Comments: Opinion - 17 May 2017

"To compare: just 6% of Anglicans are under 35, and 45% are 65 or older."

It's possible that fighting over just how badly to treat gay people plays better amongst the over-65s, but even amongst that age group homophobia is a small minority activity; at most, there may be more passive toleration of what others might think homophobic. But even were that true, it's a short-term strategy. The Church of England is conducting slow-motion suicide, as it makes itself completely toxic to anyone under 40 (for whom "women should be in the kitchen" and "gays should repent" are not compelling, to put it mildly) and clings on to a demographic who, in twenty years' time, will have ceased to exist.

The problem is not that 45% of the CofE is over 65. The problem is that 45% of the CofE was born before 1952. It would survive as a sort of U3A with better music if people currently in there 50s showed any sign of being likely to think "I may not be a member of the CofE now, but in retirement perhaps I will be". But just as your local symphony orchestra has realised that people won't "grow into it" and has finally realised its problem isn't the age of its audience, it's the generation, the church needs to realise that pandering to the prejudices of a small number of its hardcore (roughly, the sort of people who end up as lay members of synod) isn't going to attract people for whom the CofE simply looks nasty.

It used to be that the CofE was seen as the Tory party at prayer. These days, the Tory party is socially far more liberal, and realises that frank homophobia is not going to come back into fashion. If only Justin Welby could bring himself to agree.

Posted by Interested Observer at Wednesday, 17 May 2017 at 8:21am BST

Robert Atwell's article is sensitively and beautifully written. I work, in a voluntary capacity, with people living with dementia. Gentleness and slowness are very important in communicating and I've experienced some very happy times with them. I know how much I've benefitted. My work with them is for a secular organisation, however churches should be involved in Bible reading and other religious activities.

Posted by Pam at Wednesday, 17 May 2017 at 9:35am BST

+Roberts article shows why it is important that we retain some of our older liturgy and traditional hymns. We have a former parishioner brought along to evensong occasionally. He may not know who anyone is anymore, but he can say the responses and recognize where he is in the service and appears to be comfortable with where he is.
I know we need to be able to provide for everyone's spiritual needs - with more modern services, but we need to remember that one day we might need our old service style once the church has moved forward while we retreat to the past. Will current modern worship songs be met with raised eyebrows in 60 years time?

Posted by Lavinia Nelder at Wednesday, 17 May 2017 at 10:30am BST

The report on the Nones is striking. It is especially interesting to note the profound variations in Christian and Anglican affiliation across regions. It seems that the ‘heartland’ of Anglicanism is now the outer ring of Greater London, yet even there things are held up by a small number of successful churches, whilst almost everywhere else the picture is uniformly devastating. I had hitherto thought of the south-east, south-west and the east as the bedrock of Anglican affiliation (allowing for the strong presence of dissent in Cornwall, Devon and East Anglia); however, when only 6% of those in the ‘East’ describe themselves as Anglican, of whom the vast majority are over 70, we know that ‘it is finished’.

Although it would have been useful to have seen data for a longer time-span, Fig. 1.3 (p. 8) is especially telling: the rise of the Nones mirrors markedly the collapse in Anglican adherence. However, the main slump seems to have occurred during the 1980s and 1990s when the cultural revolution of the 1960s was becoming embedded within the nation, the disruptive impact of free market ideology was having its greatest impact, and when the Church was often badly led.

@Interested Observer: I appreciate your remarks about the Church being on the wrong side of history, with respect to LGBT issues. However, I fear this is almost beside the point. The collapse is not so much attributable to Church politics, about which scarcely anyone cares one whit; it is rather because the generation born after c. 1945 has grown up with little sense of the numinous; their contemplative and imaginative desires are, arguably, sated more effectively by the mass media and virtual experiences. Yes, the Church appears to many of them as institutionally creepy but Christianity means nothing to them because they have no need of it. Essentially, the message of the Gospels (which seems so profound to faithful Christians) is just another set of mythological or semi-mythological stories which are simply insufficiently compelling to drive any change in their lives. And that will remain the case. And it will remain the case even if the Church changes its policies on sexuality.

This is the absolute nadir of Christianity in Britain, but we are still not even close to the final denouement. I cannot advise people to pursue stipendiary ministry in the Church unless they appreciate they will probably have no pension.

