The Observer on the Sunday before Christmas carried articles in different parts of the paper by two British Anglican bishops which were both remarkable in different ways.
Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford started by giving a standard apologia of how religion was an anchor for cultural identity in a world of uprooted drift to anonymous urban living. But his terms were remarkably downbeat, saying ambivalently of how “for good and ill, religious leaders still command communal loyalty in many parts of the world”, and how the growth of “spiritualism” in Europe is some kind of compensation for the decline of Christian faith. He also talked of some sincere but, as he admitted, marginal pastor-led peace efforts in Palestine and Iraq as though these were some crumbs of recompense that religion was making for its central role in these and other conflicts. Harries seemed then to recommend religion as little more than offering solace, tranquillity and a spiritual dimension to life, lamely adding the proviso that Christianity also believes that “eternal wisdom…took shape in a particular human life,” Christianity as spiritualism-heavy so to speak. Harries seems to want to celebrate the new salience of religion that is everywhere talked about now, but he is struggling with the fact that it is all happening in the wrong place. Where he and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, want to see a Christian revival is in the liberal, socially tolerant democracies of western Europe, not in the middle east or the conservative areas of the United States. But the closest they can come to finding a revival of this tolerant, liberal religion is new age spiritualism which, even they are forced to admit, is not really religion at all.
Elsewhere in the paper, Richard Holloway, the ex Bishop of Edinburgh, gave an interview on his latest book. It is pretty clear that he has lost faith in anything like the revealed truth of the Christian message. When he is asked why he does not come out as an atheist he responds: “I still think of myself as Christian, because I want to expand the envelope of Christianity to include people who no longer hold the thing as referring to a supernatural sphere, but who see it as essentially a great poetical, metaphorical narrative that tells us deep things about ourselves.” Holloway reduces religion to the impulse towards charity which he sees in both Christianity and Islam, and to finding meaning “in the ways in which we relate to one another in the short time we have, without reference to eternity.” His vision is essentially a humanist one, but which wishes to keep a link to the emotional and narrative power of religion, and particularly the narrow moral certainty of the injunction to be merciful. The embodiment of the end point of this ex Anglican bishop’s journey of faith is a quote from a Russian philosopher, from which he takes the title of his latest book: “All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking in the distance.”
What was striking to me about both the above articles was how lacking either of these bishops were in any kind of cultural or theological confidence in Christianity. I know that both of these are members of the liberal wing of Anglicanism, but they are also amongst the most thoughtful exponents of attempts to defend Christianity to a contemporary, intellectually curious audience. And just like Rowan Williams, they come across as terribly agonised, conscientious and well-meaning, but also as not at all persuasive in their defence of Christianity against the tide of secularism which has virtually submerged the Anglican church in England.
For me, the good take from this is that these hard-thinking Christians are lacking in such confidence. The bad take, however, and it is one which any serious atheist knows well, is that the interesting conversations one has are always with intellectually curious Christians like these bishops, but these conversations are not the ones that matter in the current secular-religious culture war. The Christians who are making cultural and political waves at the moment are the ones immune to the kind of reflection and doubt expressed by these bishops. These reflections, however sincere and significant in terms of their assessment of what the Christian message can now stand for, will lie mustily in the archives of Episcopal libraries and the Observer and will make not a ripple on those Christians who now irrupt into our culture with increasing confidence. My own lament, and many atheists will recognise it, is why these Bishops, whose doubts are so powerful and conclusive, cannot have the courage of their own consciences and make strong and forceful declarations of their apostasy.