding school system and that those of us who are its victims often have an unhealthy relationship with establishment, looking towards it as some sort of substitute parent. But that, of course, is looking for love and acceptance in quite the wrong place. Larkin may have been overly cynical about "your Mum and Dad" but it was a cynicism that would not have been misplaced about the establishment – places like the army and the church. "Get out of this thing whilst you can", can feel like pretty sound advice."

My earlier post about the stupid and ungodly culture of the church seemed to strike a chord - normally, a well-read post here gets up to 400 reads - that one has had over 2,500 and is still rising. I think Fraser is putting his finger on one particular aspect of the ungodly culture of the Church, one particular way in which the church devours its own children, and it is to do with how the hierarchy expresses or withholds approval.

I think Denethor is a good proxy to use to describe this. Denethor is a steward - in other words, someone entrusted with looking after something glorious, with passing it on safely to his successors (in order that it is in good order at the time of the Return of the King). Because of his use of the Palantir, Denethor has given in to the despiser's promptings and succumbed to despair. He sees no way in which he will be able to achieve what he has been commanded to achieve. This fear, this lack of faith, is what lies behind his corrupt actions and his lack of regard for Faramir - a son that truly loves him, and is an exemplary leader. Out of fear, Denethor seeks for any remedy that might stave off the darkness, is willing to sacrifice his son in folly, and would be even willing to use the Ring in order to see Gondor preserved. In other words, the leadership is gripped with fear and the actions are conditioned by a desire to 'hold fast' to what has been inherited. It is this holding fast which is, in the end, the problem, and which leads to such a sad end for Denethor.

In the same way it seems that our hierarchy is gripped by fear at losing what has been inherited, and spends time and energy on holding fast. This is not so much a question of holding on to particular churches despite losing so many clergy (something I actually agree with) so much as holding on to a particular attitude and understanding of what the Church of England actually is. That is, I believe it is a particular vision of the Church - a particular vision of the role of the church within our English society - which is being held on to. It is the sort of thing that comes to the forefront at times like last year's Royal Wedding and it is, of course, exactly what was at stake in Giles Fraser's conflict at St Paul's. There the conflict came out into the open - the great unwashed had parked themselves outside the symbol of old establishment glory, and this really wouldn't do. What greater symbolism could there be than the closing of the cathedral doors for fear of contamination by these 'witless halflings'?

Fraser touches on how the hierarchy has rallied to preserve respectability in the sight of the world: "I've had my fill of polite rejections since resigning from St Paul's – too many unconvincing smiles in the street by former friends and colleagues who suddenly wouldn't break step to say hello... The more you seriously piss off the church authorities, the nicer they are to you in public. Ostracism is achieved with a well-rehearsed Christian smile and the rhetoric of pastoral care. Good social skills camouflage a deep irritation that you have betrayed the club." This is how Denethor manipulates Faramir into self-sacrifice - the exercise of control through the withholding of approval. (The thought that occurs to me - to change the image for a moment - is that it is strange to disapprove of those who rock the boat when the boat itself is sinking, and holding fast to the status quo merely guarantees that the vessel sinks.)

The dark theology here has many aspects, but one in particular I would like to pick out. Those gripped by fear seek to hold fast to what has been inherited - and their clinging to old patterns develops into a strangling of the new. Yet there is another sense of 'fast' - the sense of something being quick, or immediate, something lacking in mediation. This is a hallmark of Protestant culture. It might be suggested to Fraser that he shouldn't be seeking such reassurance and approval from the hierarchy - that a sense of doing God's will should be enough for anyone with a living faith. Yet this is to deny that God has no hands but ours, no eyes but ours. It is a rejection of sacramentality and incarnation - in other words, it is primarily through the love and respect shown by other human beings that we experience the love and respect on offer to us from God. When that love and respect is withheld - when we are disciplined by disapproval - then this is experienced as a rejection by God. I don't believe that this is simply down to having had a boarding school background (having one myself) - it is more that this aspect of boarding school culture is itself an expression of a particular form of English culture, and it is precisely this form of English culture which seems to control the Church, and it is this form of English culture that seems incapable of recognising holiness, as with Rowan.

How might those who still love the church - as with Fraser - and who wish to see it prosper take forward the necessary remedial work? Two thoughts. The first is that - in a church which has become too fast in every sense, and which is distracted by passing, glittering fancies as it seeks the next Red Bull to assuage the neurotic void and spiritual lack at its heart - we have to prioritise the opposite of the fast, which is the slow. A remark attributed to Jung is that 'haste is not of the devil, it IS the devil', which I believe contains much truth. We have lost our sense of rootedness in prayer, our sense that God is in charge and that, whatever goes wrong, He has the capacity to redeem it and the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church. We need to get back to putting the first commandment first - that is the only thing that will remove our fear.