Posted by Froghole at Wednesday, 17 May 2017 at 10:47am BST

You may be right, Froghole. But it is not helped by the way in which mainstream Christianity has allowed itself to be defined by extremists and, worse, has refused to distance itself from those extremists. So in the eyes of the outsider, to be Christian is to be not only homophonic and misogynistic, but also laughably anti-intellectual:many, both inside and outside organised Christianity, believe for example that creationism is a sine qua non of being a Christian. The result is to make Anglicanism, for hundreds of years the centre of British intellectual development, look like some sort of cult for dim people.

Justin Welby at al could start the process of dealing with this by, for example, distancing the CofE from know-nothing anti-intellectuals. He is not a stupid man. But unfortunately, just as George Bush Jr (Yale, Harvard Business School) played to the prejudices of his electorate by affecting an aw shuck stupidity he didn't for a second have, it appears now that the CofE is so frightened of, and yet simultaneously frightened to lose, the evangelical know-nothings that it is not willing to do anything that might offend them. Hence, anti-Gay, anti-Women, pro-Creationism is the impression that people have.

Posted by Interested Observer at Wednesday, 17 May 2017 at 12:05pm BST

@Interested Observer – I agree with your excellent remarks. The unseemly wrangles between Church parties, the bigotry camouflaged (whether sincerely or dishonestly) by appeals to doctrine and scripture, the evasive yet discreditable Synodical compromises, have all conspired to make much institutional Christianity contemptible to even those few who are prepared to give the faith any time of day. The ordure lately evacuated from Jesmond (and by its somewhat malignant apologists) has also been a ‘moment of clarity’ for me.

As to the ‘brain death’ of British Christianity, the Rubicon was perhaps crossed in the third quarter of the nineteenth century when the impact of textual criticism, positivism and evolution made Christianity less than respectable (a phenomenon reinforced by the secularisation of college fellowships at Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin). Once scholars were no longer obliged to be Christian to access or teach at academic institutions, any contribution made by the faith to the intellectual development of the nation was a matter of happenstance and, of course, it was in run-off (it may have endured to some significant extent into the second quarter of the twentieth century because of the influence of Hegelian idealism). Although some Christians have made a considerable contribution to cultural and intellectual innovation since 1945 the current has diminished with every passing year and, now scarcely constitutes a trace element: Christianity has simply been crowded out.

As the low melancholy roar is now heard but faintly within the mainstream it has meant that the faith can only have an impact in public life if imparted by those who are shouting loud enough to be recognised within the prevailing maelstrom. Since those of a moderate (and, perhaps, intellectual) disposition are seldom moved to shouting, this has meant that almost all of the ground has been ceded to a party which – with some notable exceptions – has almost always been distinguished for its unapologetic Philistinism and anti-intellectualism: namely, the evangelicals. Whilst the evangelical party has scored some notable successes in certain places, its message and tone are, for the most part, deeply alienating and repugnant to many people. Thus, most Nones will be as repelled by evangelical ‘fanatics’ as they will be indifferent to the insipidities of ‘liberals’, since the former demand too much of most reasonable people (who do not wish to ‘transform’ their own lives), whilst the latter offer so little that they are hardly worth bothering with.

Posted by Froghole at Wednesday, 17 May 2017 at 2:50pm BST

I agree with Froghole that religious, or numinous, experiences are now met by other means, whether that's watching movies, playing video games, or listening to music. There's also been an explosion in "spiritual, not religious" people, who draw spiritual nourishment from a hodge-podge of syncretism and new age mysticism.

Materialist competition shouldn't be underestimated. With dramatic rises in real wages and easy credit since WW2, alongside the relaxation of blue laws, the shopping mall's become perhaps the church's fiercest competitor.

Homophobia and sexism may exacerbate the church's decline -- although, given that most people are indifferent to gay rights and the sex of priests, their role's gonna be limited -- but decline began long before they became live issues. Decline doesn't have any deep roots. To most people, religion's just weird. They're not raised in the faith, and are alienated by its rituals. Some clutch onto religion in life crises, but that's not stable belief, and often collapses. The churches that do well tend either to fill a niche, such as Anglo-Catholic beacon churches, or be culturally accessible, like the many evangelical setups.

If the English people continue in their unhinged support for neoliberal policies that harm their own living standards, people may be driven back to religion out of necessity. Otherwise, the church needs to change, or it'll die. Given the institution's rottenness, I can't say I'll mourn it; hopefully, something better can rise from the ashes.

