It’s been a pretty hectic couple of weeks in the crazy non-stop world of the Church of England!
Normally this dusty old institution just plods along, not really drawing attention to themselves, other than the coffee mornings or the parish summer fête. These last few weeks, though, all hell has broken loose.
First, seemingly out of nowhere, there was the announcement of Justin Portal Welby as the new Bishop of Canterbury.
Second, we had the convoluted, bizarre, ritualistic voting system that ultimately returned a “No” vote on the issue of whether to allow women to be Bishops.
Finally, on Thursday, there was a debate in the House of Lords brought by Baroness Falkner of Margravine on the importance of a secular space in public life.
The choice of Welby as the man to replace the outgoing Rowan “Dumbledore” Williams was something of a surprise. It’s not that he isn’t capable or experienced enough; it’s just that he was hardly considered to be a favorite. Christopher Cocksworth, Graham James, and John Sentamu all had better odds. (I’m sure most of you don’t care about the details of the betting odds, but I think there is something wonderfully heathen about gambling on religious and church votes!) Anyway, they could have picked Justin Bieber and no one this side of the pond would care. Welby is inheriting a church that is entirely irrelevant in modern British life.
As for the the issue of women Bishops and the vote which reaffirmed their opposition to the idea… My own opinion on the matter is basically identical to Claudia‘s. The result has generally been greeted with shock; most people expected the vote to be a “Yes.” Most politicians are unhappy at the result and plans are already afoot to press the Archbishop of Canterbury into changing the rules when he comes into power next year to allow a new vote before 2015, which is when current rules first allow it to occur. After the result, the church has been described as “out of touch” and “blatantly discriminatory.” Even Welby described it as “a very grim day” for the church. I don’t really understand the shock; it’s a church — being out of touch and discriminatory is their basic function.
Back in July, the Rev. Dr. Patrick Richmond revealed his worries that the church will cease to have any meaning or possibly even exist in 20 years if it cannot muster a serious recruitment drive. The average age of its congregation now stands at 61; it’s over 65 in more rural parishes. Once this generation has died, there is unlikely to be anyone to replace them. Adult attendance has halved in the last 40 years and childhood attendance has seen an incredible decrease of 80%. So, like I said, irrelevant.
All this press coverage has put the Church back in the spotlight for a little while, so much so that the role it should play in the political and public space has been subject to a debate in the House of Lords.
The House of Lords is a slightly odd institution; I guess it is the equivalent of the U.S. Senate. It is made up of 240 elected members, 60 appointed members, and 12 Bishops from the Church of England. Elected members serve single, non-renewable 15 years terms. It is this mix that leads to some of the most amazing political put downs, all with thoroughly British politeness and wit. The steady increase in society giving up its religious affiliations is beginning to permeate even the House of Lords.
In a society in which church attendance continues to dwindle and congregations age — I am sure there are anecdotal exceptions, but the statistics are very clear — we rapidly approach a time when we need to think about the extent to which religious precepts should be allowed, often through the workings of both Houses, to override the view of the people on sensitive social issues. When I say “the view of the people”, I mean even religious people.
Most of the Lords still retain their religious leanings, but Baroness Falkner represents a small but important crack in the quest for reform, including the removal of the 12 Bishops from the House as a matter of rite. The arch-nemesis of anyone who values secularism, atheism, or even anything other than organised religion — Baroness Warsi — revealed just how out of touch she is on this issue.
Winding up the debate, she stressed the importance the government places in religion, pointing out the vast amounts of money spent on various interfaith projects, as well as reaffirming the government’s mission to maintain the status of religious education as a compulsory subject that all pupils must study and to the provision of collective worship in schools.
Warsi is from the school of religious proponents and can’t grasp how people could possibly lead ethical lives without an imaginary dictator to keep them in check. She doesn’t really care what your faith is — so long as you have one. Her leading role in pressing for religious education to be made compulsory serves to highlight the different battles being fought in the U.S. and the U.K. In the U.S., every instance of government endorsement of religion (of which there are many) is fought against to preserve the First Amendment. In the U.K., we’d just settle for not having the government mandate religious education and collective worship for every child in the land regardless of their faith (or, crucially, their lack of it). That kind of reform will need approval from the House of Lords and the comments made by Baroness Falkner are a long overdue step towards that end.
On a side note, Hemant previously posted about the New Humanist’s annual Bad Faith Awards. While the votes seem to be accumulating for Todd Akin, Baroness Warsi is also on the ballot. The poll closes on Monday so you’ve got the weekend to affect the outcome!
(Thanks to Carl for the link!)