An excellent piece by Damian Thompson in this week’s Spectator on Holy Trinity Brompton, home of the Alpha course, epicentre of charismatic Anglicanism (in both senses of the word “charismatic”) and one-time church home of the new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
Thompson observes that HTB has lost some of the threatening, “cultish” quality that led Welby’s predecessor Robert Runcie to fear that it (and similar parishes) were a American-style evangelical cuckoo in the Anglican nest. The current vicar (and former curate) Nicky Gumbel now expresses warm regard for Catholicism, and it seems the feeling is mutual: “Gumbel has friends and supporters in the upper reaches of the Vatican,” notes Thompson. And HTB’s church planting activities – once portrayed as a form of happy-clappy entryism – now reflect a respect for different churchmanships:
One of its most recent plants, St Augustine’s in Queensgate, has kept its Sung Eucharist, vestments and incense. The internal divisions of churchmanship are collapsing here. No one should be surprised that Bishop Welby remains very close to HTB while also drawing on Benedictine spirituality.
HTB does reflect a division in contemporary Christianity, but no longer a division between “Protestant” and “Catholic” (or even evangelical and Anglo-Catholic):
If we set aside, for a moment, important theological differences, we can see a chasm that runs through rather than between denominations. It divides Christianity done well and Christianity done badly.
This leads Thompson to argue that the professionalism of HTB’s Christian rock anthems has more in common with “the Palestrina and Victoria sung at the London Oratory” (virtually next door to HTB) than with “the disgusting racket of ‘folk Masses’ inflicted on Catholics throughout Britain”. Well, maybe…
But this is a theme that Thompson has written on before. When Benedict XVI became pope, Thompson wrote a very interesting piece (whose predictions look to have held up pretty well, especially as regards renewing the Mass), in which he argues that:
One of the discoveries in the sociology of religion in the last 25 years has been the extent to which, mutatis mutandis, patterns of religious allegiance in a pluralist society resemble those of consumption in the marketplace. People are attracted to strong brands that protect their identity; they enjoy products that suspend the boring reality of everyday life; and they demand near-infallible standards of professionalism.
In other words, what attracts people in to Christian worship is seeing it done well – whether that’s evangelicalism done well, or Catholicism done well, or whatever. I suspect there’s a lot in that, though it can be taken to extremes (in which worship becomes more of a performance than an encounter with God among his people). Certainly, shoddy and amateurish worship can be a major stumbling block for believers and non-believers alike.
As Thompson concludes in his latest piece:
A spirit of amateurism has been sucking the life out of English Christianity for decades now; we’ll know very soon if Justin Welby can use the lessons of HTB to breathe some of it back in.