Posted by James Byron at Wednesday, 17 May 2017 at 5:12pm BST

Bishop Robert's comments about praying with dementia sufferers are pastorally sensitive. But what forms of prayer will be lodged in the memories of future generations? I am in my mid-70s and although some passages from the BCP and Authorised Version are at the back of my mind, for most of my worshipping life I've been accustomed to other liturgies and other versions of scripture.

The great majority of the population have had no exposure of any kind to Christian worship, and even those who have will not have any common language. What will sustain them when they are in their care home?

Posted by David Emmott at Wednesday, 17 May 2017 at 5:19pm BST

Regarding evangelicals, while I've no time for their doctrines, I would defend them from charges of anti-intellectualism. Evangelicals are some of the finest exegetes, and have an intellectual rigor and discipline often lacking from those who appeal to emotion and the spirit of the age.

What evangelicals have is clear beliefs, and the courage of their convictions. Liberalism has similarly clear beliefs, but, with rare exceptions like John Shelby Spong and Richard Holloway, liberals tend to shy away from stating them. Given the opprobrium they're subjected to, I can see why, but it's led to their being marginalized.

Perhaps liberalism attracts personality types who tend to avoid conflict. If so, unless more liberals overcome it, natural selection will see an end to it.

Posted by James Byron at Wednesday, 17 May 2017 at 5:21pm BST

A most stimulating to and from from Froghole and IO. One that I find convincing too. The psychological authenticity of the gospel is what keeps me in the church, but as Froghole says it is insufficiently compelling to attract others now that professional counsellors and psychologists provide the same services without the finger-wagging thou-shalt-nots perceived inevitably to accompany Christian involvement. The church's role as patron of the arts, driver of civilization in Europe, and a significant factor in my own story, is now completely gone, with shopping malls and sports stadia the new cathedrals. A coherent theology of delight and desire might once have been a step in the right direction, but it is now too late. I'm 67 next month so might still get a bit of a pension.

Posted by Stanley Monkhouse aka Father William at Wednesday, 17 May 2017 at 7:11pm BST

Froghole writes; "the Rubicon was perhaps crossed in the third quarter of the nineteenth century ... " How about even before that - the printing press as the beginning of the end? My impression is that many clergy and possibly all bishops STILL can't grasp that people are able to think for themselves. Do you remember a couple of years ago when Maynooth seminarians were reportedly on grindr fixing up assignations, and the response of the Irish Catholic bishops was to replace after supper free time with the rosary. Problem solved, so.

Posted by Stanley Monkhouse aka Father William at Wednesday, 17 May 2017 at 7:19pm BST

Apologies for getting carried away in earlier comments; I was probably being unduly harsh - let's call it post-Jesmond stress disorder.

I agree with James Byron that evangelicals have made many exceedingly distinguished contributions to Biblical scholarship (the likes of Charlie Moule, Anthony Thisleton and Christopher Rowland spring to mind, whilst it should be noted that they have also made noteworthy forays into patristics: for instance, Henry Chadwick's edition of Origen's Contra Celsum was penned from the evangelical stronghold of Emmanuel, South Croydon). I also agree that they often have remarkable expository gifts from which I have derived much profit and pleasure. Their vitality, likewise, is frequently invigorating. However, taken as a 'party' (insofar as that expression means anything), the evidence of their intellectual strength strikes me as rather more mixed. I should add that, as a peripatetic worshipper, I frequently find myself being evangelical in evangelical churches, Anglo-Catholic in Anglo-Catholic churches and broad church in liberal churches (which reminds me of Lord Haig's withering put-down of the 17th earl of Derby: that he was a cushion bearing the impression of the last person who sat on him…).

I also agree with Dr Monkhouse that the rot started well before Essays and Reviews or Huxley's alleged besting of Soapy Sam: quite possibly in the first quarter of the eighteenth century (as per Paul Hazard's La Crise de la conscience européenne (1935), lately reinforced by Jonathan Israel's Radical Enlightenment (2001)). However, my view is that the institution of clerical fellowships forced academics into a tangle of belief and patronage that created a relatively happy symbiosis between religion and science, and fertilised the intellectual life of the provinces (when fellows took college livings). The relationship was especially useful and happy at Cambridge and in its last flowering, when the likes of Whewell, Sedgwick, Peacock, Henslow, etc., made very considerable contributions to science or the mediation of science to the wider public (and it meant that informed laymen, like Babbage or Airy remained attached to the Church). Once the universities started to move in the direction of laicisation from the 1850s the institutional alliance between the Church and scholarship disintegrated, resulting in the increasing bifurcation of religion and science/scholarship, to the considerable detriment of the standing of the Church across the whole sphere of education (since schoolmasters also stopped taking orders in lock-step with the decline of the clerical fellow and professor).

