It was the first time I had felt so completely repelled in twelve years’ writing about the Church of England. At the previous Lambeth Conference, in 1988, I had a moment when I almost became a Christian. It was a eucharist in the Cathedral: the high windows glowed as if the glass were turned to emeralds and pale rubies. Within, the candlelight, the white stoles and the golden embroidery all refulged; and it seemed, as I watched the stately gestures at the altar, that the light that filled the cathedral was coming from inside, from the sun-like disk of pale bread that the Archbishop Runcie held up. "On the night that he was betrayed, he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it and gave it to his disciples, saying Take, eat, this is my Body which is given for you: do this in remembrance of me."

In the stately rhythm of the ancient words, Runcie, the icon of Christ at that moment, looked as if he could dance with the world lifted in his hands, shining. I felt a terrible ache to come into that circle of light from where I waited in the cool stone shadows with a notebook in my hand. I didn’t believe: but the sacrifice of Jesus was in that moment as plain and tangible as the massive cathedral around us. It was noble as well as beautiful that a man should die like that and leave to his friends a command to turn the memory of torture into love. I wanted to be part of that. Belief would have been an impertinence in the circumstances.

But I stayed where I was. I knew the rules; and they said you had to be confirmed to take communion. Still, the moment gave me sympathy, which I wanted far more than belief, and that was. Just as a hunter must enter a kind of communion with his prey, if he is to see the world that matters to it, so must a journalist see the world through the eyes of the people he writes about, as much as through the readers’. I had known that Christians could be loveable and admirable — I’m married to one — but I had never till that moment seen what they loved and admired; and for years afterwards, I felt as if I shared a secret even with the crowd of jostling shits and placemen on the synod floor. These people too had seen beauty cracking into the world like a shaft of light, and had heard a voice saying to them "Come up and love: the world is suffused with goodness."

I’ve never come closer than that in the years that have followed. There have been other experiences: a Franciscan priest in Bosnia, working at the site of some of the worst Catholic atrocities of the Second World War, once zapped my with the Holy Spirit, and I felt for two hours a bubble of slippery joy enclosing all my dealings with the universe. So I know that not all Charismatics are fraudulent. But I had also heard his Franciscan colleagues assuring soldiers that they must fight the Moslems (or ‘Turks’) and assuring them that only pagans should fear death. I won’t sign up.

Runcie retired two years after that service. He was the last Archbishop, I think, to whom the establishment of the Church of England was an important reality. For most priests now the establishment is a terrible hindrance. They are in the position of some once grand Anglo-Irish family, squatting in the remains of their own family’s mansion while the rain pours through the roof and goats eat the Louis Quinze chairs. They long to move into a proper house, with no more bedrooms than they need, and maybe even central heating. But Runcie came up — from a very humble background — when the great house was still at the centre of the surrounding countryside. He was the last Archbishop whom a Government would think it necessary and worthwhile to squash. "The great thing about being an Archbishop of Canterbury," he once said to me, "is that you mustn’t believe your own propaganda." This might sound like wimpish liberalism; but it it’s not. It’s a faith that the church offers more than propaganda.

The institution that he presided over still had the memory of the times when the Church of England was at the heart of the definition of Englishness. Until 1828, England, though not a theocracy, was a nation defined by Anglicanism. If you were not a practising Anglican, you were excluded from the governing classes: you could neither vote nor attend a university. Throughout the century these fences were torn down, mostly by other Christians, until it is only the Royal Family who are still confined by them. The Monarch and her heirs must, by law, be Anglicans and marry Anglicans. At her coronation, Queen Elizabeth promised that she would "To the utmost of [her] power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law … maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof , as by law established in England … And … preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them"

Her son, when crowned, will say something very similar; somewhere in the background Mrs Parker Bowles will cross her fingers and grin encouragingly. It is harder and harder to believe that this ceremony is the defining affirmation of Englishness as it has been for nearly 1500 years. It looks more and more like the mutual despairing affirmation of two institutions drifting away to the margins of power.

When I wrote about religion for a living, much of my work consisted in listening to Christians tell lies about each other; I suppose they believe that Jesus would not have approved of their behaviour but I can’t see what difference his opinion would make. Christianity is not whatever Jesus had dreamed and hoped. It is what Christians have made it; and often I feel that they share more with me, an outsider, than they do with each other.

How could Kirker and Chukwama possibly both be worshipping the same God? As they stood there in the sun, slinging accusations of heresy and blasphemy at each other, they were certainly standing in a central Christian tradition. Both Jesus and St Paul had left plenty of texts to quote for anyone who wants to damn their enemies to hell. But none of these anathemata are closely associated with the Church of England, which is supposed to be the least dogmatic Christianity possible: a form of the religion pared down to the essentials that any reasonable person can believe in. What I saw this summer in Canterbury was the final collapse of this idea, a decree absolute between faith and reason or even between faith and decency.

The breakdown of the link between reason and Christianity is terrible news for both and especially in England. Christianity once articulated the common moral sense of this country. Now it does not; in fact it doesn’t do that job anywhere in the developed North. But the consequences of this failure are most painful and ridiculous in established churches: establishment is the public recognition that the church has a part to play in the life of the nation when the truth is that it does not. Until formal disestablishment comes, this truth will remain the central, dominating inadmissible fact in the life of the Church of England.

