The Church that Was: The Decline and Fall of the Church of England


The mission of St. Augustine to England’s green and pleasant land may come to an end in the 2060’s. The Reformation looks to be ending too. What happened to the Church of England?

The doom of the Church of England has been written about for decades. And for good reason. The number of its communicants have been plummeting for decades. On current projections, its total extinction will occur at some point in the late 2060’s.

Despite this, we learnt this week from the Daily Telegraph (among other sources) that the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has been having meetings with Pope Francis in order to stitch up the differences and reconcile the Anglican Communion with Rome.

It is a fairly clear sign that as far as the Church of England is concerned, the Protestant Reformation is over. Finished. All water under the bridge! A mere flesh wound of 500 years which can be smoothed over in about 30.

A hundred years ago, hardly an Anglican on the planet would have countenanced a return to Rome. In fact, the articles of religion that are still contained in the Book of Common Prayer are fundamentally incompatible with the doctrine of Rome.

But the articles of religion were the product of Reformed men. They are meaningfully rooted in the Protestant re-discovery of the pristine biblical doctrines of the true Christian Church. These documents are not written in the flexible, malleable, inoffensive, fundamentally meaningless language of the 21st century where even the possibility of absolute truth has largely been consigned to the dustbin of history.

If the Church of England ploughs ahead with its rapprochement with Rome, then these articles of religion are ultimately destined to become mere historical artefacts.

Of course, this development will not be as violent as it might seem. Many Roman Catholics and Anglicans can hardly articulate their own church’s doctrine anymore. Yet they do like fuzzy, warm sentiments about unity. In an emotional age, feelgoodism is sure to triumph over uncompromising doctrine inked onto pages. Out with the old! In with the new!

In any case, I find it hard to see this outburst of ecumenicalism to be entirely principled.

It certainly has nothing to do with doctrine, since the official doctrine of both Rome and Canterbury are mutually exclusive. In fact, the respective documents still say as much. Rome’s documents anathematise Protestants. And there are similar imprecatory  passages in Protestant documents. Previous generations were not timid when it came to laying on the line what they actually believed. Their forthrightness is now an obstacle to be bulldozed over.

On the other hand, reunion does serve two selfish, political interests.

First, any reunion of the Church of England with Rome would secure a place in the history books for the Archbishop that seals the deal. And fame and glory for being a great healer of division is surely desirable. One might even get column space in an encyclopedia next to Nelson Mandala or Martin Luther King (Jr)!

Second, reunion would be a surefire way to keep the Church of England alive. In its current condition, its life is ebbing away on an operating table in the religious emergency room. The medics are pumping adrenaline into its limp arms and doctors are shouting “clear!” as they press the paddles to its chest. Nurses are wiping the sweat from the brow of surgeons as they perform intricate and arcane measures in the hope of animating the patient.

But once the Church of England is attached to the larger and more vibrant Roman Catholic community, it might not even become extinct after all. Survival has always been one of the greatest political motivators, crystallising hard choices and ushering in radical compromises.

Rulers tend to be surprisingly flexible when it results in their continuance in office. In this instance, continuance in office may require jettisoning core doctrine, or coming to “new understandings” of existing doctrine – that is, reinterpreting the text so that it means the opposite of what its originators clearly intended.

How did it come to this?

How did the Church of England – in the space of about 50 years – manage to alienate its own people, produce biblically-illiterate adherents, decimate its own congregations, transform its priority in the public education system from one of instruction in the gospel to an induction in philosophy, sow scepticism about the most sacred salvific events of the gospel, transform its representatives from respected pillars of the community into contemptible social justice engineers, trash the quality of its own seminaries, and even make itself an open joke on television comedies about the difficulties of finding a bishop in the Church of England that actually believes in God (see: Yes, Prime Minister).

How did this happen?

A scathing article in The Spectator regarding a book that was withdrawn from publication (warning: link contains some profanity at points), hints at some of the causes. It purports to expose what has been going on behind closed doors. The book seems to consist of a blow-by-blow account of sexual scandals and uncharitable in-fighting. It sounds like a cheap and tawdry approach, but even the tawdry can sometimes be illuminating – it can illuminate what not to do.

If the article leaves one with any impression at all, it is the fundamental deadness of the Church of England as a viable Christian community (although, there is a living evangelical wing within it even still that are living for our Lord and Saviour in faith).

The article also gives one the distinct impression that many of its clergy are simply living on another planet. It shows the sad by-products of the absence of concrete and ruthless internal discipline to maintain the purity of the office-holders within the church, and a sorry lack of commitment to the Christian life of holiness, love and self-denial.

Out of it all, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams emerges as a rather sympathetic figure, caught up in an uncontrollable whirlwind roaring about him. One cannot help feel that he is a basically decent man, and it was precisely because of that decency that he was so cruelly maligned by those he sought to serve and lead.

A memorable, but unkind, passage from the article presents him in these terms:

The former Archbishop of Canterbury emerges as a high-church Welsh mystic who felt more at home in Narnia than in England, where village fetes were more sacred than Holy Communion. We read that he ‘had no glib answers to the problems of human tragedy and suffering’ — or to any problem, for that matter. He expected his bishops to ‘worry at the truth like patient followers of Wittgenstein’. Instead, they kicked him around because they knew he could be bullied.

All of this is a tragic reflection of the reality of the old mainline denominations.

So much of what occurs within them is far from what Christ indicated would characterise his true people. The overwhelming picture given by the article is that the Church of England, to a very great extent, has ceased to be a communion of brothers and sisters united in doctrine, purpose and energetic commitment, and more a loose confederacy of warring tribes who do not even agree on who Christ is, much less what the church is for.