Stephen Cottrell Englishness
Church of England

A ‘Church for England’, but whose understanding of Englishness?

Much has been written about the Archbishop of York’s article in the Telegraph, in which he set out his vision for England woven with his preferred themes of Englishness, calling for the Church of England to be a church for England, rather than just ‘of’. And his plea for the new preposition has received no comment at all; indeed, in all the column inches of opinion that have been written about this piece – ranging from caricatures of the Archbishop’s baffling embrace of English nationalism and Enoch Powell, to his perfectly credible articulation of a vision by which English identity might at least cease to perish, if not be saved – there has been very little analysis of what he might mean by ‘Englishness’, and how his understanding of the meaning and purpose of national identity might be reified in the parish, and supported from Bishopthorpe Palace.

Not to mention Lambeth Palace.

The principal hurdle to the Church of England being or becoming a church for England is that thousands of clergy already believe it to be precisely that. The Church is for England in its divine service, in its material provision, in its community compassion and its spiritual mission. It looks into the eyes of the little girl dying of cancer in Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital; it listens intently to the convicted murderer wallowing in HMP Belmarsh; it weeps with those who are burying their mother in St Giles’ Parish Church, and it puts tins of tomatoes and packets of pasta into picky hands from the foodbanks of Liverpool Cathedral. A church that serves the people of England must be a church for England, must it not?

And yet there is a widespread perception, if not an empirical reality, that the Church of England is not for them. They have no great quarrel with the Church of Foodbanks, Housing, the NHS, Climate Change, Diversity and Equality, not least because this is the Church of Social Justice, and it is good to be social and just to one’s neighbours, especially those who are less fortunate than ourselves. This is the Church of Love Actually; the Church of benign patriotic feelings that stir the soul, and therapeutic spirituality which helps to dispel the hurts and confusions of life. It is the Church of the BBC Radio ‘Thought For The Day’, complete with tepid tea and the lightest shade of toast, which some might call warm bread.

But if you support the Conservative Party and voted for Brexit, the Church of England isn’t really for you. If you enjoy singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ at the Last Night of the Proms, and rather like to sing ‘Jerusalem‘ or ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ at weddings, the Church of England isn’t really for you. If you believe in the ontology of a male priesthood and that life begins at conception, the Church of England isn’t really for you. And if you believe in heteronormativity and that marriage is between one man and one woman for the nurturing of children, the Church of England isn’t really for you. This might be termed the Church of The Mission: it is robust, prickly, dogmatic and historically grounded. It is also capable of great tenderness, compassion and inculturation, if you can be bothered to hear its oboe in the sanctuary.

For those on the political right or the traditionalist wing of theology, the Church of England is undoubtedly there to serve you, to comfort you, to nourish the soul and inspire the mind toward a glorious counter-cultural Christian mission. But it isn’t for you in the same way as it is for those who support Labour or the Liberal Democrats or the Greens; and who voted to remain in the European Union; and those who believe in women priests and women bishops; and those who support the right to choose to abort the baby in the womb; and those who want a ‘gender neutral’ marriage liturgy, affirming than the union of two men or two women is ontologically the same as a union of one man and one woman.

The Church of England tolerates you, but it isn’t for you. It is there for you to come and go in common worship and to feed on Christ by faith, but thousands upon thousands of its clergy (including 99% of Bishops) truly despise everything you believe and represent, and quite a few of them can’t wait for you to leave so the liberal new order might arise and their theology be consummated.

Perhaps what the Archbishop of York is exhorting is an Englishness that is some kind of via media between the Church of Love Actually and the Church of The Mission, and yet for there to be a via media the polarities of passion must be preserved, included, nurtured and valued, otherwise the via media simply skews toward one pole and the theological equilibrium goes with it. Stephen Cottrell seems to be saying that the Church of England must be for your understanding of Englishness, however it expressed.

But that requires a shift not only in thinking, but in the discernment of vocations and clergy representation. When the Bishop of Burnley, Philip North, observed five years ago that the Church of England’s agenda is set by academia, moneyed elites, and sections of the secular media, it attracted some media comment, and then it died. Nothing changed, even as he observed:

For the most part, the Church of England has reacted to the election of Donald Trump (News, 11 November) and the UK’s vote to leave the EU (News, 1 July) (the “Trump-Brexit phenomenon”) by jumping on to the middle-class Est­abl­­ishment bandwagon of outrage and horror. As if set to auto-pilot, the C of E has joined in with those who are decrying the collapse of the liberal consensus and bemoaning a new mood of division in our public life.

Yet still CofE clergy continued on auto-pilot. Bishop Philip pleaded with his fellow bishops “to pay proper attention to the voices of those whose votes have caused this revolution, whether or not we like what we hear”. They may have paid attention, but they did not pay proper attention. The Archbishop of Canterbury made it very clear indeed that the Church of England is not for supporters of Donald Trump.

