Book Review: That was the Church That was

No one believes the public myth but there is nothing to put in its place[1].

A damning indictment and one which assumes that there is neither hope nor future in organised religion - at least as it currently expressed through the Established Church.

This book is a pacy, page turning, rip roaring commentary on English Christianity through the last 30 years. Few escape the authors’ excoriating pen (moving regularly beyond satire and caricature and veering towards the vitriolic), with any credit. Successive Archbishops are singled out (“… Rowan was completely defeated by the Ministry of Magic”[2]) and it is hardly surprising, given the gossipy tone of some passages, that a nod to “Non Acknowledgements” is necessary[3]. Presumably this satisfies the lawyers (publication was delayed by almost 6 months) and protects “sources” unwilling to be identified publicly.

Through a glass darkly

There is a credible thesis here: a navel gazing national church has lost its connection not just with the soul of the nation but has slipped away from many people’s consciousness. It’s not that people oppose what the church stands for or want to limit what it does, the “church” just doesn’t figure on their radar. It is an irrelevance, not a problem.

The authors - one a former journalist, the other a Sociologist of Religion - paint a grim picture. The combination of hands on contact with the Church (Journalist) and Academic interpretation (Sociologist), describe contextual circumstances that many will readily recognise.  The facts can neither be gainsaid nor denied: the Church in the UK is very different now from what it was 20 or even 10 years ago – and not just in terms of the numbers who worship in it or who support it in other ways.

Morning mist or a bright new dawn?

It’s much harder, though, to engage uncritically with the Author’s reflections and conclusions. The book concerns the Church of England not the Church in England and is therefore parochial, not to say insular, in much of its knowledge, background and application. Is the hope for the nation really only to be found and/or explored in and through one particular form or expression of Anglicanism?

As they say in computerese – YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) - and in religious terms, in this case, in the UK, this is certainly true. The conclusions evoke a picture of the church familiar to George Orwell[4] (whose words would be quoted by John Major) of “… old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist.”  Have we really not moved on?

It’s also evident that the Authors are wary of what they refer to as extreme examples of Anglicanism, to which they appear to classify as Anglo Catholic forms on the one hand and Evangelical expressions on the other. There is a clear agenda here which quickly overshadows the rigour of the assessment: in the eyes of Brown and Woodhead, only a “Broad” church will bring the cohesion necessary to halt the decline. So long as we stop arguing (they say) over things no one actually cares about and/or are no longer trying to answer questions no one is asking, then we will not repeat the divisions of the past.

Only then will we avert the growing schism by not repeating the “wait and see” accommodations of successive leaders who have come to grief over matters such human sexuality and the ordination of women. DADT[5] never worked anyway

What kind of God?

While the book is clearly aimed at a popular approach – and achieves this well through its knockabout style – there is a surprising (and I feel) significant omission: there is little theological engagement either with the issues raised or with the context within which the church must now engage. There is a visible, robust, and recognisable historical account of the church’s struggles but it is divorced from the kind of coherent theological framework which would bind the central argument more tightly. Instead we are treated to a series of descriptions of Anglican “Turf Wars,” mostly fought between rival colleges with particular power bases to maintain. [The misuse of power is a continuing thread throughout the book].

I’d really like to know what the authors think of what God thinks about it all!

To the author’s credit, it is easy to recognise the types and tribes involved even when you are looking in from the outside. Here, as elsewhere, the reporting is forensic, even penetrating – even if it does lose some of its lustre by occasionally resorting to a breathless, gossipy style. There’s little doubt that things are as they are portrayed, even if the presentation reflects the particular theological perspective of the writers. The conclusions are neatly drawn and clearly expressed: we have something which needs fixing and it’s down to us to do it.

It’s a well used cliché (I know) but there is a recognition here that “lessons have been learned.” What we do with that knowledge is vitally important, not just for one denomination or group, but for us all.

Finding Nemo

Where this book really falls down is that it fails to recognise and to affirm the excellent work being done in many parishes – much of it unrecognised beyond the locality – from churches across the theological spectrum. Much of this work reflects a renewed interest in, and emphasis on, social justice. Today this is more usually expressed through a robust theological engagement with scripture which recognises our role in building and expressing the Kingdom of God. This is a very different approach to the uneasy lines once drawn between those churches who “Preached Christ” and those who pursued “Social Action” – it is no longer “either/or” but “both/and.”

Developing this work is not seen as the future, rather we are invited by the authors to look for the future in a place where it has never existed and can never exist – the past. Whether that future really lies as the authors suggest, in churches becoming community hubs, somewhat divorced from a living engagement with God, is a moot point. The big question, which remains unanswered, is whether the church’s vision is big enough to grasp all that God asks of us. Unlike Brown and Woodhead I cannot see the answer in an institution nor in structures but through individuals taking responsibility and living accordingly with Christ Centred – not institutionally directed – lives.

Perhaps the greatest hope for this book is that it will raise afresh the issue of the individual’s contribution to the witness of the church which is neither institution nor building but a living, vibrant, compassionate, just, loving, Grace filled and Spirit directed community. 



[1] Brown A & Woodhead L, That Was The Church That Was: How the Church of England Lost the English People, London, Bloomsbury, 2016, p. 205

[2] ibid, p. 185

[3] ibid, p. 223

[4] Orwell G, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius  Originally published in 1941. Accessed 8/9/2016

[5] DADT. Don’t ask, don’t tell


#1 Russel 2017-05-09 16:45
Hi there! This post could not be written any better!
Reading through this post reminds me of my previous room mate!
He constantly kept talking about this. I will forward this post to
him. Quite sure he'll have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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