Distance seems not to figure in the operations of postal services. Despite living closer to London than during the days when we lived in Northern Ireland, our copy of the “Church Times” arrives three days later. A copy that lands on the doormat of colleagues in the North on a Friday morning does not reach an address in the Republic until the following Monday, the three day delay being due to international post and the absence of weekend deliveries.
Perhaps the delay is a blessing, the lack of immediacy meaning one tends towards reading the undated, more reflective pieces and ignores the pages marked as “news”, for the news would be of little encouragement to someone preparing for Sunday services.
“Attendance slope still points downward” declares one headline. Beneath the news of a further slippage in attendance at Church of England services, there is another piece, “Clergy hit by low morale”. Either headline is hardly surprising when two pages later there is an advertisement for a debate over “The FUTURE of the Church of England” (why the advertisers thought it necessary to have “future” printed in upper case letters is unclear). If an institution lacks confidence in itself to the extent that it is constantly debating its future (and whether it has one at all), people will reasonably assume that there is little point in being associated with it.
Sometimes the Church of England seems defeated by its own logic. A shift in the deployment of clergy was thought desirable, rural benefices were combined in order to allow a stronger emphasis on urban areas; the strong supporting the weak. It seemed a laudable idea, but, as one commentator pointed out, it was like a supermarket closing its profitable stores in order to put money into those that were making losses.
Sometimes the Church of England seems to be defeated by being the Church of England. By trying to follow the teaching of Saint Paul, who said he would become all things to all men in order that some might be saved, the Church of England’s efforts to be comprehensive, to be all things, can mean that it ends up being nothing to anyone.
On this side of the Irish Sea, things are not so troubling. The Church of Ireland makes no more than a pretence of being an episcopal church, we are congregational. Of course, that comes with its own problems, local concerns and rivalries come to dominate thought; and having fewer clergy in the whole church than there are in Saint Alban’s diocese in England, there is no capacity for any grand debates. But it does mean that there are no headlines on the kitchen table on Mondays.