Worth Buttressing

It was Winston Churchill (an agnostic, essentially) who famously said that he was not a pillar of the Church of England, but a buttress, ”supporting it from the outside”. I feel much the same way (I would still check C of E in a box if asked my religious affiliation), but that church is not what it was, except, of course, when it still is.

Andrew Sullivan brightens up this Sunday by linking to this marvelous Daily Telegraph obituary of the Rev. John Lambourne, country parson, rugby fan, Territorial Army chaplain and, quite clearly, a thoroughly good sort.

Here are some highlights:

As vicar of St Mary’s Salehurst, Sussex, Lambourne described himself as a “traditionalist” with no time for “all this modern stuff”, and his impatience with Church bureaucracy often exasperated his superiors in the hierarchy.

His sermons, meanwhile, were brisk (he claimed that no one could be expected to concentrate for more than four minutes) and notable for his use of sporting metaphors to explain complex matters of doctrine. The Trinity, he liked to say, was like a set of cricket stumps: from the bowler’s end they would appear as three; from square leg they would be seen as one…

Lambourne provided comfort to the sick and bereaved, and there were few people in the parish of Salehurst and Robertsbridge whose lives he did not touch . A major part of his ministry, however, was conducted over a pint at the local pub, where he encouraged all sorts of unlikely people to become regular churchgoers — even to attending “bring-a-bottle” confirmation classes.

One parishioner recalls how at one Midnight Mass, held after a convivial evening in the pub, Lambourne embarked on his sermon but soon found himself struggling with the word “vicissitude”. After three valiant attempts he gave up with a “we’ll leave it there, I think”. At the same service the following year he began his sermon with “vicissitude” and continued where he had left off.

Although Lambourne more than doubled the size of his congregation, filling his large medieval church every Sunday, people who turned up in church only at Christmas or Easter were never made to feel that they were falling short of the Christian ideal. He once observed in a sermon that a lot of people go to church without really knowing why and feel better for having done so; all were welcome whatever their state of belief or disbelief, and once people came to his church they tended to stay.

One exception was the journalist and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge, a great friend, whom he was able to coax away from atheism, but unable to prevent making his much-publicised conversion to Roman Catholicism. He was saddened by Muggeridge’s defection, he told an interviewer, but had replaced him with a nice St Bernard dog…

Andrew concludes the extracts he selected from the obituary with this comment:

Ah, yes, the Church of England, the greatest bulwark against religion humankind has yet constructed.

Not at all. At its best, the C of E—as personified by the likes of Lambourne (if we can put holy fools like Rowan Williams to one side)—is in some ways as close to perfection as religion—a man-made thing—can come to perfection, benign, kindly, gently patriotic, theologically broad-minded, a quiet conservator of tradition and order with room (for those who want it) for a spot of the supernatural, but little time for superstition, the navel-gazing nonsense of mysticism or an over-insistence on dogma.

Not bad, not bad at all.

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