Yesterday this piece on Justin Welby’s church history - specifically his relationship with Holy Trinity Brompton - appeared in the Guardian. I read the Guardian anyway, and I generally find Andrew Brown an interesting read - but it also came to me via an email with a ‘hmm’. I’m not entirely sure why: I mean, it’s not glowingly positive - but it’s not negative either* (and certainly not compared to Giles Fraser’s bruising ‘Loose Canon’ column today). And to someone who goes to a church that was born in the HTB stable, even if it is no longer in the immediate family (the two churches go to different summer camps now, that’s how you can tell…) it is really interesting to see an outside perspective on the style of Christianity that is my chosen primary experience of it currently - especially because it’s the account of someone who’s trying really hard to understand it. There’s this moment of, ‘Oh, is that what we look like to non-Christians? No wonder so many of them think we’re a bit barmy.’
I’ve heard Andrew Brown talk at a seminar, and he’s determinedly in favour of religious literacy (in relation to all religions in our society) and the idea that it can increase human empathy. But what this piece reveals is that you can be literate about the ideas and the organisation and the practices and the people - you can have the knowledge - and still not quite get it. This isn’t, actually, a criticism - and I certainly don’t want to end up in a patronising, ‘Oh, he tries so hard,’ place. I just find it fascinating when Brown writes something like the following passage:
HTB sounds like some sort of wonderful conspiracy, a sort of elite religious order like a Protestant version of the Jesuits, targeting the intellectuals and the influential. But on close examination this view dissolves into something much more nuanced.
And yet, Brown doesn’t quite deliver on the nuance and can’t quite get away from the conspiracy. I think that this connects back to a column he wrote in February this year about why he goes to church when he doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t get anything from theology beyond rhetorical argument. He goes for the humanity, the community and the check on the sense of self that they give to him. But his lack of faith and self-admitted inability to quite get how faith works (I’m not trying to criticise him for these things but talking about them as things he has owned) mean he can’t quite get through the looking-glass to really understand HTB or fully explore the impact that his time there might have had on Justin Welby.
Maybe that impossibility works both ways. Maybe at some point there is a gulf - or even just a small gap - that makes understanding nigh on impossible, even with the best will in the world, and I’ve completely lost those of you reading who aren’t Christians. Certainly, when Andrew Brown writes about why he goes to church when he doesn’t believe I’m left scratching my head - because even though I logically understand the beneftis of belonging to the community of a church, I just don’t get why you’d spend time investing in that if you don’t believe. Maybe we all just need to learn to live with that without resorting to the, ‘But no, you guys are crazy,’ line.
So Brown tries to understand HTB as a community of manners and habit and style - which it is (as is my own church - as are the majority of churches in areas where potential congregants have a number of options to choose from). And the prevalance of that upper-middle-class preppy style in London, and especially in West London, today is what makes it a success as a church in terms of numbers. But it doesn’t quite account for any success that might not be about numbers - that might be about deepening faith or stronger expression of it, either within HTB’s immediate congregations or those that are connected to or influenced by it. And so, for all that Giles Fraser’s column is brutal, has a very specific understanding of ‘personal relationship’ that is narrower than Christians would manifest, even the evangelical ones, and implies that Welby is the only evangelical Christian to ever experience tragedy, it might come closer to understanding the influence and important of HTB - and the thing that might be most relevant to the way the new Archbishop ‘does’ his faith. Which is how he conceives of and expresses his connection with God, how he understands that relationship and what that means for how he lives and leads a Church. And I think we began to get a bit of a taste of that in his inaugural sermon yesterday . For their next pieces, I want to read Fraser and Brown on this:
“The utterly absurd is completely reasonable when Jesus is the one who is calling. Courage is liberated, and he gets out of the boat, walks a bit, and then fails. Love catches him, gently sets him right, and in a moment they are both in the boat and there is peace… For us to trust and follow Christ is reasonable if He is what the disciples end up saying He is; “truly you are the Son of God”. Each of us now needs to heed His voice calling to us, and to get out of the boat and go to Him…
The wind and waves divided Jesus from the disciples. Peter ventures out in fear and trembling (as you may imagine I relate to him at this point). Jesus reconciles Peter to Himself and makes the possibility for all the disciples to find peace. All the life of our diverse churches finds renewal and unity when we are reconciled afresh to God and so are able to reconcile others. A Christ-heeding life changes the church and a Christ-heeding church changes the world…”