Thursday, February 15, 2007

Last Rites: The end of the Church of England, review

Last Rites: The End of the Church of England, by Michael Hampson; London, Granta Books, 2006

A friend suggested I read this book, and supplied me a copy. It proved to be an interesting, sometimes informative, and ultimately unsatisfying read. The author was ordained a priest in the Church of England and worked as a parish priest for a number of years, having since left the active ministry to work quite independently and, it would seem, outside the Church of England. Hampson reveals himself to be unabashedly and narrowly liberal in theology, certainly not Catholic in any sense, other than in a liking for some traditional externals, and, in truth, no more than marginally Christian. At least as important (as he makes clear in the book itself) as his theological bent is his sexual orientation and practice. He is a partnered homosexual, a fierce advocate for the ’gay’ agenda, and an even fiercer opponent of traditional standards of sexual morality. This book, then, is not in any sense a dispassionate examination of the Church of England, but rather a thoroughly one-sided expression of one man’s anger.

The book, however, is compelling in its description of the rather thorough dysfunctionality of the contemporary Church of England. As an American, I have no first-hand knowledge of that situation, but his analysis of the administrative, financial, and theological chaos rings true, as also of the extremely marginal nature of the Church’s connection to the lives of the people. Clearly the current arrangement is simply unworkable, and just as clearly some kind of change is necessary for survival. Hampson, however, does not have a clear vision of what, if anything, it is that should survive, not having any concept of immutable truth to be preserved or an eternal message to be advanced. Basically, to him, it would appear, neither the Christ of the creeds, nor the rich tradition out of which the creeds developed nor, in fact, the Bible itself, has much, if any, relevance for this day and age.

His analysis of the historical development of ‘parties’ in the Church of England is interesting, and in some respects rather good, but quite shallow, more interested in demolishing any concepts of certainty in theology than in examining what it is that any of the parties are actually teaching. He may have some, but shows very little understanding of a Catholic view of truth, with little real regard for the meaning of sacraments or of the role of apostolic succession, or of tradition as a whole. He shows an active disdain for the notion that Evangelicals could have anything worthwhile to say, and shows not even a rudimentary understanding of what they teach, nor of the large variety of viewpoints they represent. It is in his treatment of (and experience with) the Charismatics that he most blatantly reveals the shallowness of his whole approach. He himself seems to have embraced the phenomenology of the movement without ever absorbing the rich teaching on which it is founded (unfortunately a weakness of many convinced Pentecostals and Charismatics as well). In short, he has no sympathy whatever for any notion that there might be such a thing as real truth, and would seem to feel that such ’narrowness’ is the only real heresy. It is interesting to notice the wide range of meanings he includes in his favorite insult, "fundamentalist", by which he seems to mean anyone who thinks his views could possibly be in error.

What he seems to consider the heart of the book is his defense of homosexuality. The ultimate test of whether one is ‘fundamentalist’ seems to be whether one suspects that the Bible might be unfavorable toward this aspect of his life. Thus he invests much effort and considerable invective in attempting to make the Scriptures say something that no one before the Twentieth Century ever heard therein. He does a laughably clumsy job of this. If that were my desire, I could do a considerably more logically consistent job of it myself. I can say that because at one time I did. As a same-sex-attracted male, I was involved, years and years ago, in the ‘gay’ lifestyle and wanted to justify myself. I’m afraid I did convince some others. I eventually came to see that my reasoning was plain wrong, that Scripture does not speak to the issue of orientation, but is explicit in its behavioral expectations, and that celibacy is then the moral choice. The Bible says what it says and can’t be made to say the opposite. Hampson wants it both ways. On the one hand he denies that Scripture has any real authority (which would make its instructions moot), but on the other hand he wants to make it say what he wishes it said. That does not work.
In short, Last Rites is a book with very little to say to the Christian, starting, as it does, with the assumption that the classic Christian message is of little value, but it does have much to say, in a negative way, to a Church revealing its bankruptcy and coming apart at the seams. His answers are useless, but he does ask some questions that should be asked.

reviewed by Ed Pacht, Rochester NH


Warwickensis said...

Absolutely right, Ed.

As one who goes to a C of E Parish, I feel that Hampson is spot on about the toll that modernity is having on priests and congregations in the grass roots parish. With the abolition of freehold, there seems to be a greater tension among the clergy.

I do feel sorry for the priests and the women who are employed by the C of E because it is truly beginning to buckle under the financial strains which come from the haemorrhaging of the laity.

However, if the church will choose to take its moral teaching from the Government rather than from its own heritage, then it must pay the price.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip Ed.

With your recommendation, I know that it will be a eye-opening read.