Church of England

Vicar: ‘If you don’t worship in the CofE (or only come at Christmas), don’t complain about what we do’

The Rev’d Miranda Threlfall-Holmes had a premonition that her tweet would be unpopular, but still she shared her ecclesiology with the world: “People are only allowed to complain about the Church of England closing services in times of public health emergency, or pontificate about what we should do at Christmas, if they are prepared to turn out weekly, give weekly, and go to the APCM”, she proclaimed.

The APCM, for those who don’t know, is the Annual Parochial Church Meeting, which are quite prosaic business affairs and open to all lay parishioners who are on the Electoral Roll. If you’re concerned about bats in the belfry, how much doesn’t go into the collection plate or who gets to be a churchwarden this year, this is the meeting for you. You don’t have to be a weekly worshipper to attend: the sole qualification is your name being on the Electoral Roll.

The Rev’d Miranda believes you may not criticise the Church of England unless you endure this meeting every year. Only then are you qualified to have input into what carols are sung at Christmas and how tall the tree will be (or whether Midnight Mass is celebrated at all in your parish).

“You don’t get to tell us to put lives at risk just because you want a nice carol service to complete your Good Housekeeping view of ‘a good Christmas’”, she added in a supplementary, if not rather contemptuous tweet.

Isn’t a ‘Good Housekeeping’ kind of Christmas a rather comforting and spiritually edifying affair? Isn’t a ‘Good Housekeeping’ kind of Christmas a gloriously reassuring Anglican one?

She also thinks you should be an actual communicant – not just once or twice a year (ie, not a Christmas-and-Easter type of Christian), but you must be present in the pews every single week, and give £20 with a joyful heart every week (okay, she didn’t specify £20, but that would be nice). Only then are you qualified to make any comment on cancelled services or Covid-proof weddings and funerals.

The Rev’d Miranda Threlfall-Holmes is a Church historian, which she seems to mention quite frequently. It is somewhat strange, therefore, that she appears not to know that the ecclesiology she advocates is not remotely Anglican. The Church of England is established by law, and exists (literally, in law) for the benefit of its non-members (ie those who don’t worship every week or attend the APCM): parishioners have certain legal rights, and the Church of England has statutory obligations to all.

Has the Rev’d Miranda read any Richard Hooker, the fons et origo of our distinctive Anglican theology and ecclesiology?

For Hooker, church and society were one. He believed that the Monarch was acutely involved in leading men to salvation: “A gross error it is, to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body, and not of the soul,” he wrote, “for men’s temporal peace, and not for their eternal safety.” If the state were concerned solely with the material, it would cease to be concerned with people’s welfare in respect of a right relationship with God. Hooker’s articulation of the prerogative of the Crown over its subjects’ religious welfare is the same as that which underlies the role of the Monarch in relation to the Church of England today: the Queen is both Head of State and the Supreme Governor.

The Established Church has a missionary vocation to serve all of its parishioners – of all faiths and none. It does not seek to exclude or to be out of sympathy with any group of people, for it has an acute pastoral concern for the wellbeing of all. The fact that the Church’s Supreme Governor is also the Head of State means that she is obliged to exercise her public ‘outward government’ in a manner which accords with the private welfare of her subjects – of whatever creed, ethnicity, sexuality or political philosophy (or attendance at the APCM). The Royal Supremacy in regard to the Church of England is, in its essence, the right of the Crown in the supervision of its administration in order that the religious welfare of its subjects may be provided for. While theologians and politicians may argue over the manner of this ‘religious welfare’ or the precise meaning of what Hooker meant by the true fulfilment of a right relationship with God, the focus on such issues (or some Christians choosing to focus on such issues) serves to alienate and distance the Church of England from many of its parishioners, and this manifestly hinders its mission in the complex context of pluralism, liberalism and secularism.

The Church of England is a territorial church-in-community: that is its model of mission. It works with the state to define its worship; and through dioceses, parishes and chaplaincies to effect its pastoral care and compassionate service. Establishment commits the church to full involvement in civil society, and to making a contribution to the public discussion of issues that have moral or spiritual implications. It also has a pastoral obligation to wipe away tears and heal broken hearts; to inculcate wholeness in relationships and in community, for the integrity of the natural environment and for our harmony with it.

And so all who live in the parish community have a legitimate interest in whether church services are closed, and whether Midnight Mass reflects a ‘Good Housekeeping’ kind of Christmas or not. And so they are allowed to complain about it.

One might expect a Church historian to know and understand all this. And yet…

Her tweets were RT’d by the Archbishop of Canterbury:

Justin Welby must surely know his Anglican ecclesiology, but when did he last attend an APCM?