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When Jerusalem turns to Little England

Simon Barrow
23 June 2008

Simon Barrow (London, Ekklesia): Mention the word ‘Jerusalem’ in your local high street and the chances are that the first thing to come to mind will not be a city tragically divided between three faith and two peoples, but Blake’s famous hymn – associated, through many mutations, with the left’s dream of a new society and the right’s assumptions about ‘quintessential Englishness’.

Right now, the city is hosting a high profile conference of global Anglican complainants – Christian ‘anti-liberals’ – from a number of continents where the earlier missions of the Church of England took root. They have now ended up in revolt against the polite toleration that earlier generations took as the core of Anglicanism in the twentieth century, at least. So what is going on? And what does it have to do with Blake and Englishness?

The Anglican Communion, 78 million strong on paper, but perhaps half of that size in practice, is in certain senses an experiment in hope and in other respects a colonial hangover. The hope, religiously, has been of a creative reconciliation of the traditional tensions between Protestant and Catholic. Politically, it has sought a transition from empire to commonwealth. The hangover, currently projecting itself onto a land with more than enough of its own troubles, and about to land in Kent for the ten yearly Lambeth Conference of bishops, concerns what happens to an elite when its heritage turns on it with a vengeance.

When Anglican missionaries ventured forth in the nineteenth century they took with them a curious blend of Bible, welfare, commerce, radicalism (abolitionism) and conservatism (Victorian morals). In many cases, and contrary to popular assumptions, the aim was not to ‘plant a seed of England’ but to enable the growth of indigenous churches in African and Asian soil. To a significant extent it succeeded – though if you look at the structures and rituals of Nigerian Anglicanism today, for example, you will see more than a few echoes of England’s mythic past.

On sexuality, the current focus of often-vituperative arguments between ‘the liberal North’ and ‘the conservative South’ (it’s actually a good deal more complex than that, both geographically and ideologically), an innate missionary conservatism met and reinforced some deep taboos about homosexuality in traditional cultures. Now the former clients of the ‘mother church’ in England and in the USA (where much of the money still resides) are biting back. They want the Communion to be lead from the growing two-thirds world, not from a shrinking Western church.
Looked at another way, the struggle is not primarily between liberal and conservative, black and white or global North and South. It is between one vision of Christianity based on its most subversive and transformatory instincts and another based on the top-down control and moralism that superseded earlier Christian movements (ones that frequently defied traditional familial, religious and imperial procedures) when it became incorporated into established orders. That is what spread, and that is what is returning to haunt the Anglicanism’s historic custodians.

In all of this, ‘tradition’ is a key battleground. When writing ‘Jerusalem’, William Blake, the subversive Christian, was seeking to overturn establishment thinking. The answer to his famous question, “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England's mountains green” was meant to be “no”. The question was ironic. The British Israelites had lost the plot. Turning England into a dream of the powerful was mystification. Jerusalem, the city of justice, was yet to be built. Among the obstacles were those “dark Satanic mills” – actually a reference to the upper class learning factories of Oxford and Cambridge.

Similarly, many would say (among them some deeply “traditional” believers), judgemental, inward-looking Christianity, pleased with its own righteousness and usurping God’s voice as its own, is a betrayal of the much deeper tradition residing in the Jesus who sided with the outcasts and was crucified by “respectable” religion and politics.
Christendom, the form of Christianity too easily allied with might and injustice, is deeply divided against itself. The alternative is not sectarian fundamentalism (as in the US and elsewhere, that is simply another way of shoring up the power of competing rulers), but a renewed, ground-up vision of the Christian message articulated with reason, courtesy, love and a passion for justice not exclusion.

Simon Barrow’s book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, is published by Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia on 30 June 2008.

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