Last Rites: The End of the Church of England

Michael Hampson

Granta 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
Michael Hampson served for thirteen years as a parish priest before quitting in 2003, and in Last Rites he offers an insider's perspective on the Church of England. It is a personal account rather than an objective analysis, but interesting as an individual story "from the trenches", as it were.

He begins with two perspectives on the modern church. The first describes the life of a vicar, highlighting the conflict between building a congregation and a faith community while at the same time providing baptisms, weddings and funerals to people with no interest in religion. The second describes the authoritarian and hierarchical structure of the Church of England, from the Crown (the prime-minister) through the bishops down to the parishes, which lacks transparency and any element of grass-roots democracy. The Church of England's status as a state religion is a weakness, not a strength.

Next comes a brief potted history of the Church of England, describing its origins and some of the shifts it has made over time, balancing protestant, catholic and liberal forces. There is nothing notable in this, but it becomes more interesting with Hampson's account of his own experiences with the charismatic movement, as a teenager encountering folk music, prophecy, speaking in tongues, interpretation, and healing. He sees this as a genuine spiritual revival, subsequently taken over by commercial forces and appropriated by evangelicalism.

Part three centres on the conflict over homosexuality, covering Hampson's own experiences as a gay priest, the Jeffrey John case, and the evangelical obsession with the issue.

"In contemporary evangelicalism, the question of homosexuality has become the instant single-question test of theological 'orthodoxy', as though an individual's attitude to this one issue can tell you all you need to know about an individual's loyalty to 'evangelical truth'."

Hampson concludes with a survey of the financial crisis facing the Church and a manifesto advocating a shift towards congregational government. There's no index, but a glossary explains the technical terminology of Christianity generally and the Church of England specifically.

It contains a fair bit of information about the structure of the Church, developments in liturgy — the 1980 move from the Book of Common Prayer to the Alternative Service Book and then in 2000 to Common Worship — and so forth, but Last Rites is best read as a memoir rather than any kind of exposition. Hampson's own disillusionment colours his account — he sees the 1970s and 1980s, when he was young and enthusiastic, much more positively than subsequent years — and his biases are pretty obvious.

September 2011

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%T Last Rites
%S The End of the Church of England
%A Hampson, Michael
%I Granta
%D 2006
%O paperback, glossary
%G ISBN 1862078912
%P 244pp