The Church of England, that curious 16th century innovation, has proved satisfyingly durable. It has survived purges, political interference, nominalism, vigorous nonconformity, the excesses of establishment and theological malaise. Throughout all this, its survival has been a remarkable testimony to God's ability to revive his church from the ashes. Yet this cannot be taken for granted in perpetuity. Over the last few years big cracks have opened in the edifice. This in itself is nothing new, but at the same time, the foundations have been eroding fast. If it's true that the Jeffrey John controversy is about to be revived, then it may just be that the whole structure will crumble under the strain.
Since the Telegraph story broke on Saturday, the crows have been gathering over the battlefield. It's not pretty. Anyone who is not familiar with the argument can get to grips with it quickly by listening to this clip, of a debate between two completely opposed positions. Don't be fooled, incidentally, by Giles Fraser's assertion that "the church won't split over this". This isn't intended as an impartial prediction, more a statement along the lines of 'this is going to happen, so get over it'.
The mood at the other end of the spectrum is equally belligerent. Although conservative evangelical blogger John Richardson was quick to post this measured response, this one seems more representative of the current mood within the tribe. Too many people have been spoiling for a fight and are just waiting for an excuse to start.
This is not the moment to discuss where I stand on this (another time, if anyone's interested). My point here is this: something that has stood for centuries at the heart of British Christianity, and therefore at the heart of our national life, could be about to pass away. And if it does, when the dust has settled, and the survivors look around them, they may, perhaps, be sorry.
The Church of England will not just sink without a trace, like the Titanic. Apart from anything else, there's too much physical plant for that to happen, let alone the millions who continue to attend services at least a few times a year. And the Church Commissioners will still have some money left to spend on things other than pensions. Cathedrals will probably continue without a great deal of change. But some things will be lost. Of course, not all of these will be missed, but some will. Here's my prediction of what we stand to lose at this moment in time:
- the Episcopacy. For better or worse, Bishops have become the nexus of this storm. New appointments are argued over, existing Bishops have their opinions scrutinised, and still they are expected to offer leadership on the matter. If the church falls apart, the first casualty will be the notion of a Diocese united under one Bishop. There may still be Bishops, but they will be essentially glorified Vicars or Team Rectors. That means no more Bishops in the House of Lords, no figures who can speak for Christianity on the national stage. Even the office of Archbishop of Canterbury will lose its remaining shreds of national credibility. With the church unable to agree on a suitable candidate, it will become an honorary position awarded by the Queen to officiate at Royal Weddings, etc.
- Parish Churches. Not the buildings, which, protected by listed building regulations, will continue as community centres, tasteful conversions, and here and there as venues for Christian worship. Like the Parsonages, they will stand as reminders of what once was. But the concept of the parish church as a place where the local community can meet with God, where all are called to worship even if they choose not to listen, will quickly evaporate without the support of Diocesan networks.
- The clergy. Those churches which continue from the wreckage will still have a need for ministry, and some of it will still be paid. But without the national Church, the idea of a group of people set aside for ministry in church, parish, and nation, will have no momentum. Evangelical ministers will move to a model akin to the Baptist Pastorate, and those Anglo-Catholics who don't go to Rome will end up as as an order whose role is to act as chaplains to the faithful.