The second is that we have to reform the structures of the church. Structures - principalities and powers - embody and maintain a particular culture, and even good people can become distorted out of God's plan by living within fallen structures. I am more and more convinced that we need to disestablish the church, for it is precisely establishment which is the bulwark propping up this particular culture. (Disestablishment would also bring us into line with the global Anglican Communion, which I thought was a particular desire of the hierarchy... Hmmm.)

I believe in the gospel more firmly than I ever have, and I believe in the local church - that it is where Christ can be met and incarnated, and which has a vibrant future to look forward to - but the wider structures of our Church, the wider culture or soul of this institution - there I have ever-increasing doubts. I believe that it can only be saved if it is significantly reformed. Has it gone too far to be redeemed? Has the glory of the Lord actually departed from it? Is the future of the Church of England simply to be the Anglican denomination in this land? Probably, but, as with Fraser, I still hold on to a hope in the God of surprises.


  1. My first time commenting here. I'm an American Episcopalian. I agree and enjoy your allegory to LOTR. However, one danger to complete breakdown of hierarchy is something American Baptists and other non-hierarchical churches here face...The Lone Ranger Syndrome. For better or worse, the hierarchy brings a measure of support -a network of clergy that, by virtue of the administration of a hierarchy, get together often and meet. While designed to be administrative, these meetings bring a fellowship and support that many denominations don't have. American Baptists have written about The Lone Ranger Syndrome for years...this feeling that as an ordained, one is alone in the fight. There is unfortunately a far darker side to a lack of hierarchy...look up Mark Driscoll in Seattle...he is a lone pastor of a church he created and has methodically excommunicated everyone who doesn't agree 100% with him. He is but one example of many over here of these mega churches run amuck without oversight.

    Episcopal oversight here seems less rigid than what you describe...and it does serve some good purpose in the form of fellowship and support of the clergy. But then a diocese elects a gay bishop and a schism happens...go figure.

  2. Your country didn't abandon its claim to rule France until 1801. You last had French territory in the mid-1600s and you last had a chance to rule all of France in the mid-1400s. I expect your Established Church will cling to Establishment for nearly as many years as you kept the French coat of arms, generations clinging to it out of pathetic national pride, years after it's had any real life in it.

  3. Couple of points:

    - This is pretty much what Forward in Faith has been saying for the last twenty years (tho' no-one has paid any attention, because they think F.i.F. are just about opposing the ordination of women).

    - From where I sit Fraser is very much an Establishment figure. (One who has now seen the light??)

    1. According to FiF's own website, opposing the ordination of women is all they are about. On their "about us" page, they state clearly that it is their only goal. I cannot deduce from their website that they serve any other purpose.

    2. I thought the website said something about affirming "the Faith of the Church as revealed in Scripture and Tradition", having a "vision for Unity and Truth", etc.

  4. Unknown - I'm all in favour of hierarchy, and indeed obedience to bishops - which I have lived out to my own cost - I'm really wanting to describe the fallen culture within which many of them are presently operating.
    Sir Watkin - if I thought FiF had a broader vision I'd be much more receptive to their arguments. As it is, I was ordained by a church that also ordained women - in the same service as me - so if their orders are invalid then so are mine, and I can't believe that. Which is also why I could never join the RCs or the Ordinariate, attractive though such options often appear.

  5. Fr Sam,

    Yes, I realise what your position is on the ordination of women (and it's perhaps best if we save that for another day).

    Forward in Faith does have a broader vision, but has never managed to get it across. To some extent this is a failure on its part, but not entirely.

    I was struck by Fr Fraser's piece "First day of my new job":

    After nearly twenty years of pretty successful priestly ministry, he says of his new parish and role, "I have no idea how even to begin". Yet there are many Forward in Faith priests living lives of sacrificial service in places like Newington who would (and do) know exactly where to begin. Not that they are unique in this (not would they claim to be), but for them it's precisely that "broader vision" which sends them to such parishes and sustains their ministry.

    No-one ever sees this, however. There was a rare glimpse at the time of last summer's riots when Fr Simon Morris and his parish of S. Mary's, Tottenham, had their fifteen minutes of fame:

    Mostly, however, it's the Giles Frasers who get the sympathetic attention. To some extent deservedly. He's a highly intelligent and articulate man, and his message is one that it much easier for the rest of the church and society at large to make sense of (even if they don't agree with him).

    But even so ....

  6. The CofE establishment looks very much like Eurozone leaders, desperately scrabbling around to find another sticking plaster to cover another gaping divide.

    Just as Europe would be better off without the Euro, so England would be better off without the CofE hierarchy.


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