Posted by Froghole at Wednesday, 17 May 2017 at 11:06pm BST

"the generation born after c. 1945 has grown up with little sense of the numinous; their contemplative and imaginative desires are, arguably, sated more effectively by the mass media and virtual experiences. Yes, the Church appears to many of them as institutionally creepy but Christianity means nothing to them because they have no need of it. Essentially, the message of the Gospels (which seems so profound to faithful Christians) is just another set of mythological or semi-mythological stories which are simply insufficiently compelling to drive any change in their lives. And that will remain the case. And it will remain the case even if the Church changes its policies on sexuality."

Correct. There is no existential need. A church that believes it can ramp up its attractive side will fail just so.

Posted by crs at Thursday, 18 May 2017 at 6:16am BST

Froghole, who are you? If you have written more I'd love to read it. If not, please do.

Posted by Stanley Monkhouse aka Father William at Thursday, 18 May 2017 at 10:49am BST

Trou de Grenouille

Could I add some names? Richard Bauckham, FBA, Oliver O'Donovan, John Webster, Markus Bockmuehl come to mind. The recent publication of Ephraim Radner on mortality was lauded by Rowan Williams with the words "theological essayist of near genius quality." All anglicans.

Posted by christopher seitz at Thursday, 18 May 2017 at 11:47am BST

Oh, this is all slightly depressing reading as one who is to "pursue stipendiary ministry in the Church".

About the best possible conclusion that seems to be reached by the various articles is that countrywide the decline may finally have "bottomed out". I suspect that this masks the situation where small growth and stability in some areas masks terminal decline in other areas. I'm not sure we've really seen anything from the CofE about what they propose to do in those areas that appear terminal.

Plenty of food for thought here.

Posted by Alastair Newman at Thursday, 18 May 2017 at 3:10pm BST

Froghole: 'I should add that, as a peripatetic worshipper, I frequently find myself being evangelical in evangelical churches, Anglo-Catholic in Anglo-Catholic churches and broad church in liberal churches'. I had to laugh because I often feel the exact opposite: my liberalism comes to the fore in anglo-catholic churches; my catholicism in evangelical ones; and my inner evangelical (such as it is) in liberal ones. Maybe I'm just naturally bolshie.

Posted by David Emmott at Thursday, 18 May 2017 at 4:51pm BST

Dr Monkhouse: I am afraid that I am merely a working stiff in an IT company, and am neither a writer nor have any formal association with any church (I am confirmed, but am not on any electoral roll). However, as a peripatetic, I hope to get to your end of Staffs before too long…

Mr Newman: I must apologise for making such a bleak assessment of things, and hope/pray that something turns up which leads a large portion of the population back to the faith. Please accept my very best wishes for your future ministry!

Prof. Seitz: Many thanks! You mention Richard Bauckham as an FBA - an excellent point. As to the British Academy, if there are about 1,300 FBAs with 59 elected (in whole or in part) as scholars of religion, I can only identify the following FBAs in orders: John Barton, David Brown, William Horbury, Diarmaid MacCulloch (who has not actually resigned his diaconate), Oliver O’Donovan, Anthony Thisleton, Keith Ward and Rowan Williams. Most of these are at or near the end of their teaching careers. There may be one or two experienced in other fields (such as Michael Screech), but no clergy seem to have been elected since 2007 (Prof. Barton). Whilst the website page listing deceased fellows has disappeared, and I would therefore need to do a trawl through past volumes of the Proceedings to check, it seems that there are far fewer clerical fellows now, both absolutely and relatively, than at any time since the Academy was established in 1902.

As to the Royal Society, there are 1,669 fellows, and it seems that there are still only two in orders: John Polkinghorne (elected 1974) and Bernard Silverman (statistician, elected 1997). Of course, there may be fellows who are Anglican, but they are not readily identifiable, and I would certainly struggle to think of any who were prepared to be apologists for Christianity as in the previous generation (such as the theoretical chemist/Methodist, Charles Coulson or, in a more modest fashion, the biochemist/antiquarian, Albert Chibnall). Ernest Barnes was the last prominent FRS in the Church (distinguished for his work on integral functions); his tenure at Birmingham was so controversial that I can only assume the authorities said “never again” to that type of ‘modernist’, but his encyclopaedic Gifford Lectures ‘Scientific Theory and Religion’ (1933), which you may well know, are really worth a look.

