Rowan Williams describes The Naked God as a “tremendously engaging and positive book”, and indeed it is just that. The author, Vincent Strudwick, must be at least 84 years old but he writes with the fire, passion and conviction of a man half his age. And the book is a strange amalgam of autobiography, Twentieth Century church history, radical polemic, and cri de coeur for a better world, a better church, and a better outcome for all, especially the dispossessed, the poor and the suffering.
What is his book about then? Essentially, it is about the re-imagining of the role of the church, specifically the Anglican community (but his principles extend to all churches), in the modern world. Citing the ideas of Christopher Dawson that the church has had six different and distinctive ages – the Apostolic, the Fathers, the Carolingian, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, and the Enlightenment – but that a seventh and very different age is now upon us. And, Strudwick argues, this new age is revealing the very real inadequacies of contemporary Anglican practises and beliefs both during the Twentieth Century and in the present. In the final part of the book Strudwick does present some glimmers of hope, although I must say I did not personally find them very hopeful, as they appeared to me patchy: patchy in that he describes small, isolated activities and also patchy in that commendably they cover a problem, but sadly only in a piecemeal way.
The essence of what is wrong with the Church is summed up in diagram in the chapter, Towards A Very Odd Church Indeed. Here we have three types of response to Christianity: the traditional, the liberal and the radical. There is little doubt where Strudwick’s loyalties are: the radical. So, for example, in the series of contrasts he draws, under the heading ‘Power’, the traditional wants ‘authority ...mediated through a hierarchy’; whereas the liberal position is ‘about management’; and finally the radical wants ‘all contribute through participation and challenge’. Or take the topic of Ideology: the traditional want ‘Divine right: it is all ordained’; whereas the liberal sees ‘the market leads’; and the radical says, ‘conflict must be recognised and worked at’.
It is all very admirable and I especially like his exhaustive and extremely interesting notes that consistently punctuate the text. Strudwick is well-versed in not only the history and traditions of the Anglican church, but also of other denominations, especially Catholics, too. Even the Quakers get a mention (though not in the Index, bizarrely). When near the end of his very long – and life time - tether with the Anglican church and its intransigent refusal to embrace radicalism, it is to the Quakers that he, via Richard Holloway, turns: “Quakers believed in the authority of the inner light … and if the Bible said otherwise, then the Bible was wrong”. On top of that Strudwick likes and cites frequently too the poets and literature. Wonderful – a small cornucopia of heaven for someone like me.
But that said, there are some less pleasing aspects of this narrative. The autobiographical weave reveals someone who has been at the centre of things for a long time, but possibly too obsessed with the centre. First, there is a slightly wearisome sense of name-dropping, especially of all the Archbishops of Canterbury over the decades but of other luminaries too. Then he also seems to think that re-hashing his notes or ideas from conferences held decades ago is going to prove useful or interesting. In his mind, clearly, he is still fighting those fights, but what I think we need is more core summaries and moving on to where we are now. A good example of this is where he repeats the ‘guidelines’ for the 1997 Quebec Conference where the ‘Anglican Bishop of Quebec, the Rt Rev. Bruce Stavert invited’ him to lead with the title ‘Models for a Changing Church’ – and then half a page of guidelines. The whole thing is too micro-orientated and the big picture is somewhat blurred by all this detail; though, I do not doubt Strudwick was very pleased to be invited to speak, as is clear in other examples.
Perhaps my biggest criticism, however, would be that for all his energy and enthusiasm for his Church, I am not sure he really empathises with those who disagree, or sees accurately the nature of what he is debunking. As the book progresses, we sense more and more how in tune with John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’ position he is, and this position, of course, de-mythologises Christianity. It becomes apparent that Strudwick does not believe in miracles or in other core aspects of the Creeds as traditionally understood, and there are consequences of this which I think are important.
First, whilst he genuinely wants to help the poor, he seems not to realise that the de-mythologised version of Christianity he is advocating is not something the under-educated – often the poor – often readily ‘understand’ or ‘get’; and what – despite his assertion about the personhood of Christ being central – this comes down to is that why bother with Christianity at all? We just need to love people and have plenty of soup-kitchens? But the problem with that, it seems for Strudwick, is that he’d miss his cathedrals! Behind the radical, perhaps, a traditionalist in some profound and uneasy ways.
Moreover, he writes, “Many were horrified by the sight of the bishops lining up in the House of Lords to vote against equal marriage, which had so much support in society at large, especially amongst the younger population that the church so desperately wanted to attract.” This is a complex issue, but one thing I think is certainly true: Christianity, and no other religion I know of, has its policies and beliefs dictated by popular vote or plebiscite. Indeed, the Bible wisely advises us not to conform to the thinking of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. For all the analysis and learning, I suspect Strudwick is simply a partisan: even his phrase ‘equal marriage’ begs the question in advance of determining if such a thing is right or wrong, or good or bad. The early Christians went to their deaths because they did not conform with what society thought right and proper, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to Strudwick as even a spiritual possibility, so fixated is he on getting people into church and thereby re-vitalising it.
There is a lot to commend in this book, and it is certainly an interesting read: I did not want to put it down, although I found plenty in it which I thought undigested, naïve and – yes – desperate. But for an overview of the Anglican church in the Twentieth Century this is a useful and gripping story., despite getting overloaded at times with finicky details.