Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Disappointment and the Church of England

When Danielle first moved to this country from France, with a view to eventually becoming my wife, she went through a crash course in English culture.

A key event came during the journey back from a conference in Colchester, out in deepest Essex, one of the counties out to the East of London. We’d travelled down by train but were offered a lift back by another delegate, who happened to be Jewish and from Golders Green in North London.

As soon as he told me where he was from I felt on familiar territory. The Jewish side of my family lived not far from Golders Green, and I’d come to associate the Jewish Community of that part of the world with a series of attitudes with which I identified strongly. My view was probably sentimental and may have been out of date even then, but I saw the Jews of that area as usually left of Centre, 
more likely to vote Labour than anything else, certainly liberal in outlook, respectful of intellectual achievement and as likely to include among their ‘Jewish’ books works by Freud or Kafka as any commentaries on the Torah.

So I thought ‘this could be a fun trip back to London.’ And I wasn’t disappointed.

He quickly established that Danielle had started out in life as a Protestant, of the relatively gentle tendency represented by Zwingli, the main reforming influence on Basel in Switzerland, the closest city to the French village where she grew up. But then she’d converted to Catholicism, for no better – but equally no worse – reason than a desire not to be isolated from her friends at school, all of whom were Catholic. I’ve never been opposed to the idea of assimilation, and the desire to be a full member of the community in which you live strikes me as nothing that has to be excused.

Later on, she had let her Catholicism lapse but maintained as lively an interest in religious matters as any of us. That was immediate grist to our kind driver’s mill.

‘Well, if you’re not in a hurry, let’s take the back roads and I’ll stop in a few villages and show you some extraordinary churches.’

He did just that. He obviously knew Essex well and he took us to three or four village churches each of which was a jewel of its kind. While we were admiring their beauty, he explained to Danielle – and, to be honest, to me: he was much better informed than I was – all the intricacies of the low, middle and high Church within Anglicanism, the impact of Methodism, the nature of an established Church and the role of the monarch as its head.

It was fascinating, but particularly delightful because it was a Jew doing the explaining. And that’s when I understood something absolutely fundamental about the Church of England: if you’re an Englishman, it’s your Church. It doesn’t matter that you follow another religion or none at all, the Church of England is yours. Just like the Royal Navy is your navy, even if you’re a dedicated pacifist, and the Queen is your monarch even though you’re longing for the introduction of a republic.

Like it or not, the C of E is part of our common heritage.

And that’s why when it decided last week not to ordain women bishops so many more people felt it as a body blow than one might have expected. Fewer than three people in a hundred attend a Church of England service even once a month, but far more of us were deeply disappointed when that decision was taken.

It immediately made me think of that happier time all those years ago. I remember the weather as good that day, though one always does when one’s indulging in nostalgia. And I delight in the irony that a casual acquaintance from the North London Jewish community made me feel much better about Anglicanism back then, than rather too large a minority of Anglicans made me feel about the Church last week.

I don't take Communion anyway,
but I can't why anyone who does should be shocked by this picture.
Or want to block the obvious next step.

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