An unwelcome precedent for the Church of England: lessons from the Mayflower celebrations

Mayflower replica

Can we see any connection between the 400th anniversary celebrations of the Mayflower’s voyage to the Americas and the line that has been drawn in the sand by the Church of England’s leadership during the virus lockdown? I suggest that we can. Both illustrate a picture of western culture’s views about the place in society – or lack of it –of Christianity, Christian practice and Christian values.

The Mayflower 400 organisation has created a set of resources for children to learn about the Mayflower’s voyage. Great. It’s good that our youngsters will learn about a group of persecuted refugees who left our shores freely in order to pursue a new life in a new country, where they could worship according to their conscience without fear of disadvantage or death. Isn’t it?

Apparently not.

Critics are accusing Mayflower 400 of buying into “the myth of the Mayflower”. Some want the education programme scrapped and rewritten.  The UK’s largest teaching union is calling for educational materials to be “withdrawn and reviewed”. For which read, ‘censored/revised to suit the anti-colonial, anti-Christian narrative’.  Teachers are claiming the materials ‘whitewash a “colonial land grab” and the pilgrims’ links to slavery’.

Are we to go down the road of taint by association, blaming the Pilgrim Fathers for the unwelcome practices that followed their arrival in the New (to them) World?  The other option is, I suppose, to simply condemn the Pilgrim Fathers as the possible ancestors of some later slave owners. As for the land grab – I suppose that the growth of Jamestown and similar settlements condemns the settlers as invaders.  All of this conveniently forgets that the Americas were no peaceful idyll before 1620; native American groups had been slaughtering each other for years before the whites arrived.

So our Christian refugees have to be criticised and condemned.  Strangely, all other types of refugees get a free pass, even the criminal elements that have arrived recently in Europe. It seems fine to offer them a safe haven from discrimination and the risk of death, but not these God-botherers 400 years ago.

It is currently compulsory to teach our British school kids all about the rights of minorities who have been subject to negative treatment – but it is not acceptable to teach them about a group of Christian refugees who went on to be the foundation of one of the greatest countries in the world. Why not? Could it be because they were Christians? Can you imagine any complaints had the Pilgrim Fathers been of any other religion?

Do we see any complaints about teaching our school kids about the Arab invasions of North Africa and the Islamification of those countries in the early middle ages – plus all the involved slavery of the invaded? No? Why not?  We manage teach our kids about the various and many invasions of Britain; our teachers are encouraged to talk about ‘non-European society[ies] that provides contrasts with British history’ – including ‘early Islamic civilization, such as a study of Baghdad; the Mayan civilization; and early Benin (West Africa)’. Guess what? Each of these examples practised the enslavement of other peoples around them.  But strangely enough, I can’t find reference to that in any of the National Curriculum materials I have looked at. It’s obviously just fleeing Christian refugees who have to be held guilty over slavery. If you were non-Christian or non-white in the past, you get a free pass as slave-owners and dealers from today’s educators.

What does this have to do with the ongoing closure of English parish churches? Simply this: just a few years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine that commemorations of the Mayflower’s voyage and the early settlements in America would be subject to serious complaint. Yet here we are. To me, this suggests a rapid and serious erosion of respect for our great (even if flawed) cultural history – a fact that seems to escape our Anglican leadership.

Today, the leaders of the Church are falling over themselves to say that church is ‘still open and in business’ during the virus lockdown. This is despite the ban on clergy entering their own churches and the removal of our rights to take Communion in church. A few weeks ago, Bishop Stephen Cottrell – soon to be the Arch Muppet of York – stated that although the parish churches are closed, ‘church’ continues through the people of God:

But the church is open. For the church is the people of God, those who follow in the way of Christ and seek to share his compassion and justice in the world. … Our service goes on in beautiful hidden ways, through phone calls, streamed services, shopping trips; and in the front line, hospital chaplains work alongside other healthcare professionals….

The fact that the celebration of the Eucharist has stopped in public buildings in England is in itself problematic. There seems to be no recognition of the spiritual importance of the continuation of this central Christian rite in our public church buildings. The enforced failure of clergy to practise this most sacred of our rituals in church has major spiritual implications, not only for the Church as an organisation, but to individual Christians in England. I would suggest that our glorious leaders have set a very dangerous precedent by their choices. Why did they do this?

In order to reduce that risk as much as possible, and to set the very best example we can, we have taken the difficult decision of closing our buildings. In doing this we show solidarity with everyone else who stays at home. …..

