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That Was the Church That Was:

How the Church of England Lost the English Peoples

Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead

For a book that argues that the Church of England has made itself irrelevant, That Was the Church that Was has already proved the opposite. On the eve of its scheduled appearance in February, it was dramatically recalled by its publisher following a legal complaint. Reviewers were instructed to return all copies immediately.

The unseemly panic caused no end of speculation in the gossipy Anglican world over what on earth could have been said to offend someone so much that lawyers had been instructed. There were plenty of theories doing the rounds.

The early sections of the book, looking back over 30 years of decline in our national church, had been awash with tawdry allegations of closeted homosexuality, leather bars and escort agencies in the upper echelons of the Church of England, but most of the people being rudely outed were dead. On the basis that you can only libel the living, two of the prime candidates for blocking the book looked like the former Archbishops of Canterbury Rowan Williams and George Carey.

Yet the scorn that had been heaped in its pages on both men remains in situ in the new, legally sanitised edition. Williams is still variously described as 'cultivating a slightly shamanic look', always regarding himself as 'cleverer than anyone else in the room' and (cruelly, if probably close to the truth) of 'prudent cowardice' in betraying his principles when he wimped out of his plans in 2003 to appoint an eminent gay friend to be Bishop of Reading. 'Although he was to remain in office for another 10 years,' the authors write of Williams, 'he was never after that in power.' Indeed, he grew depressed, they say, trying 'to reconcile what he had done with the person he thought he was'. For his part Carey, Williams's predecessor, continues in the new version to be summarily dismissed as 'out of his depth' in high office. 'He deployed pompous and uplifting waffle and, when this had no effect, he said the same things more often and more loudly.'

So what has changed in the text? The most obviously amended chapter is Gays and Evangelicals, an account of the sometimes hypocritical role that the socially and sexually conservative Evangelical wing of the Church of England played in the 1960s and 1970s in pushing for General Synod to take a much harsher line on serving clergy who lived in gay partnerships. Eventually it succeeded, though success might be the wrong word. The matter divides and discredits Anglicanism to this day.

Like much else in the book, this chapter tries to be two things at once. There is first-rate analysis of changing Anglican theological attitudes, with some believers keen to mirror the secular world, others to recoil from it. As power has shifted between different factions, the famed tolerance of the broad church that was once the Church of England at its best has been lost and its appeal consequently diminished.

Then there are the passages where Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead simply strain to shock. There is a redundant section, for example, where Brown recalls the sexual aggression which he says was 'part of the normal repertoire of bullying' among boys at Marlborough College, his alma mater. Together, the authors seem unable to resist having a pop at the 'names' who crop up in the narrative. So David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham, who served for 10 years from 1984, was “intoxicated by his own cleverness'.

You might spot a theme emerging here: cleverness in clerics is always a failing. Yet the authors seem hellbent on parading their own. And it can trip them up. One minute they are telling us the Archbishop of Canterbury's 1985 report, Faith in the City, which lacerated Thatcherism, showed that 'the Church could say and do things that mattered', the next minute they are questioning the sincerity of clergy who took posts in the urban priority areas created by the report, describing their choice as 'a very sound move for [those] hoping to attain higher office'.

What is most puzzling is how two authors so well qualified to produce a thoughtful and erudite analysis of Anglican decline have come up with something as muddled and muddy as this book. Brown is a long-serving religious affairs correspondent. Woodhead is an admired expert on the sociology of religion, based at Lancaster University.

When you get past the gaffes and the sneers, important questions are posed. Why is it, the authors perceptively ask, that the Church of England's closest counterparts, the historic state churches of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, have retained a higher level of public trust and commitment in rapidly changing times? Two-thirds of Danes, for example, still turn to their national church to get their child baptised; in England, regular churchgoers make up just 2% of the population.

Brown and Woodhead provide a variety of answers, some familiar, some thought-provoking: that England has changed too much and the C of E too little; that Jenkins made Anglican bishops such a laughing stock they have never since regained any authority with the public; or that a series of inadequate and complacent leaders allowed the church to slip its anchoring in national life and instead bury itself in internal rows over women priests and gay priests.

Although hailed at the time of his appointment as capable of reversing the decline, Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, has singularly failed to impress the authors. '[He] didn't think he was working for the Church of England at all. He thought he was working for Jesus. The Church of England was merely a vehicle.' A vehicle, moreover, that is now in the breakers' yard.

That sounds too tough too soon on Welby, and ignores the ways in which the C of E still works to stop our divided society from coming apart at the seams, most obviously in the food banks it runs up and down the country.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the book is that, behind their show of cleverness, the authors don’t seem to care that much about the outcome of the story they tell or the people it affects. Their book reads more like a distanced obituary than an urgent invitation to reform.

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