The Church may be lost, but save our churches

The tide of history has left much colourful flotsam on the British beach. A handful of otherwise normal people vanish from the daily round and go a little mad. They drape themselves in dead animals, pick up weird bits of bone and metal, chant and sometimes prance. They pledge fealties, usually to the Queen. They are relics known only to Debrett.

They boast such titles as Keeper of the Signet, Searcher of the Sanctuary, Bailiff of Egle, Grand Carver, Cock o’ the North, Gentilhuomo of the Cardinal, Hereditary Falconer, Admiral of the Wash, Slains Pursuivant and Gold Stick (not to mention Black Rod). Most, if not all, are titles without substance, boys dressing up, constitutional ash that has escaped time’s feather duster.

To this list may one day be added Archbishop of Canterbury. Tomorrow sees the enthronement of Dr Rowan Williams as head of the Church of England by Law Established. His titular status has barely diminished since Thomas ` Becket. He crowns the Head of State, sits in Parliament, is Public Moralist Number One and owns more territory than the monarch, the Army or Network Rail. Like Becket, he lives under a daily hail of blows.

His plight is desperate. On Monday Dr Williams quoted St Augustine to his synod: “What I am for you terrifies me, what I am with you consoles me.” But he knows that too many are not with him. A great British institution is imploding. Tomorrow he will indulge in more mumbo-jumbo: the Reading of the Mandate, the Declaration of Assent, the Corporal Oath and the Act of Commitment. He will emerge into the Canterbury sun looking like a Norfolk terrier draped in a Spanish flag. But from then on he is alone.

There is no time for reform like day one. Dr Williams is on record as opposing the Church-State link. If he is as brave as he seems wise, he must immediately propose to disestablish his Church, abolish its diocesan bureaucracy and promise greater parish sovereignty. Otherwise his post will soon join Grand Carver and Gold Stick.

The Church of England is like the Conservative Party and the BBC, overcentralised, overwrought and losing market share. All three are institutionally “top down”. Unlike the other two, the Church cannot fall back on state patronage. Statistics may lie, but sooner or later they must mean something. The Church has fewer than a million Sunday worshippers, one third the size of the National Trust. It has lost 30 per cent in 20 years and is still declining fast. Although Roman Catholics are also in decline, they can now claim more active worshippers than Anglicanism — and thus to be the nation’s premier Church. Children hold the key to future membership. There were 223,000 children in Anglican churches in 1991. There are some 80,000 today. This is hopeless.

Nothing about this organisation makes sense. It is sitting on #4.4 billion in capital, apart from church properties. This endowment once paid for central administration, cathedrals, bishops, church pensions and 60 per cent of clergy salaries. It now pays for barely an eighth of the salaries and is withdrawing from pension contributions. Vicars must somehow be paid a steady wage from a collapsing income base. Yet under the 1976 Endowments and Glebe Measure, the Church Commissioners seized (some might say stole) all parish assets of land and local endowment and blew it on costs and dud investments.

It beggars belief. Anglican parishes were treated much as the 18th-century Earl-Bishop of Bristol treated his Irish peasants: extortionately. According to figures published this week in Called to Account (Social Affairs Unit), the cost of the Church’s overhead was rising in the 1980s by 10 per cent a year and even in the catastrophic 1990s by 5 per cent a year. By 2000 that cost was #21 million, a figure that now equals the centre’s total contribution to clergy salaries (down from #66 million ten years ago).

With the pews emptying this exploding overhead was reckless. Yet the last Archbishop commissioned the 2001 Hurd Report, which called for yet more bureaucracy. The 43 dioceses and 114 bishops continue to grow, proving the adage that regionalism is the one sure recipe for bureaucratic inflation. The only thing the Church of England can now delegate is debt.

Non-Anglicans are said to be out of order in discussing this topic. The Church is a self-financed, private organisation. But it is more than that. The Church of England is a parastatal. It claims constitutional privileges. It has its own “rotten borough” of 26 seats in Parliament. More important, it keeps a huge estate of properties empty, dark and at best underused on key sites in the middle of every town and village. There are 40 empty churches in Suffolk alone. If only as an absentee landlord, the Church’s behaviour is everyone’s concern.

A foreign observer of English Christianity would be astonished at the beauty of its buildings and at the fact that so few Christians use them. Nothing has done so much to destroy a sense of neighbourhood in England as the demise of the parish church as its collective forum, leaving instead a “hole in its heart”.

This is the fault of Anglicans. They have the land, the buildings and the legal status. Their failure to merge with the Methodists, is ridiculous. Their failure to share churches originally designed for Catholic worship with local Catholics is equally self-defeating. Anglicanism seems to want to fail.

Dr Williams knows all about this. He has watched the nonconformist churches in Wales all but wipe themselves out by refusing to cohabit. He can see with his own eyes the growth points of religion in this country. The expanding groups are Orthodox and Pentecostalist. Within Anglicanism, crowds are drawn to talented priests, whether they are Anglo-Catholics, charismatics or so-called “livelies”, such as those involved in the Alpha Course. Go to an Anglican service today and you will find anything from crypto-Catholics to rampant holy-rollers. Liturgy goes hang. The Church dares not complain, for these are the only groups reaching new audiences. Their one hope, it seems, is to pretend not to be Anglican.

The Church of England may yet find itself back in the 17th century, splits and all. Then it lost touch with the Puritan wing of Protestantism, with sovereign local churches and preachers answerable to their congregations. Such “congregationalism” is the message of the current revival of churchgoing in America. Megachurches are answering to every emotional demand in the book. They embrace the sick and lonely, anti-materialists, materialists, spiritualists, radicals and ultra-conservatives. Some have 10,000 worshippers each Sunday. Above all, in suburbs across America their buildings are a focus of community life. The Church of England has not achieved this in three centuries. US churches bind their communities together. English churches bind them apart.

While Anglican churches, post-disestablishment, may still need an archbishop as spokesman, they need the bureaucrats like a hole in the pocket. I cannot see the point in dioceses. Methodists get by without bishops. Bishops were invented to assert church authority against territorial barons and the Crown. Although they cut a dash on Thought for the Day, there is no need for them. As congregations are increasingly having to pay their pipers, they will want to call their tunes.

The route forward is clear. Cathedrals are now cultural attractions. If they want deans, chapters, canons and precentors, they can pay for them. Such great non-diocesan churches as Selby, Beverley and Tewkesbury manage without. If we must have bishops, let them be titular. Like hereditary peers, episcopy has had its day. Above all, distribute what funds the Church has to spare to parishes and clergy, not to offices and committees.

There is no greater window of opportunity for a new boss than when the firm faces bankruptcy. But before Dr Williams dismantles Establishment, he has one national duty to perform. He cannot force the nation to pray together. But he has his churches. He can at least campaign to encourage all Christians to use the same roof, to pool their resources in one House of God. He can lead them to enjoy the greatest creation of English Christianity, its now desperate parish churches.

If Dr Williams cannot revive the Church of England, he can at least revive the churches of England. On that crusade the Archbishop should blow his #4 billion, and then wind up the fund.