Yes, it’s so that the Church can align itself with the rest of society. The disingenuousness of Cottrell’s comments is mind-boggling. There was no order from the government to close our churches completely. Services with large groups of people in close proximity were banned, but alternative arrangements of some sort could have been found to allow congregations to have access to the Eucharist on a regular basis. Nor was there any government order to stop clergy going in daily, or at least regularly, to celebrate the Eucharist. Words truly fail.  It makes you wonder if any of our leaders would know a good example if they fell over one.

This is where we meet up again with the Mayflower 400 celebrations. It is now a mainstream view (among certain influential groups such as teachers and assorted ‘activists’) that it is wrong to celebrate the ‘colonisation’ of America by a group of refugees ‘invaders’ – presumably because they were Christians. The fact that Christian and indeed Jewish cultural values and ideals formed the very foundations of the USA seems to have passed these folks by. Nobody is denying the fact that many problems arose after the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in America – but this does not preclude any celebrations of a major cultural milestone in Western history.

Back here in England, we have the leaders of our Church saying that it is acceptable to close our public church buildings completely; to prevent congregations and even clergy from going in and carrying out any of the activities of Christian worship. Apparently, this is all possible without our public buildings because we don’t need them.

I hesitate to say this, but our Bishops and Archbishops Muppets have once again proved their sheer lack of spiritual responsibility by abandoning the declaration and celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus on a regular basis in our public buildings. There is now a serious spiritual void at the Lord’s Table in every parish church in England. While many think of the Eucharist as a symbolic act, there are many of us who take a more serious view and believe in the Real Presence. Either way, this regular declaration of the death and resurrection of Our Lord has been a significant act in our churches since it was introduced as a regular event in the early days of the Church here. Now, for no good reason, our leaders have chosen to ban it. They have surrendered a great spiritual rite  in order to ‘set an example’.  All they have done is set an example that says:

Our church buildings do not need to be part of our Christian presence in society;

We do not need regular access to the Eucharist;

Our clergy’s role in celebrating the Eucharist in church regularly (as is required by canon law) is not important;

It is more important to fit in with society than to fit into the requirements of the Church;

It is more important to go beyond government quarantine requirements unnecessarily than to allow Anglicans to enter their churches and receive help, support and the Eucharist.

I think that just about covers it to date.  It seems that because more people are watching services online than attend church on usual Sundays, this is A Good Thing.  If any existing Anglicans don’t have a computer and internet connection, that’s just too bad.

So folks, here we are. It is surely ironic that the Pilgrim Fathers left English shores four hundred years ago because they could not worship independently as they wished – attendance at the parish church each Sunday was obligatory.  Those failing to do so risked imprisonment and even death.  Ironic indeed that today’s Anglicans cannot worship in their own churches because their leaders have actually banned them from doing so. I’m awaiting an episode of The Simpsons to lampoon this incredible situation.

We are now living in a society that is led by the nose by assorted leaders and activists who think it is wrong to celebrate the Mayflower and the Pilgrim Fathers. How long will it be, do you think, until some UK government decides to cave in to activists who have decided that Christians no longer need to have a right to meet in their public buildings? What if our churches and church halls suddenly start to look good as hospitals, community centres, storage spaces or any other non-Christian use? How can we refuse to give them up?   All that is needed is to accuse the Church through any of the current and upcoming shibboleths such as inequality, discrimination, lack of transparency, removal of choice, gender arguments and so on. Place the Church on the wrong side of any one of these in your ‘narrative’ and you have a good excuse to clamp down on Christianity.  Hey presto!  You will have access to all that Church property!

Sound far-fetched? Just look back say, fifteen years, and think how far-fetched it would have seemed then to consider that the Mayflower voyage was an act of invasion and colonialism with links to slavery.

Our church Muppets have already declared that we don’t need to meet in our churches to ‘do’ church and we can do without access to the Eucharist. So they’ve already drawn the line at those points. The time may come when we have to get used to this. If future politicians and activists with anti-Christian axes to grind want to stop public Christian worship and access to our most holy rites in public buildings, then how will the Church argue against it? Cottrell and Welby have repeatedly said that we don’t depend on buildings. In one sense that is true. But it is beside the point here.

It’s no good saying that we need to set an example and that we are not a special case outside the government’s orders. The fact is that our leaders have once more followed the zeitgeist instead of the Holy Spirit and chosen to take the Church down a path that diminishes its presence in the country and in the lives of its people. They have stated clearly that Christians do not need their public buildings. That’s a precedent, whether they like it or not.

Get used to it, folks. It’s only going to get worse. Aided and abetted, no doubt, by our very own leadership.

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