Being in my home village and it being Sunday, there was a moment of inclination to go to church. No more than a moment.
An evangelical Christian I knew in the Northern Ireland once said to me, “Ian, there are two sorts of people in the world, there are sinners saved by grace and there are sinners.”
It is a distinction that has never found its way into the life of the Church of England because the Church of England seems never to have fully accepted the notion of grace.
In the Church of England tradition, being a member of the church is too often about belonging to the organisation, to the tradition. It is about ethos, about buildings, about institutions; but grace? Where would there be an expression of grace? Why would there be an expression of grace?
Grace is about God loving us for nothing. It is something that is not easy to accept in a tradition known for its respectability and work ethic. Grace challenges the natural pride of those brought up on a catechism that tells them they can shape their own lives and become “successes.”
Grace makes us think about our faults and failings. Grace says that if we are not worthy of God’s love in our own right; that if we haven’t earned it, that if it has to be given to us for nothing; then the whole Prayer Book ethos is under challenge. Grace is not an easy thought for those convinced that they live upright, decent and respectable lives.
The average Anglican would be troubled by the idea that the only question they must answer is not how often they attend church, nor how much they subscribe to parish funds, and certainly not how long their families have been members of the parish, but that they must answer the question as to whether or not they accept grace, whether or not they accept the free gift.
In a church where tradition is all and where respectability is the brand, the idea that people cannot earn their own salvation, that it comes only by grace, runs counter to everything the tradition represents.
The majority of Anglicans simply do not believe the words of the prayer used at each service of Holy Communion, the collect for purity in which the congregation says, “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden . . .”
People who believed that God knew what they were like, would behave differently. Grace changes people.