Sunday, October 10, 2010

Last Rites: The End of the Church of England

From the first time I ever visited an Episcopal Church while still a Baptist, I have had a great affection for all things Anglican. Even though I have now moved on to the fullness of the Church Christ founded, I still love the Anglicans. There is something really attractive in the idea of the via media, that is, in combining the best of Catholicism and the best of Protestantism. This ideal has never been achieved and can never be achieved outside of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The brutal truth is that the Protestant Church of England has pretty much been a disaster ever since the day Henry VIII broke from Rome.

My fascination with all things Anglican led me to read Last Rites: The End of the Church of England (2006) by Michael Hampson. Last Rites is an interesting book and Hampstead is an interesting character.

Hampson, who is an openly gay man and former clergyman in the Church of England, details his conversion experience during the "charismatic revival" of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The events he recounts, like prayer services where people spoke in tounges, heard "words of prophecy," and were "slain in the spirit," mirror many of my own experiences being involved with a group of charismatic Episcopalians.

When trying to pick a seminary or "theological college" to attend, Hampson recounts that each of the theological colleges in England have a different theological bent, Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, or in between. After ordination, he recounts what it is like to be a minister in the "C of E." Since the Church of England is a state church, any member of the public has the legal rite to have their children baptised, get married, or have a funeral performed, whether or not they have ever attended Church or not. Hampson recalls how much of a parochial vicars' time is taken up performing weddings and funerals for people that the minister has never seen before, to the neglect of those who attend church regularly. Another problem is the use and upkeep of ancient buildings.

The big chip on Hampson's shoulder is the "don't ask, don't tell" policy which the "C of E" had with regard to homosexuality. There was a written policy which basically said that if the Anglican priest kept his or her lifestyle a secret, the Bishop wouldn't ask and everybody would pretend it didn't exist. In other words, homosexuality was the 10,000 pound pink gorilla in the room that everybody was pretending didn't exist.

Hampson ran into trouble when a local fundamentalist or "open church" minister confronted him about his homosexuality. Hampson had already been selected as the rector of a retreat center until the bishop revoked the offer based on his lifestyle. Hampson recounts how he and his partner had maintained the pretence for years that his boyfriend was just "a friend from college days" and that they were just room mates. Feeling betrayed, Hampson ultimately left the ministry.

Michael Hampson

Bitter over his experience, Hampson writes a scathing attack on the Evangelical wing of the Church of England. Even though he came out of charismatic evangelicalism, Hampson is now promoting a liberal theology of the "I'm OK, You're OK, God's OK" kind, which is not likely to convert anybody or lead anybody to too much religious fervor.

Hampson thinks that the C of E is a failed institution which will soon sink under the weight of its own bureaucracy and theological in-fighting. He is in favor of dis-establishment of the Church as an arm of the government.

Although I do not agree with a lot what Hampson writes with regard to his beliefs and his lifestyle, Last Rites is a fascinating read for all of the Anglophiles out there.

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