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Reformation: A work in progress?

Fr William Davage explores whether recent circumstances and decisions have revealed more clearly the tensions and divisions present in the Church of England since the sixteenth century.

Awaiting my return to the leafy London suburb where I live, a few days before the COVID restrictions began, was the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s rightly celebrated trilogy with Thomas Cromwell at its centre. He is not in my Pantheon but on the recommendation of the then Principal of Pusey House I overcame my prejudice to read Wolf Hall during one summer vacation. In this, as in so much else, Jonathan Baker proved right.

The publication of The Mirror & the Light and the “lockdown” made it ideal reading for a sustained period of self-incarceration. There were serendipitous moments. I was asked to provide a short homily for the online May Marian Devotion from St Mary’s, Bourne Street and, by divine coincidence, an hour before I sat at the desk to write it, I read these words: “Mary … became the fountain from which the whole world drinks. She protects against plague, and teaches the hard-hearted how to feel, the dry-eyed to drop a tear. She pities the sailor tossed on the salt wave, and saves even thieves and fornicators from punishment. She comes to us when we have only an hour to live, to warn us to say our prayers.”

There was another scene that seemed to have a contemporary resonance. Hugh Latimer declaims a protestant manifesto where “the name of the Pope will be blotted out of memory … no one will ever believe we bowed to stocks of wood and prayed to plaster … [the] English will see God in daylight, not hidden in a cloud of incense, they will hear his word from a minister who faces them instead of turning his back and muttering in a foreign language … we will have an end of images, the simpering virgin saints with their greensick faces, and Christ with the wound in his side like a whore’s gash … we will break the shrines. God is not trapped in a jewelled monstrance or in a window pane. But dwells in the human heart, even the Duke of Norfolk’s.”

Latimer was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge and Bishop of Worcester, having replaced the absentee Italian Girolama Ghinneri. From being as “obstinate a papist as any was in England” he became convinced by the “reformed doctrines”. He was burned at the stake in Queen Mary’s reign. His words, through Hilary Mantel’s prism, chimed with what a friend had said during an email exchange, that he suspected there were some hierarchs who saw the pandemic and the closure of churches as an opportunity “to complete the protestant Reformation” by a degree of cynical manipulation.

Historians (even hacks like me) are properly suspicious of conspiracy theories. The lack of concrete evidence, on which historians rely, is for the committed conspiracy theorist evidence of its success in deceiving us. Most historians would place more value on the cock-up theory of history than any conspiracy theory. Whatever view you take of the bishops’ response, their guidance (not instruction) is one or the other.

Among the Government’s edicts preventing public gatherings was that churches should be closed for public worship. However reluctantly, many of us could see sense in that. Priests were permitted by the regulations to go to and from their churches. Yet the Archbishops went further and instructed that “our church buildings must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well and this includes the priest.” The rationale seems to have been that the Church needed to “go the extra mile” in solidarity with her fellow citizens.

A few days later the Archbishop of Canterbury said, through gritted smile, that it was guidance not instruction. In a letter to The Times Bishop Richard Llewellin, Bishop at Lambeth from 1999 to 2004, wrote that “the instruction (and it was an instruction, not advice) that even our clergy should not enter their own churches for prayer was given by our bishops. That instruction went well beyond what the government required of its citizens, and sent a signal that the C of E was closing down completely.” Some bishops threatened disciplinary action should priests have the temerity to pray in the churches committed to their charge.

Similarly, action was threatened against those priests who may have thought that “going the extra mile” was ministering to the sick and dying: rather as Dr Pusey did in the 19th century cholera epidemic.

The diocese of London was more sensitive and alert to the need for a sacred space, for, at least, a glimpse at the transcendent, and recognised churches’ importance. Those priests who had direct access to their churches from clergy accommodation could say Offices, prayers and celebrate Mass, either live-streamed or recorded for later broadcast. This policy suffered from good sense and was reversed. And then the policy changed again.

The disparity in approach lies in the historic division within Anglicanism. Several distinguished commentators have articulated views that fall within the penumbra of the Oxford Movement and the wider Catholic Revival. Bishop Llewellin again: “[a] kitchen table is not an altar, and living room not a church. These latter are not dispensable things of convenience, but symbols of God’s presence with us and His care for us in these dangerous and difficult times.” (The Times). Canon Angela Tilby wrote: “Worship in the home has its place, but the church is more than domestic space: it is common ground … When the postman, the bus driver, not to mention health workers, put themselves at risk for Christian values and the common good, the Church’s position looks uncomfortably like moral cowardice.” (Church Times). Serenhedd James wrote: “A sense of holy places and holy things belongs as much to Anglicanism as to any other denomination; for the Archbishops to say that “the Church is […] the people of God, not our buildings” is true, but does not present the whole picture.” (The Critic).

