Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Church and State

Review - Michael Turnbull and Donald McFadyen, The state of the Church and the Church of the State: Re-imagining the Church of England for our World Today (DLT, 2012)

Despite the rather long-winded title, this is a very interesting book that repays attention.  Written by a former Bishop of Durham (Turnbull) and a more recently ordained priest (McFadyen), it offers a vision of the Church of England (CofE) at the heart of English society.

Inspired by Rowan Williams’ remarks at his very first press conference as Archbishop-elect of Canterbury that he longed to see Christianity able ‘to recapture the imagination of our culture’, Turnbull and McFadyen offer an unapologetic and inspiring vision of the CofE as the Established Church and a Church for England: “a church which belongs to England and which serves England in all its manifestations” (p. 3).

The authors see the CofE as a church with a particular vocation, “to live deeply within the nation, insisting on a vision of human life which aims at the highest goals, and helps shape ways of getting there” (p. 67).  This is a vision of the CofE in line with its greatest thinkers, Richard Hooker and William Temple are mentioned often, and which sees the church as existing for everyone, and not just for those who go to church.  Concern for the survival of the CofE is then secondary to its fulfilling of this vocation, with “the church risking even its own survival in the process” (p. 83).

The CofE faces many challenges: declining numbers, division over ethical issues, a media interest in its conflicts not its benefits, a decline in clergy numbers and morale and the shrinking of all voluntary movements.  But for Turnbull and McFadyn, the worst danger comes from the “sapping of confidence” (p. 170).  This book seeks to stem that, and so I list a selection of the collection of inspiring and confidence boosting descriptions of the CofE it contains:
  • “The CofE was born out of turbulence and it will remain a turbulent church.  It is deeply embedded in the psyche and culture of the English People” (p. 10)
  • “No-one is ever turned away from a CofE church” (p. 19)
  • “this balance of tradition, scripture and reason … is the genius of the CofE” (p.30)
  • “the CofE has resources which society needs if it is to become the place for human flourishing” (p. 49)
  • “the CofE is bigger than those who claim to belong to it and quite different to narrow congregationalism” (p. 103)
  • “the CofE meets people where they are and unveils the truth about God as they go about their daily living” (p. 104)
There can be no doubt that Turnbull and McFadyn really do believe in the value of the CofE, and are doing their best to re-inspire its confidence.

But the CofE is not without the need to change.  Rather than rush into change, Turnbull and McFadyn insist that a clear understanding of the vocation of the CofE needs to be held before any change is planned.  They note that the notion of one parish with one priest has been changing for some time, but has been “planned only in a piecemeal fashion” (p. 147).  Proper research and thinking will be needed, and over the course of the next two generations (!) a new form of parish system should be constructed.  It should remain geographically based, but respond to new understandings of ‘the local’.  And the debate needs to be handled publicly so that everyone knows and understands that the CofE is still present for everyone.

There are some weaknesses to the book.  It is rather thin in its vision of the state that the CofE seeks to inhabit and bring about, and over strong in suggesting the state’s need for the CofE (The Church in Wales has been disestablished for nearly a century, and yet could share most if not all of Turnbull and McFadyn’s aspirations for the CofE).  But there is so much to admire in this book, that it is well worth reading.  Whoever has the misfortune to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury could do worse than to arm himself with the vision of the CofE it contains.

First published in Outlook (Derby Cathedral Magazine) July 2012

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