Saturday, March 01, 2003

2003.02.28 The Times:

Traditional religion refreshes the parts schmaltzy liturgy cannot reach
The Revd Peter Mullen

I thought it might have been fitting to hold over the enthronement of Archbishop [Rowan] Williams until tomorrow, St David's Day. But yesterday he took over the leadership of the Church of England, in a rainbow of colours and to the sound of bongos as befits the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which he finds in a state of severe decline. Every aspect of church life shows symptoms of decay: there are fewer baptisms, confirmations,weddings and even funerals than ever; Sunday congregations are falling and the depressing truth is that the Church has lost half its membership over the past 30 years. Consequently, income from donations has fallen steeply and the Church Commissioners have lost more than £800 million in failed investments.

So the Archbishop faces a daunting task. But why has this catastrophic decline occurred? Apologists for failure are fond of quoting social trends and what they loosely describe as "secularisation" - the idea that scientific materialism and the brute consumer philosophy have replaced religion. This explanation will not do. In fact churches - such as the Orthodox - which have not accommodated themselves to the secular world are doing rather better than the mainstream Church of England which has, for more than a generation, followed social fashions and trends.

Forty years ago, Anglican church leaders decided that the way to attract the new generation was by getting rid of the traditional language of The Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible and replacing them with modern services and "more accessible" translations of the Bible. This has been a disaster. In 1980 the Church published The Alternative Service Book and trumpeted this from the housetops as "the greatest publishing event in 400 years". A mere 20 years later, the same leadership went so far as to ban this, their own panacea, and to replace it with something even worse, Common Worship. The Church has all this time been dominated by the so-called "liberal" tendency among the bishops and in the General Synod - people who were memorably described in the preface of a church year book as those who "always nail their colours firmly to the fence"; but it is surely an odd thing for liberals to go about banning books.

Common Worship is written in patronising Noddy language and it oozes sentimentality and schmaltz. How else to describe the priest's words in the new marriage service when he prays: "Let them be tender with each other's dreams"? There ought to be a rubric in the margin saying: "At this point the congregation shall throw up: bride's family's side first." In the dumbed-down new Holy Communion, Christ is said to have "had supper with his friends". All the sonorous religious phraseology of the old Bible and prayer book has gone. All those profound and sometimes severe words which alone could actually speak to the extremes of human joy and sorrow have been discarded; and not the least of the ill-effects of the new services is that ours is the first generation which knows no prayers by heart.

Traditionalists are hounded by a hierarchy consumed with modernising rapacity; as Mark Santer, the former Bishop of Birmingham, boasted to me: "I have no prayer book enclaves in my diocese." Traditionalists are also often accused of being "elitist" about "mere" language. But there is nothing "mere" about language - for the choice of words determines what is being said. And the old prayer book should be valued not for its aesthetic qualities alone, but for its deadly accurate presentation of human nature and human psychology. The old book knew that we are, all of us, steeped in sin. This is not a dismal or depressing thought, for the same book goes on at once to pronounce redemption and the forgiveness of sins. The new liturgies are spiritually and psychologically useless because they are euphemistic and evasive when it comes to describing our human nature: no "Devil and all his works" at the christening; no "carnal lusts and appetites" at weddings; and no "vile bodies" or "worms" at funerals. Because the new rites omit the description of our sinfulness, all their talk of redemption from sin is vacuous and worthless.

In my experience as a priest in the countryside, in northern towns and now in the City of London, people do not want trendiness in church. They don't want the church to resemble the disco, the pop concert or, as it does increasingly, the TV game show. They want real religion. This means worship and doctrine in words hallowed by time and use: traditional religion which refreshes the parts which the dumbed-down modern stuff cannot reach. If the new Archbishop of Canterbury will promote the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer, he will go a long way towards restoring the Church of England.

The author is Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill, and Chaplain to the Stock Exchange.

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