Posted by Froghole at Thursday, 18 May 2017 at 11:50pm BST

Like Father William (17 May 2017 at 7:19pm) "the psychological authenticity of the gospel is what keeps me in the church." Didn't Bultmann, in the first couple of sections of Kerygma and Myth, nail the problem with how/what we proclaim? For want of anything accessible to the non-specialist layperson, I have done my own de- and, of course, re-mythologising. I am somewhere between dismayed and angry that I have actually had to do this on my own while suffering years of pious platitudes from the pulpit.
I would have responded sooner to Father William, except that I have been collecting Christian Aid Week envelopes and preparing next month's Church Council Agenda. Just saying!

Posted by Leslie Fletcher at Friday, 19 May 2017 at 10:14am BST

I heartily agree with Interested Observer when s/he says 'So in the eyes of the outsider, to be Christian is to be not only homophobic and misogynistic, but also laughably anti-intellectual'. We can list all the scholars we like, many of whom may be in orders, but since the departure of Rowan Williams and Tom Wright, the offical CofE is determinedly anti-intellectual. I don't think that being evangelical or not is relevant in this case. What member of the current House Of Bishops could credibly hold a University chair? All the current thinking about Reform and Renewal and the creation of a talent pool shows a failure to grapple with any of the relevant academic work, let alone theology. Martyn Percy asked a series of pertinent questions in the course of the Sheffield Debacle. No-one from the CofE hierarchy has attempted to address them. I am a retired university academic and most of my friends think it is bizarre that I should belong to such a foolish organisation as the CofE. What has happened to the Church's teaching function? We have Canons Theologian in our cathedrals. What is desperately needed is a couple of Bishop Theologians who can support the House of Bishops intellectually and theologically. I am one of those who in my undergraduate days was supported by 'Soundings', 'Objections to Christian Belief' and 'Honest to God' - an intellectual strand dismissed by Bishop Inge in his superficial review of Robert Reiss' recent book.The lectures forming the basis of 'Objections' in 1962 attracted very large audiences - 20% of the Cambridge undergraduate body has been suggested. The intellectual energy that generated that reponse would be almost impossible to find now (I do realise that the student body of 2017 is likely to have other interests.) Yet only about eight years ago, I heard Rowan Williams engage a packed audience, mostly of students, in Manchester University's Whitworth Hall on the question of secularism. Apart from Martyn Percy, what senior member of the Church of England could do so now?

Posted by Daniel Lamont at Friday, 19 May 2017 at 5:07pm BST

@Daniel Lamont. I agree. We do not have bishops who skilled in theology because the pool upon which the authorities depends has practically run dry. The CNC presumably cannot find suitably weighty scholars who possess sufficient administrative skill and charisma to run a diocese. This is not necessarily for want of theologians, but rather because academic theology taught in British universities has become decreasingly confessional; as such, theologians seldom take orders and, insofar as they do, it is frequently within the somewhat confined and often partisan context of seminaries.

The progression seems to have been this (if you will forgive the crude/impertinent categorisation):

1. Theological faculties were created in the mid-nineteenth century to upskill the clergy; they were exclusively Anglican. Save at KCL they were distinct from the new seminaries.

2. Nonconformists gained access to the universities; the faculties continued to have a confessional slant whilst Anglicans were reserved a single collegiate fellowship or enjoyed access to tied professorial stalls at Ely, Oxford and Durham.

3. The confessional nature of the faculties was gradually diluted; during the inter-war period the phenomenon of the lay theologian (so familiar in Germany and increasingly heterodox/agnostic) gained ground.

4. After 1945 growing cultural/social pluralism, logical positivism, modernism and post-modernism swept successively over the humanities. Theological faculties could only remain respectable (and receive funding) if they too became pluralistic: they were rapidly laicised. Having ceased to be confessional they also gradually ceased to be Christian or, rather, Christianity was just one of a number of religions studied. There was also an increasing methodological elision between anthropology and much academic theology.

5. ‘Confessional’ theology was largely banished to the seminaries, which has not been entirely healthy for its development. In some places the seminaries have a sort of soi-disant (or federative) relationship with neighbouring theological faculties but, saving some distinguished exceptions, their contribution to serious theological scholarship seems relatively limited – as might be expected of institutions devoted to vocational training.

There may be no more theologian bishops because there are scarcely any ordained theologians in the universities and, if there are any, they will only want to make the leap into the uncertain world of Church politics if what is on offer is sufficiently tempting.

