Tuesday, 22 September 2009

More tea, vicar. Not so much rap.

Absolutely the best retort to the Bishop of Reading's theory that Jesus wouldn't have shopped in Marks&Spencer came in a CIF thread from the inimitable Ally Fogg:


These are not loaves and fishes.

These are fresh Italian Buccellato di Napoli, lightly toasted and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, served alongside line-caught Tweed trout, delicately steamed and aromatised with a spray of balsamic vinegar.

These are not just loaves and fishes. These are M&S loaves and fishes.


There's almost no more to be said. But I'll say it anyway. The Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, bless his guilt-ridden heart, worries that the image of the Church of England is a bit too middle class. So - in an unusually well-circulated press release - he lamented:

"How did it come to this, that we have become known as just the Marks & Spencer option when in our heart of hearts we know that Jesus would just as likely be in the queue at Asda or Aldi?"


The trouble is, Bishop, it hasn't "come to this". It has always been like this. The C of E may no longer be the Tory Party at prayer - its upper echelons have long been more of a Hampstead dinner party at prayer - but it remains, as it was at the beginning, is now and ever shall be, a church for the middle classes. To misquote one of the Rt Rev Steve's drink-sodden fellow bishops, that is what it does.

The bishop of Reading (who, were it not for Rowan Williams' cowardice, wouldn't have been this silly man at all) is "frustrated" because Jesus "got us started with church simply" (eh?) and his "first disciples were down-to-earth people who wanted to know what life was all about". Up to a point, perhaps; although JC also had posh disciples like Lazarus, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who equally "wanted to know what life was all about". Jesus would have been in the queue at Asda, and he would have been in the queue at a Salvation Army soup kitchen, and he would have been in the queue at Fortnum and Mason's. But that's Jesus for you. The Church of England isn't Jesus; it isn't even Christianity - just one part of Christianity, with an historic ministry to cater to the spirtual needs of the angst-ridden middle classes. Somebody's got to.

As for Christianity's other founder, the very middle class (but not notably angst-ridden) Saul of Tarsus, I can't resist quoting the following from AN Wilson's excellent biography:

An Anglican bishop, driving me in his car, once opined that Paul's Letter to the Romans was "all balls". At the time I did not see how how appropriate this judgement was, since Paul would certainly have returned the compliment and taken a low view of the "thoughts" buzzing about in this man's head. Anglicanism, an attempt to "make sense" of things, or to do them decently and in order, but somehow find a place for God in the world, would probably, had Paul lived to see it, have been for him the ultimate absurdity - more ridiculous than any of the other forms of "Christianity" which would have filled him with despair.


Historically, the Establishment nature of the Anglican church - reflected in the seats its bishops continue to occupy, preposterously, in the House of Lords - put it at odds with the common people in ways far more contrary to a Christian conscience than the emptying pews and general indifference it finds today. In the early days, it was an unabashed instrument of royal power. The Pilgrimmage of Grace of the 1530s, a revolt against the ecclesiastic reforms of Henry VIII, was a rebellion largely of the ordinary, pious folk of the North against the elitist intellectual snobs who were promoting the Reformation. In the next century, popular movements ranged against the C of E from the other side of the theological divide: the ultra-Protestants, the puritans and the radical nonconformists. The Eighteenth century saw the growth of Methodism as a religion appealing to the lower orders - sneered at as "enthusiasm" by the Enlightenment sophisticates of the Anglican establishment. In the Victorian age there was an influx of poor Catholics from Ireland. And in more recent times any number of demotic forms of Christianity have arisen or gained converts by appealing to what the good bishop likes to think of as the folks who shop in Aldi.

What sustained the Church of England through all these crises was its respectability, its position in the social hierarchy. In Jane Austen's day, a young vicar was often quite a catch, well-educated and urbane (though Austen's own clergymen were sometimes, it's true, more in the mould of Mr Collins). Jeremy Paxman, in his quintessentially middle class study The English, commented that "the best-remembered Anglicans are recalled for something other than their spirituality" - as diarists, naturalists, philosophers, do-gooders or eccentrics. He also quoted Dostoevsky:

Anglican ministers and bishops are proud and rich, live in wealthy parishes and dioceses and wax fat with an entirely untroubled conscience. It is a religion of the rich, and undisguised at that.


So a turning away from the Church of England by those who aren't middle class is nothing to worry about, really, since the church never had them in the first place. All those big city churches built during the heyday of Victorian prosperity were only ever a quarter full. What has gone wrong for the church in the past few decades is that its middle class stalwarts have also been deserting it. Those are the people it needs to win back if it is going to survive. And with typically embarrassing stunts like this latest push (which includes a back-to-church message delivered in what someone in the C of E thinks is "rap") the church just looks silly and rather desperate. Anglicanism can't do trendy, any more than the girl in Jarvis Cocker's song could do common. It's just too middle class.

All quality brands have a unique selling point. What's the Church of England's USP? Certainly not Jesus. All the other churches have Jesus, and some have other attractions too, like travelling saints' bones or healing or gospel choirs. No: the Anglican church has, among other things going for it, architecture, choral evensong, nice, well-meaning (if occasionally too well-meaning) clergy, politeness, a general avoidance of fundamentalism, books, a tradition of social involvement, and a certain level of intimacy with the powers that be. It also does by far the best weddings*. These are all middle-class things, naturally. M&S things. So why is it doing so badly? Partly because of the decline in religiosity among all sections of the population; and partly because the church's attempts to reach out to that large proportion of the population who are not and never will be natural Anglicans has only succeeded in annoying many of its natural communicants. It would do better, I suspect, if it went back to being aspirational, as it was for Mrs Thatcher (who defected from the Methodists when she started doing well for herself in politics). But there's something else, too, which occurs to me, which is that Anglicanism now, perhaps for the first time, has a significant rival for the affections of the thoughtful, spiritually and philosophically inquisitive middle classes.

The C of E's chief competition doesn't come from Islam, or Roman Catholicism, or Pentecostal house churches, or even (though this is closer) the New Age. No - it's the atheists, and especially the liberal humanists, who have invaded the established church's turf and poached its congregations. Being almost entirely a middle class phenomenon doesn't seem to have hampered the success of the New Atheism of the past few years, though. You'll never hear Richard Dawkins complaining that Darwinism only appeals to people who buy their groceries at Marks & Spencer (or, at a pinch, Sainsbury's). I wonder why not.

*excluding Judaism, of course