Religious correspondents who received copies of That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People, due for release on February 11, have been ordered to ‘immediately’ return the ‘relentlessly honest’ book to the publisher.
The blurb for the book said:
The Church of England still seemed an essential part of Englishness, and even of the British state, when Mrs Thatcher [pictured above schmoozing with Archbishop Robert Runcie in 1985] was elected in 1979.
The decades which followed saw a seismic shift in the foundations of the C of E, leading to the loss of more than half its members and much of its influence. In England today religion has become a toxic brand, and Anglicanism something done by other people. How did this happen? Is there any way back?
This relentlessly honest and surprisingly entertaining book tells the dramatic and contentious story of the disappearance of the Church of England from the centre of public life. The authors, religious correspondent Andrew Brown and academic Linda Woodhead, watched this closely, one from the inside and one from the outside. That Was the Church That Was shows what happened and explains why.
A statement issued by leading UK publishing house, Bloomsbury, said that the withdrawal of the book was the result of a legal complaint. Asked to clarify, its publicity agent, Lucy Clayton, said:
I only know that there’s been a legal complaint. I cannot comment further.
Speculation mounted that the book was pulled because it contains a disputed passage about the sexual activities of various Church of England bishops and other leading lights in the Anglican community.
Writing in the weekly magazine The Spectator, Damian Thompson said the book contained rumours and speculation about the sexual identity of key figures in the established church whose membership figures are at an all-time low.
Thompson wrote that apparently there has been a legal action because of “a disputed passage about a Christian leader”.
It sounded intriguing. But which leader? I have a finished copy of the book in front of me, and it’s hard to guess. Is it the bishop who, we’re informed, ‘turned out to have had a conviction for cottaging hushed up’? Or the bishop who was the subject of an ‘entirely false’ rumour that he ‘attended gay orgies’? Or the bishop accused of faking his academic qualifications, also described as an ‘entirely false’ claim? It may be none of the above.
We learn something extraordinary (and, perhaps, defamatory) about a member of the Church of England hierarchy on virtually every page. Ostensibly an account of the Church of England’s decline over the past 30 years, the book reads more like a compendium of its most malicious gossip.
I speak with some experience. In the early 1990s, as religious affairs correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, I wrote some awfully spiteful stuff. I wince when I read it today. But even I could not reach the sadistic heights of That Was The Church That Was …
The best thing in the book is its portrait of Rowan Williams. The former Archbishop of Canterbury emerges as a high-church Welsh mystic who felt more at home in Narnia than in England, where village fetes were more sacred than Holy Communion. We read that he ‘had no glib answers to the problems of human tragedy and suffering’ – or to any problem, for that matter. He expected his bishops to ‘worry at the truth like patient followers of Wittgenstein’. Instead, they kicked him around because they knew he could be bullied.
That became clear when, having encouraged his celibate gay friend Canon Jeffrey John to accept the post of Bishop of Reading, he then forced him to withdraw his acceptance in order to placate homophobic African bishops. The book quotes an anonymous bishop, who says the Primate of All England fell into a deep depression because he couldn’t reconcile this with his self-image as a saint and scholar: ‘He couldn’t be a shit — and yet he had been one.’
That Was The Church That Was tells us something important about English Christianity, but not what the authors imagine. It is the sort of scandal-obsessed diatribe that dying religious communities – one thinks of the Catholic Church in Italy or Ireland – are too weak and compromised to fend off. For the time being, the Church of England is being protected from this atrocious book by somebody’s lawyers. But for how long?