It isn’t.

I suspect that Rowan Williams and Tom Wright were practically the last of their line (if not throwbacks).

Posted by Froghole at Friday, 19 May 2017 at 7:16pm BST

Froghole...thanks for reminding me of my existence. I have to say that the rather depressing sentiments about the anti-intellectual atmosphere of the CofE ring true. Of course most of our bishops declare an interest in football, if you read the press releases on their appointments. Perhaps sports science is the new theology!!

More seriously, much of the Bullivant report goes over ground already covered by my friend Linda Woodhead, for example in her British Academy lecture and in other writing. I'm a bit surprised this isn't referred to.

Posted by Bernard Silverman at Friday, 19 May 2017 at 10:22pm BST

Regarding Daniel Lamont's comments...

On the other hand, my father (who was a working class boy, ordained in his thirties after a two year course at Birkenhead, and served as an ordinary parish grunt his entire life) used to say that he had never once in his ministry enjoyed the pastoral care of a bishop who understood the sort of life he lived. Almost every single bishop he served under had spent most of their pre-episcopal life as an university academic, and very few of them had had more than a year or two of parish experience. My father said they could all discuss theology at a very erudite level, but hardly anyone in his parishes could understand a word they said. And when it came to pastoral support of clergy - well, the less said, the better.

Speaking for myself in Canada, I'm very glad to have worked in dioceses led by bishops whose major experience has been as ordinary parish priests. When I'm having a tough time, they've been there themselves, and they can offer intelligent support and good, practical advice.

Posted by Tim Chesterton at Friday, 19 May 2017 at 10:42pm BST

Tim, I don't see it as an either/or but a both/and. Like you, my father was a working class boy who was ordained and well supported by William Temple when he was Bishop of Manchester and he continued to serve as a parish priest in that diocese well supported by his bishops. I agree that a Bishop who can only be an erudite theologian and has no parish experience can be unhelpful. However, it is perfectly possible for a bishop to be both a good theologian and preacher and also a good pastor both to his clergy and the laity. I can think of several examples from the past - David Jenkins and Robert Runcie come to mind. From what my ordained friends tell me, many current bishops, who have often been archdeacons, are poor at providing pastoral care to their clergy, and are not necessarily good preachers. Indeed, bullying seems rife. It seems to me that we now have the worst of all worlds. We ought to have high expectations of our Bishops as Chief Pastors and Teachers. not simply as branch plant managers and that should include serious theological competence. My own experience of bishops and archdeacons as a layman has not been encouraging. There are those who argue that the current method of appointing Bishops is seriously flawed. I, of course, refer to a specifically English context.

Posted by Daniel Lamont at Friday, 19 May 2017 at 11:47pm BST

@ Tim Chesterton. In the C of E I served first in a diocese where the diocesan's only experience of parish life was Curacy in posh Wolverhamton. You could tell. Now in the next door diocese my area bishop is a parish priest through and through and has worked in that and other roles in some of the most difficult areas of the country. It is a real joy to have him. I hope he doesn't retire before I do. Our new diocesan has organised a day in the cathedral today where he can tell us about the new direction he wants the diocese to take. He has been a parish priest himself, so I am hoping that there will be no new initiatives, but that he will simply let us get on with our jobs. Is this too much to hope for? Between these two periods of my life I was a Rector in the Church of Ireland in the Republic where the dynamics are quite different and not really comparable with the C of E, but the liberal bishop, now a dear friend, certainly knew what parish ministry was about and valued it. In the C of I old fashioned freehold still rules, so one could happily stick the two proverbials up at the bishop without fear of recrimination. I could tell you a story or six.

Posted by Stanley Monkhouse the artist formerly known as Fr William at Saturday, 20 May 2017 at 7:30am BST

"My father said they could all discuss theology at a very erudite level, but hardly anyone in his parishes could understand a word they said"

The problem with those sorts of tales from the past is that he was preaching to a congregation where most of them had left school at 12, few had remained in school by 15, and university take-up was infinitesimal.

For christianity to survive as a mass religion much longer, it has to realise that its prospective audience (the people it needs to survive, but who are currently outside its reach) are immensely more educated than they were fifty years ago, and educated in a very different framework. This is not an insurmountable problem - university Christian Unions are robust and healthy - but requires a rather different approach. Overcoming the inaccurate belief that Christianity is a know-nothing faith is a priority.

Consider this account:

“How do I know evolution isn’t true?” he begins, continuing: “Because God revealed himself to me through scripture.”