I was among over 800 clergy who signed a letter to The Times in which it was said that “domestic settings cannot replace church buildings whose architecture, symbolism and history represent the consecration of our public life.” In a subsequent Leader The Times commented that “churches offer a place of sanctuary and community, a space in which Christians can mourn loved ones and weather the uncertainty of the months to come. The government ensured supermarkets and plenty of other shops stayed open so that no one starved or could not feed their pets, but by keeping churches closed, the church has allowed the spiritual to go hungry just when they were most in need.”

Historians can speak about the past. They are not prophets of the future. Nor should they venture where others have greater expertise and learning. Others will reflect theologically, liturgically, biblically but one thing historians do know about from their study of the past is failure. And in the present leadership we are staring it in the face.

The Rev’d William Davage

2 thoughts on “Reformation: A work in progress?

  1. I made some maladroit comments in response to this useful piece last week, so thank you for responding to my request that they be removed.

    Today (28 June) I ‘attended’ a number of livestreamed services from Europe (as I have since mid-March), and several from the UK.

    At the commencement of services in the UK the officiants were at pains to explain their reluctance to re-open their churches for public worship until risk assessments had been completed (why?) and until further advice had been issued by the government about what sort of social distancing and other practices would be required.

    As soon as the lockdown commenced it became evident that almost all dioceses were in distress. The Commissioners provided a financial ‘lifeboat’ (actually loans) to DBFs. However, it has since become apparent that even well-endowed dioceses are in straits. It is also obvious that the longer it takes to restore normal service, the more acute that financial distress will be, with all that entails for the viability of churches.

    Therefore, the churches will return to normal slowly, incrementally, cautiously.

    This may be compared to the Church in France, where all parishes were primed for the resumption of normal public worship as soon as the ‘deconfinement’ was to take place. The date on which public worship could resume was uncertain, and it took litigation to force the pace. However, the Council of State backed those calling for the resumption of public worship on the basis that the restrictions imposed by the French government were disproportionate and an offence to civil rights. The deconfinement was applied with respect to all churches on 20 May, only two days after the Council of State released its judgement.

    Importantly, the Church in France was ready to go with immediate effect. Bishops had been directing parishes to be ready and primed for the resumption of worship.

    Churches remained open during limited hours for private prayer across most of Europe in even the darkest days of the crisis.

    Compare this with the UK. Bishops and government alike have been confused, and yet almost lackadasical. The bishops went beyond even government advice in insisting on a ban on access even by clergy (and yet I have seen scores of livestreamed service in France and other countries conducted within church buildings when the virus was raging). The bench must have known weeks ago that the lockdown would be lifted, and yet I have not yet seen any instructions insisting that all churches be at the ready for a complete and comprehensive re-opening with effect from 4 July. Why is it that France and other countries can have a snap return to normal and not the UK? How is it that this country can be so reckless and yet at the same time so timorous and ineffectual? The more slowly churches are returned to normal the more acute the financial consequences will be.

    It is not difficult, surely, to ensure that there is proper spacing between attendees, or to insist that they must wear masks (many continental churches have made masks available at the door). As to singing, I have seen many services in recent weeks in Europe where singing was being conducted as normal, and in France it was taking place even in March and April. There was a ban on it in Germany for a while, but it appears to have fallen away.

    It is also an interesting commentary on the relative strength and bargaining power of the French church relative to the Church of England that the churches in France were put back into full use more than a month before the cinemas were re-opened, and yet in the UK the cinemas are to re-open at the same time as the churches. The French bishops were lobbying the government very assertively before 20 May. I wonder whether their English Anglican counterparts were trying anything like as hard – which, if true, adds ballast to the contentions of the conspiracy theorists referred to by Mr Davage.

    It is a paradox that a country where laicite is a dogma has been more generous to the needs of the erstwhile national church than a country where there is still an ecclesiastical establishment.

    One of the critiques of SAGE and other official responses to the crisis is that there was a failure to learn from the experience and practice of other countries, including ones not so very far away. This criticism, I feel, applies just as much to the Church of England as it does to HM Government.


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