This is not a nice book to read. It is bitter, venomous, and sarcastic. Its stock in trade is the scandals of the English bishops over the last thirty years, and it unpacks their weaknesses and foibles with delight. The authors, Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead, are equally biting about Anglo-Catholics, liberals, and evangelicals, all of whom they seem to despise. The central question driving the book is how an established church, respected if not always attended by the majority of the population, became a marginal and to all intents and purposes irrelevant social institution. Their answer is that church leaders failed to respond to “deep social change”, including the liberation of women and the intolerance of homophobia, and in the course of their bickering they alienated almost everyone who had ever supported the church.
That Was the Church focuses entirely on the Church of England’s leadership, and almost completely ignores its lower clergy and lay members. It is the grey-bearded bishops who are the problem, we are told, and their incompetence has almost singlehanded crippled what would otherwise be a thriving institution. It is not that the world no longer has a place for established churches, and Brown and Woodhead repeatedly hold up the established Scandinavian churches as examples of institutions that have successfully survived the late twentieth century. The problem is that some Anglican leaders have tried to resist all change, anchoring the Church firmly in the year 1900, while others are trying to push change through at the expense of unity. “Clerical parties and the battles between them were beginning to seem more interesting and absorbing than anything outside,” Brown and Woodhead write, “and the world was being squinted at through a narrow lens. Controversies over sex, gender, and the family were starting to take over and blot out – or keep out – what was happening in the world.” The book details some of these battles in a tabloid fashion, focusing on personal quarrels and jealousies while minimizing the significant theological and sociological issues involved.
Each faction within the Church is apparently prepared to destroy the Church as a whole in order to win its battles. The liberals at theological colleges like Cuddeson are “immersed in the hierarchical system of clerical power and patronage”, and bitterly hang on to their outdated privileges which they hope to pass on to their students. Evangelicals oppose the ordination of gay clergy because they refuse to allow the liberals to dictate the Church’s agenda. They took over the General Synod only to find that real power lay with the bishops, and not with the Synod. Anglo-Catholics oppose the ordination of women because they do not want to “annoy” Rome and jeopardize any chance of reunion with Roman Catholicism. Anglicans abroad, especially those in Africa, are portrayed as superstitious bigots whose increasing influence threatens to undermine the Anglican communion. Pentecostals staged an attempted coup through the success of London’s Holy Trinity Brompton Church (HTB) and the Alpha course. According to Brown and Woodhead, evangelicalism in general and HTB in particular are a worrying symptoms of Anglican decline. The fact that even bishops these days have had conversion experiences rather than “growing up” as Anglicans reflects “the way in which Christians generally were becoming more self-conscious about their beliefs and their identity, more at odds with the rest of England.”
Brown and Woodhead’s lost ideal is based on an old-fashioned local church, “which baptized, married, conducted funerals, organized fetes and pageants, ran schools, rang bells and looked after roofs. It was the Church of England school, and the parish magazine. It was sung evensong on the radio, and the intangible church body to which people belonged, even if they never went, and to which they were ascribed by default: ‘What religion are you? Don’t know? I’ll put CofE then.’ It was a broad church which tended not to get too worked up about the divisions of churchmanship which mattered so much to clergy, especially clergy in London and large cities.” According to Brown and Woodhead, the problem with the current archbishop, Justin Welby, is that “he did not think he was working for the Church of England at all. Like others in the HTB group, he thought he was working for Jesus. The Church of England was merely a vehicle.” Despite the book’s pessimism, the undercurrents that the authors describe are a cause for hope rather than despair. The Church of England may not be successfully holding on to its status as a state church, but if more people meet God in the midst of its disestablishment that can only be a good thing.