What’s happening to the Church of England and how does the situation compare with the Catholic Church? There was a recent pithy letter to the Times about Bishop Michael Curry’s “power of love” sermon at the Royal Wedding. It was from Trevor Beeson, dean emeritus of Winchester Cathedral and a former canon of Westminster Abbey (as well as a longstanding obituarist for the Telegraph).
He called the address “misjudged”, explaining: “A wedding sermon should be addressed primarily to the bride and bridegroom. It certainly should not seek to harangue the world at large. It should illuminate the significance of marriage, mention some of its joys and sorrows … indicate the religious resources available … All of which can be achieved in five to seven minutes. This will not bring the preacher world fame but it may well contribute something important to a marriage service, whether in a royal chapel or a village church.”
The letter was picked up by the Mail Online and sparked nearly 1,000 comments, about 90 per cent of them “likes”. Archbishop Justin Welby wouldn’t have been a “like”, mind you. He thought Bishop Curry’s sermon was “fantastic … raw God, and that’s the business.”
You’d expect Welby to approve, of course, because he belongs to the Evangelical wing of the Church of England, which some commentators believe throws its weight around too much. Like the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, Martyn Percy: in his 2016 book, The Future Shapes of Anglicanism, Percy argues that the Cof E is being systematically taken over by Evangelicals who mix trendy “management theory” and “secular sorcery with statistics and Evangelical up-speak”.
Today’s Evangelical leaders also use church funds, so critics say, to bankroll the “planting” of new congregations, as well as to fast-track zealous young trainees in their own image.
All this risks turning Anglicanism into a narrow suburban sect – instead of what it used to be, a broad church that generously welcomed all-comers, even if their faith might waver like the vicar’s comb-over in a high wind.
An acquaintance of mine in a university town – she’s your typical on-and-off type Anglican – doesn’t know where to get her baby baptised because her local church has been taken over by happy-clappies.
It’s not surprising that Welby should have brought management techniques (and, it is said, a fierce temper) into the church, since he came from the business world. But there is another view – which is that a religious institution needs to be run in a different way. One thinks of Pope Francis and his emphasis on putting people first, and loosening the Church’s bureaucracy.
In his 2016 book The Name of God is Mercy he puts it like this: “Jesus touched the leper and brought him back into the community. He didn’t sit down at a desk and study the situation, he didn’t consult the experts for the pros and cons.”
In the same book he extends his wonderful image of the Church as a field hospital that seeks out those who are wounded, wherever they may be: “It is not a solid structure with all the equipment where people go to receive treatment for both small and large infirmities. It is a mobile structure that offers first aid and immediate care.”
But will the Pope succeed in “de-bureaucratising” the Church? And should he even be trying? He is clearly alive to the hazards. In his last pre-Christmas address to the Curia, he quoted the 19th-century Vatican insider Archbishop Xavier de Mérode, who said that “reforming Rome is like cleaning the Sphinx of Egypt with a toothbrush”.
Still, I can’t help wondering how, when they meet for their ecumenical discussions, the Jesuit Pope Francis gets on with the results-driven former oil executive Archbishop Welby.
I read that in today’s fervid climate of “Me Too” and “Time’s Up”, so-called morals clauses are being reinstated, in Hollywood contracts, to save studios from financial loss should a leading actor be shamed and a project shelved. These clauses first got going after the 1921 disgrace of the roly-poly (but surprisingly agile) funnyman “Fatty” Arbuckle. Arbuckle, who had been one of the highest paid silent film stars, was acquitted of raping and killing an aspiring actress. Yet his reputation was forever tainted and he died at 46, a ruined man.
But going back to the current mood of celebs speaking up and “calling out”, there was a time when performers maintained a neutral stance on contentious issues, to avoid alienating fans who held a different view. In 1972 Elvis Presley was asked at a press conference what he thought about the Vietnam War. “Honey,” he said, in his gentlemanly southern drawl, “I’d just as soon keep my personal views about that to myself. I’m just an entertainer. No messages, and no this ’n’ that.”
Wise words indeed.
Andrew M Brown is the Daily Telegraph’s obituaries editor
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