In the Church of England there is a right Christian way, and a wrong Christian way, and these paths aren’t divided by christology or ecclesiology but by a theology warped by political sociology. The Church of England is not for those who think and believe the wrong way. You can be respected as an Anglican Tory (though not in the Church of Wales) if you’re on the One-Nation pro-EU wing of the party, but if you belong to Cornerstone and adhere to Thatcherism or (God help you) Powellism, then it would be better for you if you had not been born.

One can understand the Archbishop of York seeking and exhorting something strange and beautiful in mutual belonging, but arriving at or forging this via media isn’t simply a case of drinking tea or banging a few heads together: one expression of Englishness so despises the other that it seeks to isolate, censor and eradicate it. We know which version of Englishness that is. And then the Church is riven by a new inequality; a new group that is left behind and excluded. The world may be ordered that way, but the Church certainly shouldn’t be.

What kind of England do we want to live in?

What kind of Church of England will the Church for England be?

We can talk generically ad nauseam about narratives of hope and justice and peace: the abstract theological space is infinite. But if it is to transcend party politics then clergy have to stop being partisan in the pulpit. That is not an exhortation to cease being political: Christianity is incarnational; to be Christian is to be immersed in the business of politics. But instead of only quoting the Guardian so frequently or exhorting Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai as prophets (this really, truly isn’t a caricature), clergy might occasionally balance these with quotations from the Daily Mail or the Express and say something nice about Nigel Farage and GB News.

And yet, for many clergy, the very thought is anathema: the Church of Love Actually welcomes St Greta and Prophet Malala, but Nigel Farage can die with his converts and disciples in his Church of The Mission. It is God’s will.

A Church of England which is for England won’t only embrace the views of the Bishop of Dover on the Channel migrants; it will find space – a very big space – for those who disagree vehemently, because that is an awful lot of English, and they are Christian English, if not robustly Protestant and proudly working-class English. The Church of Love Actually might preach perpetual and evermore accommodation for 20, 30 or 40,000 migrants a year. But the Church of The Mission wants them all towed back whence they came, to protect life and uphold the law, so they might seek salvation where they live. There is no easy via media between these two policy polarities, but there’s a great deal of godly wisdom to be discovered in those who advocate swift repatriation.

And a Church of England which is for England would express its breadth at the highest level – in the Lambeth Awards, for example. It is one thing for the Archbishop of Canterbury to honour and bestow his imprimatur upon those who labour in the vineyard for ecclesial ecumenism, political reconciliation, community cohesion and LGBT inclusion. But what about Andrea Minichiello Williams, Colin Hart, Canon Dr Chris Sugden, Rev’d Lyndon Bowring and many others who are usually classified as the ‘Christian Right’ or ‘fundamentalist’, or whose theological views are generally derided and deliberately misrepresented? These pioneering people have laboured for the gospel for years and decades, often for little reward, and frequently for an awful lot of personal abuse. The Lambeth Awards were instituted “for outstanding contributions to the Church and wider society”, not for outstanding contributions to a particular expression of Church and a very specific ideological view of society.

But it isn’t Christian to bash an archbishop for trying to explore temporal complexities.

Stephen Cottrell’s Englishness is broad and deep; it is generous and inclusive. Perhaps with the Bishop of Burnley now on his patch, it has to be. He can rail against London’s “metropolitan elite” for treating people who are proud to be English as “backwardly xenophobic”, yet he went out from Chelmsford: he is one of those very metropolitan elites, albeit it up in York for the time being. And from his new palace he writes of his Christian vision:

..which is the bedrock of our cultural, ethical and political life. As Jesus taught, it really is about loving your neighbour as yourself. The Church of England is one of the only institutions left in our nation with a local branch in virtually every community, and despite unhelpful reports to the contrary, remains committed to this local and national vision: a church for England.

He writes this as parishes wither, priests are sidelined, and the ‘metropolitan elite’ determine what is best, just as he did in Chelmsford.

If the Church of England is to be the Church for England, those ecclesial metropolitan elites (ie bishops) need to stop merely tolerating and patronising, and do more active accepting, valuing and nurturing. Tories who love Thatcher, voted for Brexit, rather like Trump, incline toward conservative theology and seek to uphold traditional moral values are your neighbour, and you can’t easily escape your neighbour. You can, of course, make their lives so miserable that they have no choice but to pack up and leave. The English who deem their left-wing politics and liberal theology to be more enlightened than the English who deem their right-wing politics and conservatives theology to be more enlightened need to serve one another more. And out of that service will come relationship. And out of that relationship will come understanding. And out of that understanding will come compassion and respect; a community of love in which each can rest in a place of fulfilment.

The Church for England needs to find a distinctly Christian voice which transcends party politics and the ephemeral divisions of the world, and it needs to find a way of standing up for England – England in all its ethnic and religious diversity; England above Scotland, above Wales and above Northern Ireland; and England above the European Union. This is not xenophobia or nationalism; it is a wonderful, benevolent, virtuous  patriotism. If the Church of England is not defending England as a nation and the interests of the English pre-eminently in all their social and political diversity, it cannot and will never be the Church for England.

Some will demur, but we must work in the world; the world is thus.