Really? Aside from the fact that that's a position in opposition to both the CofE's and the Catholic Church's position, it's also alienate to offend anyone with an education. It might fly in the US, but it doesn't fly over here.

One of the problems with dealing with Muslim extremism is that a lot of people, including well-meaning atheist liberals, have backed themselves into a corner where normative Islam has become the most extreme (literally) head-bangers, thus marginalising the voices of women, young, liberal, educated Muslims. When the BBC wanted an "authentic" Muslim, they went for Anjem Choudary: the more crazed, the better. Christianity risks the same fate, where the voices which are taken to represent Christianity are the most extreme, and the extremism itself is taken as proof of their authenticity.

Posted by Interested Observer at Saturday, 20 May 2017 at 11:51am BST

Lots of interesting comments.

Are the clergy preaching to a more educated population? I am not so sure; people are being processed through schools for longer than they were, but to what end? We now have half almost half the population being ground through higher education, but to what purpose? Are the pens of millions of hitherto mute, inglorious Miltons being unstopped thanks to the massive expansion of provision?

I would suggest that the lengthening duration of formal education has yielded comparatively little fruit relative to the investment, but has done wonders in suppressing the unemployment and underemployment figures.

I would also suggest that the possession of a set of post-nominals is not always a reliable indicator of intellectual curiosity or erudition. I have met many people of pre-war (and pre-Great War) vintage who might have left school at 11, but were fired by an auto-didactic streak of the kind approved by Smiles, Spencer ... and Richard Hoggart. I have also met a number of post-war types who might have left school at 14 or 16, but who arguably became considerably better informed by dint of the Third Programme or better quality newspapers and periodicals than some of their contemporaries who went to university.

Perhaps - as a nation - we have become much more knowing than knowledgeable.

The decline in Biblical literacy and knowledge of Bible-lore is a case in point.

The education system has also evolved (as, perhaps, it always has) so that we are guided into certain simplified and trivialised political grooves that align very neatly with our prevailing economic and social status; the mass media has evolved to ensure that people seldom if ever alter their initial intellectual formation, even if their personal circumstances change.

So, what I believe the clergy/readers must do is to rise to the challenge of teaching (or, better, guiding) a 'knowing' population so that they become more knowledgeable and can think/answer all the better for themselves. This means giving the people some red meat (e.g., expounding doctrine and providing the necessary background to explain its development) rather than the usual effluxions of wind blown forth from so many pulpits. If I have heard a couple of hundred sermons this year (including college chapels) I can recall none of them bar one (English Bicknor) where I actually came away feeling that I had learnt something and had profited by it.

Posted by Froghole at Saturday, 20 May 2017 at 6:20pm BST

Wonderfully interesting comments. First, I am pleased to say that my diocesan today said, inter alia, please carry on doing what you are doing. Terrific. I have been a medical school teacher of anatomy and embryology, and did my alsolute best to put my message across to the weakest students (you quickly come to know who they are, and why. And by weakest I do not mean laziest). Sermons I aim at one or two individuals whom I know quite well, ordinary, intelligent, not well educated in a formal sense, but common sensical and intellectually supple. Post nominals, i know, are worth very little, and believe me I have plenty. I have worked with others with PhD and MD and DSc and the like and can vouch for the fact that in terms of ability to put across complex ideas in simple ways, they mean nothing. For me, every sermon has to have a "so what?" "How does this affect me between getting up and going to bed?" I am brought back to Froghole's phrase "insufficiently compelling" referring to the way in which the gospel message is regarded by most people these days. If I can't say why I think it compelling, I might as well shut up shop.

Posted by Stanley Monkhouse, the artist formerly known as Fr William at Saturday, 20 May 2017 at 7:29pm BST

Interested Observer: I think university CUs are a terrible example, given their tendency to exhibit the worst kind of know-nothing anti-intellectualism you rightly decry. Whether it's telling the Pagan Society reps at the next table at Freshers' Fair that they're going to hell, quizzing random passers by on campus before pronouncing them to be nihilists, refusing to allow female leaders or speakers, or pretending that the university chaplains don't exist because they might (shock; horror) work with people of other faiths, CUs are a terrible poster-child for the effect of education on Christian faith. UCCF and their fellow travellers respond to the challenges presented by science, archaeology and liberal theology with denial, and a head-in-sand bunker mentality. You're expected to leave your brain at the door and conform to the doctrine handed to you. That's why they insist on conformity to their "doctrinal basis".