It is what Cardinal Newman would have called National infidelity. The change of meaning from Victorian times, from infidelity meaning lack of faith in God, to infidelity meaning a betrayal of trust in a person, illustrates part of the problem: our moral vocabulary no longer uses Christian concepts even when the words are the same. But there is a dreadful fitness in the new sense, too. The cheerfulness of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, and his staff, has a whiff of that pathological optimism you sometimes find in the wives of alcoholics or philanderers. In doomed organisations, this is called leadership. One of Dr Carey’s staff said to me before the conference: "All those who take part are going to say, one way or another, ‘Archbishop, this has been the most incredible experience of my life!’" I must have looked doubtful even down the telephone, for after a pause she explained "But the experience will be in their souls and psyches. It won’t come out of the documents. People in outward ways will be crucified."

She didn’t mention that it would be bishops who hammered the nails in

They didn’t look like a lynch mob as they hurried around the university. It is set on a hill above the town: a collection of grey blocky concrete buildings which seem to have dropped rough-cast from the architect’s hands into a campus full of mown lawns and bushes, like a golf course without the point. It gave me the depressing sense that there is not a tree growing which was not originally planned on the drawings. It also made the bishops who wore cassocks, whether black or red, look as if they were wearing fancy dress, in a way that in church they do not. It would not co-operate in their drama.

The Lambeth Conference, which brought together Richard Kirker, his attempted exorcist Emmanuel Chukwama, and 800 other bishops at the University of Kent, is — after the British coronation ceremony — the grandest assertion of the importance of the Church of England in the world. It is held every ten years, and for the thirteenth of these jamborees, Dr Carey, had invited every Anglican bishop he could find, 800 in all, along with 600 bishops’ wives and five bishops’ husbands. He is a man who has no doubt of the importance of his role. "I want to put it to you that the World-wide Anglican Communion — which numbers over 70 million people and is growing fast — has very great potential as a player on the international scene" he told the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1995.

Since then, the churchgoing population of England had continued to shrink. One of Dr Carey’s first acts on coming to office in 1990 had been to proclaim a "Decade of Evangelism", in which the Church would stop trying merely to defend its crumbling positions in society and move out aggressively to make new converts. In the decade so far, the number of regular church attenders has dropped by about 25%. We don’t know the exact figure because the General Synod , as part of Carey’s professionalisation of the Church’s image, refuses to publish its statistics, convinced that they must be misleading because they are so dreadful: the natural suspicion is that regular Sunday attendance has finally dropped below the magic figure of one million. This is not a purely Anglican problem, but one which affects every church that mattered fifty years ago. The Roman Catholics have lost even more members, and the Methodists are so reduced that they are once more considering a merger with the Church of England.

Despite this, the official information of the Anglican Communion still claims that there are 26m members of the Church of England in England. this ignores the fact that about 25m of these were carried out of church dripping and screaming, after their christenings, and have never been back since.

On the other hand, the claim that there are 17m Anglicans in Nigeria, or 8m in Uganda, seems perfectly believable; and these churches are growing fast along with the populations they serve. This is part of a huge shift of power and influence throughout world Christianity, from the North down to the South. The North is a spiritual designation rather than a geographical one. It consists of Western Europe and what were once the white dominions of the British Empire — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and some portions of the USA. The churches there places are all broadly liberal in theological terms; all sympathetic to feminism, and all shrinking in importance, along with the countries which have nourished them. The South is where the churches are growing.

If you were to plot where Christians are today on a map, the effect would be something like the island of Santorini., where once Atlantis stood: there is a crescent shape around a hollow centre. There are millions of Christians in Korea, China, India, Pakistan, and all through sub-Saharan Africa, in South America. and the former Russian Empire. In the USA the situation is more complicated, but it is still unthinkable than a declared atheist or agnostic should be elected president. Only in the part of Europe that had once been Christendom, has the faith disappeared.. Here, where Christianity produced some of the most wonderful things that human beings have ever done, it has dwindled into folklore. Writing an article about the resurrection, one Good Friday some years back, I was asked by the then features editor of the Independent to explain high up what the resurrection was, so that the readers would know what the peg for the piece was.

The North-South divide runs right through the USA, and this fact has defined the questions on which the conference manoeuvres through a schism. In 1988 everything had been dominated by the issue of women priests and bishops. The liberal or Northern parts of the American church had ordained several hundred women priests were clearly gong to ordain one as a bishop whatever anyone else thought. The male bishops brought numerous women priests in their entourage, though women were forbidden to celebrate in England. since this is an established church, the prohibition had the force of law, so that the women priests had to celebrate the Eucharist in private rooms off campus.

In 1998, eleven women bishops had arrived at the conference: Barbara Harris, the first to be consecrated, was pushing herself around campus in a wheelchair: a small black woman with grizzled hair and a heavy cigarette habit. From this low perspective on the conference she was heard to say "If assholes could fly this place would be an airport."

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