Love's labours lost

<strong>Last Rites: the end of the Church of England</strong>

Michael Hampson <em>Granta, 244pp, £

It was the Archbishop of Canterbury's weekend from hell. For weeks the Church's increasingly confident evangelical lobby had been pressing him to withdraw his support for Jeffrey John, a gay man appointed to become Bishop of Reading. It was pretty much the same lobby that had tried to stop Rowan Williams becoming archbishop in the first place. As the pressure became international, he surrendered. In a move that has defined his ministry ever since, he sacrificed his former friend in an attempt to quieten the pack.

As it turned out, it only encouraged them.The next day, the archbishop had a meeting of an apparently less significant kind. The Reverend Michael Hampson, a geeky northern former evangelical, the vicar of a small parish in Essex and, as it happens, also gay, had an appointment to discuss his new book on spirituality. As the meeting ended, the archbishop returned to ponder the dilemmas of Jeffrey John and Church unity. "It doesn't bother me," responded Hampson. "I'm out of here in 11 months". Last Rites: the end of the Church of England follows the conversation: "He was totally focused again. He looked shocked and numb. He actually went white. 'What?' - as if he has misheard. 'I'm leaving,' I explained, apologetically. 'What is there to stay for?' Feeling exposed I summoned my defence: 'Half my college contemporaries have already left.' He had no idea things were so bad. He was still in shock as we shook hands goodbye."

So how bad are things? Are we really witnessing the end times for the Church of England? Hampson tells a number of stories of failed churches, dwindling congregations and depressed clergy. With its huge portfolio of property and pension funds, and unique access to the levers of power, the C of E has become, in business terms, an organisation ripe for a hostile takeover. That bid is now in play, issued by a small number of evangelicals using the numerical growth of deeply conservative African Christianity as leverage. Hampson issues a warning that worldwide Anglicanism has become "a highly organised promoter of global fundamentalism, with the elimination of homosexuals from the Church its first major policy initiative."

Last Rites is, however, more personal than a history of a failing Church. It's the story of a love affair turned sour. The bride was the Church, the work of God. Hampson recounts the intensity of his passionate enthusiasm before ordination. Looking back, he confesses that he never really knew the person he was marrying. His bride turned out to be lifeless, nasty, hypocritical, cowardly, boring, poverty-stricken, badly organised, authoritarian and self-important.

Stephen Bates's A Church at War: Anglicans and homosexuality is a much better account of the politics, but Last Rites offers the sort of visceral study only possible from an insider. Consequently, there is often just too much bitterness about for the judgements to be completely fair. Many of us who remain married to the Church recognise most of the faults described here, but we see something else as well. We also see a Church struggling, often surprisingly successfully, to keep the rumour of God alive. Like a number of commentators, Hampson wants to put the C of E out of its misery - but not, interestingly, because he has lost his faith. As he concludes: "All that matters is to keep loving Jesus through every hour of every day."

The most important chapter for Church leaders to ponder is Hampson's diagnosis of the organisation's financial ills. Unfortunately, Hampson is right that the Church desperately needs the energy that would be released by wholesale deregulation. Growing churches, or churches with an active local ministry but few Sunday-morning worshippers, cannot go on paying subsidies to failing churches with unimaginative, ponderous clergy. Those of us still in the Church find this hard to say in front of colleagues - especially when it's easily represented as an attempt by rich churches to avoid helping poorer ones. But the burden is now intolerable, and churches that attract large numbers are so heavily taxed by the diocese that they are not able to support themselves. It's tough for an old lefty like me to admit, but what is required is the break-up of this last great nationalised industry.

Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford