Monday, February 01, 2016

Does preaching the Gospel make you a sectarian?

St Ambrose excommunicates
the Emperor Theodosius
Prof Linda Woodhead is the foremost sociologist of religion in the UK, and her research is widely quoted. Her statistics tell the usual story - of decline among the Christian churches in the UK - and The Tablet, interestingly enough, wants to defend the Church of England's stance on immigration as in accord with the Gospel, despite not representing the view from the pews, which Woodhead characterised as 'sectarian'.

Will The Tablet going to apply the same logic to contraception, I wonder? And is this an indication they are beginning to realise that their liberal views can no longer count on popular support?

In any case, Prof. Woodhead objects to the way The Tablet represents her views, and has written accordingly.

Your leader regarding my survey of the sharp decline in church membership (“Follow the faith, not the polls”, 23 January) suggests that I think church teaching should be shaped by opinion polls. I have never in my life said or thought or implied such a thing.
I do, however, think two quite different things. First, that churches should take more notice of what their adherents believe, having first used good research to discover this. 

Second, that an established church – with the privileges and responsibilities that that implies – cannot take the position of a bystander throwing rocks at society. For good or ill, it is an integral part of that society, and its goal is to infuse the culture with Christian truth. Church and society are to dance together, even if they fall out of step now and then. This was always what Christendom was about: not a church that existed for itself, but one that existed for the whole society. 

When I describe a church as “sectarian” I mean that not as an insult, but as the sociological term for a church that does not exist for the whole of society but for the purpose of the purification of its members. It tries to separate them from “fallen” society as much as possible. It is a perfectly respectable ecclesiology, but until recently it was not one adopted either by the Catholic Church when it was in a majority position in a country or by the Church of England. Currently, both are confused about which sort of church they wish to become. 


As she explains it, it sounds as though Woodhead's distinction between a 'national church' and 'sect' is a matter of degree. The Catholic Church can work with the Armed Forces or the NHS by providing chaplains, for example. In relation to other national institutions, such as with the political parties, the relationship may seem more confrontational. With others again, such as the Freemasons or some of the charitable trusts promoting the culture of death, it is a matter of separation and opposition. There has scarcely been a time in the history of Christendom when there was not some important institution of society which was seriously awry, from a Catholic point of view. How much the Church can 'dance' with society depends on how far the process of infusing society with the Christian ethos has gone.

What is absurd is the idea that the Catholic Church in majority Catholic countries gives up trying to 'purify' (sanctify?) its members: the same is true, for all its limitations, has the Anglican church in England. Nor does the Catholic Church not exist for 'all of society' when her members comprise a minority: this idea doesn't make any sense at all. The effort of evangelisation and sanctification is directed to everyone without exception, and to the institutions of society. At least, it does when the Church is functioning at all. When St Ambrose refused to allow the Emperor Theodosius into church after he had ordered a massacre, was that an example of ‘throwing rocks at society’?

I like Woodhead's little appeal for more money for research. Not that I disagree that proper research in a good idea. Having to rely on totally unscientific exercises like the survey on the family to indicate what Catholics in the pews think is hardly helpful.

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