Matthew Parris has written a strange a piece in the Times about the Church of England: ‘Anglicanism was never really about God‘, he decrees, with a kind of semi-detached secular-papal journalistic infallibility. His Epistle to the Thundererarians drifts between theological void, historical vacuity and ecclesiastical nonsense: the Apostle Matthew ruffles with pricks and smites with smiles, and his quasi-poetic prose is almost persuasive.
But the winds of the Parris mind blow hither and thither, and hither they pick up discarded myths, fragments of newspaper platitudes, and waves of melancholy autumnal longings. He fires off randomly, almost haphazardly, though always gently and courteously, as if he were politely seeking something with all his heart and mind, if not his soul. There is an occasional glimpse of a kind of reflected glory, but too much of it meanders with the inconstancy of a hollow spirit.
Matthew Parris doesn’t believe in God, so presumably he wouldn’t mind his spirit being described as ‘hollow’, because he doesn’t believe he has one, or at least not one which has a desire (or hope) of spending eternity with the God he doesn’t believe in. But he does believe passionately in the “fabric” of the Church of England, with its glorious Cathedrals and liturgical beauty – “the ritual, the musical, the familiar” – and he also believes in a revered kind of hope, and in Christian culture, and in hymns and curates. And he must believe in eggs, too, because this strange piece is a veritable curate’s egg, drifting from the General Synod through secularity to Church decline, with a voyage around his grandmother and detours via minorities, personal pronouns and therapeutic prayer. It is only lacking a passing mention of llamas, and that’s just because the sub-editor had to edit out a paragraph due to space constraints.
It may indeed be that some who worship in the Church of England are comforted by form and ritual, and maybe there are a few who are “iffy” about a deity. But to say the church’s foundation was never about God evidences a woeful lack of Anglican history and ignorance of its essential mission. Has he never heard of Thomas Cranmer, John Jewel, Richard Hooker or Daniel Waterland? Does he have no understanding of the via media perched tentatively between Wittenberg and Geneva, or of the latitudinarianism of Anglican thought? Does he not know that the Church of England is catholicism in the English context, though not exclusively so? If the Church of England isn’t about seeking God and making Christ known, then God knows what it’s been doing for the past 500 years.
It is true that the Church of England has no peculiar creeds or doctrines of its own: it is Catholic and Reformed; part of the worldwide Church of Christ in conformity to the canons of the Early Church. Its whole order is grounded in theology, the XXXIX Articles, the Book of Common Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed and Holy Scripture. It is concerned with eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, who is God the Son, and so the Church of England professes orthodox trinitarian and christological faith. This is “doing God”.
It is also true that we are in a period of decline in a context of secularity, agnosticism and pluralism. And Parris has a point when he talks of “Anglican faddism” (“‘reaching out’, ‘planting’ new churches, targeting the Church’s message on the younger generation, finding new ways, new media, to put Anglicanism across, be it virtually, from his kitchen in Lambeth Palace, or with tambourines and hallelujahs in the pews”), but the whole point of the Wesleyan revival and Victorian evangelicalism is that the church went out to the world, meeting people where they gathered, bringing the gospel with conviction and making it relevant in their lives.
There may be a bewildering diversity, from High Church or Catholic through Reformed or Low Church Evangelical to liberal and progressive, but there is an abundance of faith, hope and charity, not to mention spirituality, service and (preeminently) salvation; a path to heaven through Christ. To Matthew Parris’s grandmother, whom he quotes approvingly, this is just “nonsense”. He may “love the Church, pay [his] subs to All Saints in Elton, sing hymns and delight in the Testaments Old and New”, but what does he know of Jesus?
But as we read further, it all begins to make sense.
I say my prayers every night not because anyone is listening, but because I always have. Cathedrals fill me with wonder, graveyards with reverence. The inscription on a gravestone in the nearby village of Youlgreave — to an infant who lived only a few months — “Touch’d the Earth and gone to Glory” brings tears to my eyes. I subscribe to the Friends of Friendless Churches. And it goes deeper. I love both the story and the person of Jesus, who I’m convinced was a real and wonderful man, albeit under a serious misapprehension about paternity.
This isn’t about the Church of England at all; it is about Matthew Parris confronting his mortality, moving slowly toward death and wanting to make sure he has lasting monument in the Church of England, if not a room in his Father’s house. He wants to pass from this world on his terms, which is a longing by no means unique to him. Indeed, the pervasive idolatry of the age is that of judging Christ by the standards of the self, creating God in our image, bending the Church to conform to the world, and seeking salvation through niceness. And so he recites his Anglican creed: “bricks and stones and windows, ritual and music; theologically unchallenging, with a certain mild muzziness as to doctrine, and a sharp distrust of zeal”. All divinity is discarded: the Incarnation is just tinsel at Christmas.
Matthew Parris just wants to be loved, accepted, and buried in the dear old CofE. He can have all that, certainly: an imitation of Christ that is philosophical and ethical wrapped up in compassion is profoundly human and desirable. But please don’t pretend that the Church of England doesn’t also do the radical historical Christ who wrought a revolution through divine revelation; the one in whom the human potential for transcendence comes so close to the life of God that it can be said to have become ‘deified’. Seek, and ye shall find.