The Bitter Cry

A recent church survey may not be what it claims

'One day I asked my Vicar why his sermons were so bland and never gave any clear explanation about the events recorded in the Bible. He replied that if he did he would lose the few members that he had left. If he only but knew it, this is the complete reversal of the truth, because what they are wanting from him is encouragement for their faith.’

How do you react to such a statement? As a cleric, I find it hard to believe that even the silliest of my colleagues could have said something as abjectly daft as this. It has the sound of lay revision, of what someone who is cited as being ‘a regular churchgoer from Monmouth’ might have made of an otherwise confused or inadequate answer from her vicar. It is, I judge, a lay expression of clerical inadequacy put into direct speech.

Expensive

It comes from a self-styled ‘Church Survey’ (£3.50 from ERC, 19 Glenfield Road, Betchworth, Surrey, RH3 7HR) entitled Let the people speak by a body calling itself ‘The Ecumenical Research Committee’. The year-long study apparently cost £20,000 and elicited 14,000 responses from the United Kingdom and Ireland, two thirds of which were from Anglicans.

Unlike the Mind of Anglicans survey of 2002, extensively reported in these pages, there is virtually no statistical analysis, no figures are given relating to people’s responses and no attempt has been made to relate the responses to different social or church groupings. Lord Bromley in his foreword states confidently, ‘It is also revealing that when given the opportunity to speak, those who did so generally spoke with "one voice".’ That is somewhat disingenuous, since the whole purpose of this document is to present this unified cry ‘from the people’.

The Revd Jonathan Willans, an Anglican priest from Surrey, ‘who has contacts with the media and members of the House of Lords’, has in effect written a sweeping condemnation of the modern liberal churches with material drawn from these responses. It is conservative, protestant and not without merit, but it has no claim at all to being a survey. Why The Times and the CEN both took it so seriously is anyone’s guess. Perhaps because it expresses a style of ‘complaint’ that has become part of our culture, and which has become a useful stick with which to beat the modernizers.

Complaint

What-people-want, so Fr Willans tells us, is clear Bible teaching, solid moral instruction based upon the Ten Commandments, good quality liturgy, lots of visiting by the minister, and (more unusually) clear teaching about the end-time and the second coming of Our Lord. With regard to this last item, there are several lists throughout the booklet of Christian (and indeed Jehovah’s Witness) websites offering enlightenment, a fact which sits oddly with the otherwise old-fashioned and conservative writing.

If the CofE is listening, it is not to the people who poured out their troubles in these pages. These ‘voices from the pew’ are from an older generation, who remember a better world that has gone, and they have been left behind. Their opinions, it seems, carry no weight at all. The example that struck me most was one of the passing references to homosexuality. Seventeen responses from celibate homosexuals were apparently received; one from the West Country stated, ‘I have been a Christian for 24 years and with the help of the power of Christ I control the urges that sometimes besiege me. For sections of the church to suddenly say that my struggle over the years was for nothing and that it would be OK to have given in, would be to deny my personal cross for Christ and mock the faithfulness I have shown Him. I know in my heart that I followed the path Christ wanted me to follow and He has never deserted me, but the church has.’

Such a counter-cultural voice is almost impossible to hear. I could not but suspect that he/she was only being quoted here so that other lay people could use that testimony when disputing with proponents. ‘Listening’ and ‘dialogue’ are not available to everyone; some people and some opinions are almost inevitably excluded; the whole context of their understanding, including all the connotations of the words they use, has been superseded.

Saddened

Do they deserve to be heard? Certainly. Do they have anything worth saying? Sadly, the answer is probably not. The essentially deceitful nature of this supposed survey suggests that these ideas and plans cannot stand up on their own. I finished the booklet moved and saddened, and reminded that traditionalism is neither nostalgia nor conservatism, but something much harder and more resolute.

In the end these voices were one of complaint. It may be unfair to say it, but they came largely from those who had opted out, not from those who are still prepared to fight and to suffer for what is right. I appreciated the anticlericalism, but I reject the implied excuse, for despite the justified complaining of these respondents, there are other, courageous, committed lay people, who do more than merely complain. They form the bulk of New Directions’ readership.

 

Nicholas Turner is a member of the clergy in the Disappearing Diocese of Bradford

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