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July 08, 2006

Harry Phibbs finds himself in good company as he reads the confessions of others "coming out" as Anglicans: Why I am Still an Anglican - (Ed.) Caroline Chartres

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Why I am Still an Anglican
edited by Caroline Chartres
London: Continuum, 2006
Hardback, 12.99

I once wrote about a third of a novel which featured a hugely judgmental Christian tabloid called The Daily Bread. Given the diffidence of Anglican clergy one is left looking at people like the Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, for a moral lead. Attentive viewers to Have I Got News For You, the satirical BBC TV quiz, will have spotted that Hislop doesn't just tell jokes but crusades against wrong doing. Sometimes he might go after the wrong target but his motivation is moral. That was why his colleague Angus Deayton was driven off the air.

Hislop is among the contributors to this collection of those brave enough to "come out" as Anglicans. He states:

I've tried atheism, and I can't stick it: I keep having doubts.

Combining Anglicanism with editing a scurrilous magazine offers challenges but also opportunities. He recalls: For Christmas 2004 we ran a cover showing the Breughel painting of the Nativity with one of the Wise Men saying to the shepherds:

Apparently the baby's David Blunkett's", and we had a lot of complaints about blasphemy. But of the four or five of us in the room when we came up with that cover, four of us must be among the last people who go regularly to church. So far as Anglicanism is concerned, we do a weekly spoof of a parish newsletter which, given the number of people who attend church or read a newsletter, is probably quite a specific parody, not exactly mass market.
Other contributors include Emeka Anyaku, Anne Atkins, Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, Frank Field, Nicky Gumbel, PD James, Stephen Layton, Edward Lucas, Hugh Montefiore, Rupert Sheldrake, John Stott, Fay
Weldon, Andreas Whittam Smith and Lucy Winkett.

John Stott reflects on the national status of the Church giving it an inclusive feel:

The Church of England is a national church. It is not a state church ...but the established church, and - more importantly - it is a national church because it has a national mission. In ideal and purpose the Church of England is neither a sect nor a denomination, but the church of the nation, with a responsibility to be the nation's conscience, to serve the nation and to bring Christ to the nation.
Confusingly, among all the contributors commending the Church of England precisely because of its agonising gentleness comes an essay from Nicky Gumbel, Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, leader of the Alpha courses and the "Happy Clappy" army.

A protege of Sandy Millar, Gumbel felt inspired to abandon his training to become a barrister and to go to theological college instead:

When I was coming to the end of my time at theological college and looking for a curacy, I went to see nine different parishes. None of them worked out, so when I finished my training we moved back to London. That was quite a low point: I'd left the bar and spent three years training, I was married with three small children, and I couldn't find a job.
He doesn't go into details but one can imagine why some of the Anglican high ups might have thought Gumbel didn't fit in. ("God's all very well in his place but there's no need to go on about Him.")

He was allowed to return to HTB and given charge of the Alpha course which he built up so that there are now 32,000 courses around the world. Gumbel says that the "comprehensiveness" of Anglicanism enabled a variety of other Christian religions to come to him for tips on starting alpha courses. Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Orthodox, Methodists - everybody wanted to get in on it. But going to the nice polite Anglicans made it easy for them to ask. Gumbel dislikes labels, pointing out that Christ treated people as individuals. He doesn't reject the term "charismatic" although the Alpha courses themselves are relaxed affairs including supper and chatting.

The novelist Fay Weldon offers a more traditionalist perspective:

I am made nervous by the happy-clappy, the joining together in singing and swaying as in a pop concert. It's mass hypnosis - not appropriate.

I am dismayed by the slipping over of services into group therapy, by the determined egalitarianism which seems to favour the tasteless over the tactful: which reduces the priest to just another "person like us". Whose job happens to be that of a parson. He is not: rather a man of God, appointed to be just that, dedicating his life to the task. That's why we give him our respect.

There is a dignity in a on-to-one relationship between you and your Maker which doesn't necessarily involve sharing signs of peace with your neighbour. Signs of peace are fine, but we should do them outside the church and then we can all go and have a cup of tea.

The Bishop of London's daughter Caroline Chartres is the editor of this balanced and enthralling collection. In her introduction she quotes Roger Scruton's declaration:
The truth about the Anglican Church is simple: it is a long standing pact between God and England, whereby our country, its language and its manners are brought within the Christian fold, but without demanding anything embarrassing by way of belief, ritual or devotion.
Edward Lucas offers an amusing list of the different categories of church goers he has encountered (before going on to give an inspiring account of his experience of the Anglican Church abroad.)

The different categories are fairly represented in this collection. I hope they learn something from each other. For instance traditionalists should see no contradiction in using the modern mass media to promote their uncompromising message. But evangelicals should consider that the relationship with God is a serious, solemn business and that ditching the Book of Common Prayer is to waste the Church's most powerful and timeless asset.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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