The Church is not an old pair of shoes

Was David Prior right about the Church of England (EDP, January 2)? He expressed the view that being a Christian is now more of a challenge. He himself had huge doubts.

Was David Prior right about the Church of England (EDP, January 2)? He expressed the view that being a Christian is now more of a challenge. He himself had huge doubts.

"I am not an atheist, but nor am I a Christian, at least by the exacting standards that we are now expected to meet. The Church of England in its typically bumbling, incoherent and muddling way encompasses millions of people who have these doubts. It lacks the intellectual certainty and honesty of the true believers".

He is right that religion suddenly seems to have risen to the top of the agenda, with more militant voices within Islam and a growing fundamentalist expression of Christianity motivating some politicians and affecting both world affairs and everyday life (education, medical ethics, what we wear - veils, crosses, relationships).

The rapid growth in America, where 20pc of Christians speak in tongues, and now in this country, of independent pentecostalist churches, and within the CofE of charismatic and evangelical congregations, now making up 30pc of the whole, is shifting the balance and making many traditional Anglicans feel uncomfortable.

The trouble is that David seems to look upon the Church of England rather like a comfortable pair of old shoes that you always come back to with relief when newer ones begin to pinch. I can imagine the groans of clergy and other church leaders in Norfolk, struggling to bring new life and commitment to their comfortable, but declining congregations, at being cast as bumbling upholders of an undemanding 'folk' religion, albeit "liberal and civilised" (David's words).

Mainstream Anglicans can feel a little encouraged that Christmas congregations were up by some 10pc, with Carol, Christingle and Midnight services packed out, and they may hope a revival is beginning. But they see that the real growth in the last two decades (while only just holding the general decline) is among more simplistic, evangelical and charismatic churches, which encourage the Christian to see himself as different, set apart from society, and place great value on the spontaneous and passionate expression of belief.

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Typically these congregations are gathered from like-thinking people over a wide area, rather than the smaller local congregations of all shades to which our parochial clergy minister in our groups of parishes. They predominently appeal to younger adults, willing and able to travel.

In the Saturday 'Church Services' page of this newspaper only the Cathedral and three or four mainstream Anglican and Free churches advertise, out of the several hundreds around the diocese holding Sunday services; the rest, some several dozen advertisers, are all independent evangelical or pentecostal groups. Mainstream Anglican churches minister to residential communities: they are parochially based, and aim to serve the people of their community. Maybe they are low-key, but their influence should not be underestimated.

I do not share the view that Anglicanism cannot survive this resurgence of faith. It has always had a tradition of absorbing new insights and enthusiasms, learning from them, but preserving a broad balance. Indeed it emerged from the troubled days of the Reformation as a middle way between the infallibility of Church and Pope on the one hand and a literal interpretation of the Bible, on the other. It avoided these 'certainties' which, while attractive to many, nevertheless are divisive, and the cause of a lot of trouble in the world today. It insisted that Scripture and Tradition (the church) must be informed at all times by Reason (scholarship and, later, openness to scientific knowledge).

It absorbed in succession the Evangelical Revival of the late 18th century, the Oxford Movement of the 19th century, and the Ecumenical Movement of the 20th century which brought churches together in mission after centuries of division.

The Parish and People movement in my early days in the 1950s and 1960s restored the eucharist as the central act of Sunday worship.

It is hard to remember now that when I was confirmed as a boy the only communion service at my church was a quiet service at 8am for 15 people, each skulking behind a separate pillar; otherwise it was choral matins at 11am, or in 'high'churches a non-communicating sung mass at noon.

Now nearly all CofE churches have a joyous mid-morning eucharist for all ages together, with hymns and music, and a sense of togetherness. How die-hard eight-o'clockers hated that at first! Even the recent charismatic renewal has affected the mainstream churches, bringing a new warmth and more spirit-filled, flexible worship.

As the established church, in a relationship with the state unique in Europe, it represents the religious character of the nation, and it remains in tune with prevailing social attitudes. So it is civilised, liberal and inclusive, open to all who can find a spiritual home within it. But sometimes, as now, it has to get used to its new shoes even though they pinch a bit.

After all, we cannot allow ourselves to get too comfortable.