Are we bovvered? An opinion piece on the almost total irrelevance of the Church of England

It’s not often now that the Church of England (CoE) hits the big headlines in mainstream media. Two news items – one on the historic physical child abuse known to the Church hierarchy for many years but only just revealed to the general public, and the other on the debate on the status of LGBTI believers, have both briefly hit the headlines recently. But both stories faded away very quickly, with little comment from outside the church itself.

The first issue is horrific and at the very least should result in prosecutions, not only of those directly involved, but potentially those aware for years of criminal offences who failed to report them – the very governance of the CoE. The second issue makes you wonder what decade the Church is operating in – the 1940s or 1950s? Any other major organisation with open discrimination against people’s sexuality would be challenged in the courts in high-profile cases. But in the CoE just a few dedicated Christian LGBTI groups seem to be pursuing this.

My point is – who really cares now about what happens inside the CoE? Even ‘big’ stories about their actions and their policies barely register in the media, and few outside the church seem minded to pursue them. The church never seems to comment on social policy anymore, or if it does, no-one cares much what it says. Even the CoE’s early involvement in food banks has been overshadowed now by corporate enterprises. World attention on religion is most definitely focussed elsewhere.

The CoE is still guilty of many crimes of morality, but in terms of influence I would suggest it’s largely an anachronism, an out-dated organisation run by elderly white men with a dwindling congregation of predominantly elderly parishioners. It is destined to fade away, I think, particularly in the UK, even if it maintains more influence in other parts of the globe. It’s still a scandal against democracy that Bishops sit in the House of Lords, but they are a small number in an unelected second house now packed with Tory appointees – the whole thing a bastion of privilege and cronyism in which the Bishops are just a little part of a very big problem. The Church still owns some enviable real estate. But did you know there is an organisation, the Friends of Friendless Churches, looking after a growing number of historic buildings that the CoE can not be bothered to conserve, let alone revive as vibrant centres of worship? What more poignant symbol of decline is there than churches disused and falling down.

Who could have predicted that the once great force of Anglicanism would die with a whimper rather than a bang, focussed on fighting internal battles which no-one outside of its walls really notices? How should Humanists respond? Can we look forward to the demise of the CoE without putting much effort in to help that process? I think so, and there will be little need for dancing on that grave, after what looks to be a slow but largely painless fading away. So maybe Humanists can now look elsewhere to fight more current and important challenges to enlightened secularism.

4 thoughts on “Are we bovvered? An opinion piece on the almost total irrelevance of the Church of England

  1. The savage assaults carried out on young men by an evangelist are likely to be known about at the highest levels of the CofE now.

    Private Eye magazine, 24th February, no1438, page 8, supplements the thorough investigation by Channel Four News, in a report under the headline ‘The C of E and the Sado-Evangelist’ From the report, it seems likely that a number of prominent clerics knew a lot more than they are prepared to admit, and the this includes the current Archbishop of Canterbury.

    I am not certain what, if any crimes were committed, but if some of the victims were under 18 wnd therefore children, then a full investigation should clarify whether or not a case should be brought. Where victims were over 18 and consenting to their own abuse for whatever reason, one would still expect action from the church, if not the police.

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    1. I don’t entirely agree with Alison.

      The C of E is certainly in decline – at least gradual. Statistics of church attendance back this up and the number of non-religious in the population has increased dramatically so that it has now reached about 50% according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey. However, the Church still maintains its influence especially via the media which remains reverential. For example, if any local tragedy occurs, the person interviewed about it on radio or TV is invariably a local clergyman or woman. The BBC spends a huge amount of licence payers’ money on religious broadcasting, including the propaganda slot Thought for the Day, and local newspapers publish regular comment columns from clergy. In addition to enjoying the unique privilege of having 26 bishops in the House of Lords as of right (the UK is the only country in Western Europe which grants such a privilege), the C of E has chaplains in the House of Commons, the armed forces, hospitals, prisons, local councils and universities. Yet another privilege is the legal requirement for state schools to hold religious worship (of a mainly Christian character) at their morning assemblies. This is why I am so pleased that Coventry & Warwickshire Humanists is affiliated to the National Secular Society which challenges these privileges.

      George Broadhead

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  2. I don’t entirely agree with Alison.

    The C of E is certainly in decline – at least gradual. Statistics of church attendance back this up and the number of non-religious in the population has increased dramatically so that it has now reached about 50% according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey. However, the Church still maintains its influence especially via the media which remains reverential. For example, if any local tragedy occurs, the person interviewed about it on radio or TV is invariably a local clergyman or woman. The BBC spends a huge amount of licence payers’ money on religious broadcasting, including the propaganda slot Thought for the Day, and local newspapers publish regular comment columns from clergy. In addition to enjoying the unique privilege of having 26 bishops in the House of Lords as of right (the UK is the only country in Western Europe which grants such a privilege), the C of E has chaplains in the House of Commons, the armed forces, hospitals, prisons, local councils and universities. Yet another privilege is the legal requirement for state schools to hold religious worship (of a mainly Christian character) at their morning assemblies. This is why I am so pleased that Coventry & Warwickshire Humanists is affiliated to the National Secular Society which challenges these privileges.

    George Broadhead

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  3. A well-reasoned and illuminating article by Alison – thank you – but I would beg to differ about her conclusion that the C of E will die quietly in the near future.

    C of E schools still abound and free schools and academies often open with a religious stance. School governors aren’t always elderly white men; they are often younger and female. They can be zealous in their application of the 1944 Act regarding religious worship, always appoint head teachers who profess the faith and are changing the admission’s policies for their schools to give preference to Anglicans . Many parents still pretend to be Anglican to get their children into these schools and they attend church with their children. In Warwickshire the SACRE group doesn’t make it compulsory to study a non-religious belief in primary schools and thus a child will probably never hear of the word ‘Humanism’ until maybe when he or she is studying RE at GSCE level.

    I can’t see how this perpetuation of Anglicanism will end quietly without a change in government policy. However, there is something which is happening nationally this week (a drop in the ocean but every drop counts!). A book on Humanism by two well-known authors has been released and is being offered free to schools. I have emailed 40 schools in my area to promote it:

    Dear Head Teachers,

    I am a local humanist and would like to draw your attention to a fabulous free resource which is available to schools: a book about Humanism written for children by Michael Rosen and Anne Marie Young. We increasingly hear of Humanist Weddings and Funerals and yet, until now, there has been very little on the subject produced for schools. This book is aimed at 10 to 13 year-olds and is helpful for reassuring pupils with no religious belief that they too can live happy and meaningful lives. It also gives religious pupils a chance to understand people of no faith.

    Religious education in English schools: Non‑statutory guidance 2010 advocates Breadth and depth in RE for all pupils with one of the strands being:

    Pupils should have the opportunity to learn that there are those who do not hold religious beliefs and have their own philosophical perspectives, and subject matter should facilitate integration and promotion of shared values.

    All schools should find this book very informative and helpful in respect of that strand. If you don’t already have a copy and would like to order one, either for your library or for a member of staff responsible for RE teaching, please follow this link:
    http://understandinghumanism.org.uk/what-is-humanism-book/

    Yours Sincerely,
    Mrs Jane Sault

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