‘Hobson Makes his Choice’

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‘Hobson Makes his Choice’ (Church Times May 2003)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a nominal Anglican who has acquired a family and a mortgage must be in want of a good local church.

My new home is almost exactly equidistant between two Anglican churches: St Peter's and St Paul's, let's call them, with a symbolic touch. For St Peter's is considerably higher than St Paul's, both literally and metaphorically.

I started with the low one, St Paul's. It looks and feels more like a community centre than a church, which puts me off a bit. But the prejudice is irrational, I tried to tell myself as I sat in an empty row of comfy chairs, staring at the fire extinguisher. I was greeted by Mike, the curate, a handsome young man radiating good will. He didn't so much shake as hold my hand; I wondered when he was going to let go.

The vicar was chatty and gentle, like a good teacher. The service had a lively community feel: one of the congregation sang a song on the guitar, and we all joined in. The sermon was an exposition of a passage from St Paul, in which the apostle was encouraging us to be a closer-knit community: more of a sect, some would say. Indeed this was my general impression: we were the church militant, proudly distinct from the world.

The next week I visited St Peter's. It is a much larger church, capable of seating a few hundred; though here the congregation was actually smaller. I gazed at the huge expanse of the interior: peeling plaster walls, statuary and countless crucifixes. A bell tinkled and we stood as our black-cloaked vicar walked on stage, followed by a couple of surpliced acolytes, shaking out incense. There was no friendly chat, as at St Paul’s, to make us feel at home. Here, the whole point was that we should not feel at home, but somewhere grand and peculiar. He hardly made eye contact, as if our presence was more or less irrelevant to the business in hand: the special formal language, the rites. His sermon had an air of embattled defiance: an alternative understanding of the church militant. After communion we hailed Mary and left (coffee was not offered).

If I walk ten minutes East, then the Anglican church is scarcely distinct from an American Baptist meeting. If I walk ten minutes West, then it is almost indistinct from a rather stiff version of Roman Catholicism. Surely this was a bit of bad luck, that these two churches erred to each extreme of high and low. I was after the middle ground: not too formal, not too informal.

So I went slightly further afield, to a church that seemed just about right – a nice old building, with a friendly vicar. But after a few weeks I wasn’t so sure. Most of the hymns were jaunty modern numbers, to which a small proportion of the congregation closed their eyes and waved their hands. Why does this make me uncomfortable? It seems to suggest that church is a means to an end: individual rapture. I used to find clubbing sinister for the same reason. In my book, a vicar should discourage it, which probably means sticking to rather sober hymns. The same few ‘committed’ people sometimes intervened with little homilies, anecdotes or testimonies.

Here too the curate seemed more enthusiastically Evangelical than his vicar: when he preached there was a lot of emphasis on personal commitment, inner transformation. And the style was predictably simplistic, as if to a youth-group. What I dislike is the air of certainty: there is a right way to be, a set of Answers.

There was one more big old church not too far off – I peered into the porch, and was greeted by a notice: ‘Forward in Faith; no Priestesses’. This seemed aggressive, nasty. It made me feel sympathy for women priests, pity for their haters.

Am I being very choosy, impossible to please? Or has the Church of England taken a huge lurch towards the extremes, and more or less abandoned the centre-ground? It used to be that I felt fairly at home in an average Anglican church – three out of four felt safely familiar. Now I wonder if any of my local churches do.

In a mainstream Anglican church, as I recall, ritual is gentle, unostentatious. It prevents the service being a charismatic free-for-all, it imparts a certain dignity, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously either; it has an easy, liberal feel. But now ritual is either seized upon aggressively – every waft of incense is a stab of venom in the direction of liberals, evangelicals, feminists - or it has been abandoned in favour of Evangelical informality.

The Church seems to have lost confidence in the old middle way of Anglicanism; it is scared of seeming formless, woolly, so it desperately seeks hard-core identity in one direction or the other. And so the unique achievement of Anglicanism is lost. It was quite a feat: to hold together for half a millennium the world-shaking warring principles of Catholic and Protestant. Many will say that we are well rid of the compromise, which was never workable. But it had its appeal, especially for those of us are wary of ostentatious religious expression. This is not mere lukewarmness: it is an awareness that no single religious style is fully adequate to the gospel. Anglicanism is losing this crucial critical insight, which might even be its raison d’etre.

The next Sunday morning I took my family to the park instead. It was a beautiful day; people of all sorts relaxing, exercising, chatting. No one was pressuring us into commitment, denouncing the secular world, or nursing their precious piety.