Posted by Jo at Saturday, 20 May 2017 at 7:47pm BST

Incidentally, the New Statesman article reminded me acutely of my own experience with Alpha. I am a Christian but I was appalled by the level of sophistry and dodging difficult questions in the "official" material. It's emotionally manipulative and borderline abusive, and sells Christianity - which has a deep and powerful intellectual tradition - very short indeed.

Posted by Jo at Saturday, 20 May 2017 at 7:54pm BST

Jo - the archbishops love alpha ... thy see it as going back to st Peter and st Paul

Posted by S Cooper at Saturday, 20 May 2017 at 11:27pm BST

"I think university CUs are a terrible example, given their tendency to exhibit the worst kind of know-nothing anti-intellectualism you rightly decry."

I was under the impression that was the exception (Bristol, for example) not the rule. But if I'm wrong, that's sad.

On reflection, I think the change I'm struggling to pin down is not so much about education, but the end of deference. The village priest, the village bank manager, the village doctor: these were the token educated, middle-class, often outsider people in insular places where there was little education past 12. The doctor stopped you dying, the bank manager stopped you going bankrupt, the priest stopped you going to hell. They were all assumed to be truthful.

Contrast now. Look at the scepticism over vaccination, say: the man in the white coat / the man from Whitehall is not assumed to know best. Why would the man in the dog collar do better?

Posted by Interested Observer at Sunday, 21 May 2017 at 10:43am BST

I agree with Jo that some Christian Unions at universities are disappointingly dogmatist and overseen by organisers with a conservative brand of evangelical Christianity.

Obviously I can't speak about all universities, but (a) my daughter reported this dogmatism and conservative evangelical dominance at her university (b) when I trained as a nurse in 2011, I faced zero issues anywhere in the university (I was even welcomed in the Islamic Society) but as a trans female the vibe when I started coming to CU meetings was uncomfortable and I was left feeling I was viewed as crossing acceptable Christian standards. The reception was frankly cold.

On a return to my first university (St Andrews) I attended a CU lunch there, where the speaker was explaining why 'homosexuality' was wrong.

So the impression I form is that the organisation that oversees CU's in British universities is committed to promoting a conservative theology that is quite narrow and tends to breed a Christian group that regards liberal theology as threatening and in error.

What is also worth observing is how the vast majority of university students regard the CU's as marginal and unattractive groups whose views on issues like gay sex they disassociate from.

That is not to demonise the faith and idealism of students who belong to CUs. My middle daughter ran her CU, and now works with the extreme poor in Africa, in a sacrificial lifestyle that puts my own relatively safe life to shame.

However, I do not think CU's can really be said to represent an intellectual component of church life today. I recognise that's a generalisation and there are bound to be exceptions, but CUs seem to me to be pretty defensive about diverse theological positions, especially if they don't conform to a view of the Bible as an almost literal, almost quasi-fundamentalist, text.

For someone who's a Christian whose identity and orientation challenges that dogma by the very nature of who they are, it can make for an uncomfortable and in some ways marginalising experience...

...which can feel really disappointing when there's so much acceptance and understanding among most students and staff, and indeed, the emergent acceptance of LGBT lives in wider society.

Posted by Susannah Clark at Sunday, 21 May 2017 at 1:46pm BST

Alas, Interested Observer, all the examples I gave were from my own experience at a university that is a long way from Bristol. Anecdotal evidence suggests that my experience is fairly typical.

Posted by Jo at Sunday, 21 May 2017 at 6:21pm BST

I think the anti-intellectual strain in evangelical Christianity can more readily be described as "anti-science". They are all for a rigorous intellectual view of scripture and theology (provided, of course, it does not deny the literal truth of said scripture), but they are adamantly opposed to any scientific theory that challenges scripture or the "traditional" gender roles or even man's dominion over nature (hence the opposition to most ecological theories, including climate change).

Posted by Pat O'Neill at Monday, 22 May 2017 at 11:52am BST

Spot on, Pat O'Neill. Anti biology in particular. They are happy to benefit from new chemicals, drugs, technology etc. But new discoveries, insights in biology - no, no. no. I could wax lyrical for hours on this, but suffice it to say that structurally we are reptiles with knobs on, primates (apes not archbishops). Our brains are evolving, so since theology is a product of the human brain, it has to evolve too. Heresy. I'll get my coat.

Posted by Stanley Monkhouse, the artist formerly known as Fr William at Monday, 22 May 2017 at 8:16pm BST
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