The Church of England Is Not for Saints-But Blasted Sinners like You and Me; an Impassioned Plea from MP and Former Vicar CHRIS BRYANT

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), December 10, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Church of England Is Not for Saints-But Blasted Sinners like You and Me; an Impassioned Plea from MP and Former Vicar CHRIS BRYANT


Byline: CHRIS BRYANT

GREAT news. A star in the East. People are flocking to carol services in such numbers that cathedrals and churches are having to lay on double helpings this year.

Some may be snooty about the once-a-year Christians, but they're wrong.

Carol services are peculiarly and splendidly British and the real message of Christmas is the best antidote there is to the cynicism of today.

But that's pretty much where the good news stops for the good old Church of England.

Its numbers are falling. Its bishops are ignored. It has become narrower in its theology, more sectarian, less generous. It is in desperate need of a rescue bid.

I'm not saying that as one who hates the CofE. I have a deep love for it.

Exactly 20 years ago this week I was ordained in it. And I still believe that with all its failings and its fudged compromises it was one of Britain's greatest inventions.

It has nourished centuries of Brits - and, through the Anglican Communion, many others in the world - with a moving, personal, practical faith that gave people courage, tolerance and insight into the world around them.

It taught millions the truth about Jesus and about God without ever insisting that it had a monopoly on truth.

It brought a specifically British understanding to religion, with probably the strongest architectural and musical tradition of any faith in the world.

Just one CofE creation, choral evensong, was a stroke of genius, with the brilliance of Cranmer's Prayer Book matched by the beauty of settings by the great English composers Byrd, Purcell, Gibbons, Stanford and John Taverner.

I know I have changed a lot in those 20 years.

No longer a fresh-faced young curate, I am now a 44-year-old gay Labour MP and a very imperfect Christian. But the Church I was ordained into 20 years ago no longer exists, either.

Statistics rarely prove anything.

But the CofE's vital statistics are pretty stark. No matter how you look at it the decline has been rapid. In 1968, 1.6million people went to church every Sunday. In 2004 only 903,000 did. The Church has lost 27 per cent of its members in 20 years, roughly 20,000 people every year.

THE collapse is set to continue. The number of children in church each week has fallen by 20 per cent in the seven years from 1997 to 2004. And perhaps the most worrying figure of all shows an 84 per cent fall in the number of people who were confirmed in the CofE, from 191,042 in 1961 to a mere 30,425 last year.

It's not a universal collapse, of course. Some parts of the CofE have prospered, in particular the Evangelical wing.

But the greatness of the old CofE was that it embraced the high church, the low church, the smells-and-bells brigade and the happy-clappy merchants all in one glorious medley. It was a coalition of the Evangelicals, the Anglo-Catholics and the liberals.

People of fixed, dogmatic opinions were happy to share a faith and a communion with more doubting souls.

But today there is a crisis in two of the wings of the Church. The Anglo-Catholics are in sharp decline. Many of their clergy left either because they disapproved of women clergy or because they were forced out by the Church's increasingly aggressive attitude towards homosexuality. …

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