Stephen Bates writes a very moving article for the Guardian.
With some leading Anglicans calling for gay people to be killed (and the archbishop staying quiet), we visited one congregation to see if they're still proud to be CofE.
As the tills ring merrily on high this weekend, softly, in the distance, if you listen carefully, you may just catch the distant note of a Christmas carol. Today, tomorrow and right up to next Friday, the English will be paying their annual low-key obeisance to Christianity.
Three million of us will crowd into Church of England services for midnight mass or Christmas morning eucharist and at least as many again for the services of other denominations - three times the normal Sunday attendance. It may be only a fraction of the population and they may not darken a church's doors again for another year, but deep down some distant, ancient, folk memory stirs; even if, as some clergy say, they're asked not to make the services too Christian these days.
"Christmas is our huge opportunity," says Paul Timms, the dean's verger at Southwark Cathedral. "It's a time when people are positive. This is a sacred space and a beautiful building. If only they could bottle the atmosphere in here."
Indeed it is a beautiful building, despite being hemmed in between the commuter rail lines heading for London's Charing Cross and Cannon Street stations. Shakespeare knew this church and people have worshipped on this site since Saxon times.
Southwark Cathedral will have had 26 carol services by the end of next week, including a singalong with brass bands, a Finnish choir and a service for the Financial Times. For their concert, Barclays had security guards to protect their chief executive - a banker now not even deemed safe in church - and the Greater London Authority called up the 100-strong London gay men's choir for theirs.
The cathedral is a good place for them, a notably liberal church within Anglicanism these days, much condemned and derided by conservative evangelicals for the welcome it offers to gay people and female clergy (As the Very Rev Colin Slee, the dean, and one of the CofE's most combative defender of liberal causes, called for volunteers at the lunchtime singalong carol service on Wednesday, he added wryly: "We're looking for three kings, but, as this is Southwark, I don't mind if there's a queen or two.")
But what sort of Church of England are people visiting this week? After yet another year of strife, some self-inflicted wounds and some haplessly imposed, the Church of England as an institution looks more battered than ever.
It remains mired in controversies which impact directly on how it deals with, and appears to, the outside world, especially about sexuality and personal morality, but also equality and discrimination, particularly how it regards its female clergy and its gay and lesbian members. Issues that have become largely settled in secular society still tie the church in agonised and constipated knots, partly because its synodical form of government encourages highly politicised factions.
Much of this passes the weekly worshippers in the pews by, or leaves them cold. They don't go to church for politics, but for worship, prayer and companionship. Ask most of them about gays in the clergy and you get a baffled shrug.
Simon Sarmiento, a lay member of the congregation at St Albans Cathedral, who runs a blogsite called Thinking Anglicans, said: "There is a lot of goodwill towards the Church of England, though some worry that the church is losing its grip. The image is definitely harming the church, but primarily [among] people outside whose only contact is what they read in the newspapers. If your knowledge is drawn from what the Daily Mail tells you, then the bits about its mission and work in society is bound to pass you by.
"I am very comfortable being a member of the Church of England. I just think a lot of people in it don't understand much about the meaning of Christianity."
And here's Matthew Knight, Southwark Cathedral's administrator, who's gay, and liberal, but goes to a conservative high church parish in Brighton, not because he agrees with its vicar but because he likes the music and the liturgy: "I don't care if they disapprove. I don't believe the church is here to tell me what to do. I like to follow my own conscience. The Anglican church is not my moral compass. It annoys me that the church is so obsessed with what people do in bed."
Yes, well, that sort of view would give some churchmen these days conniptions. The evidence is that the Church's tolerance of a range of worship and worshippers is waning in the faction fighting.
Nowhere is the division sharper than over the position of gay people. The Church's continuing wrangling over the issue makes some despair. One senior London cleric, himself in a gay partnership, says: "We are asked to make sacrifices of relationships, of part of our lives, that are unimaginable to our heterosexual colleagues, which they would never be asked to make. There is a failure to stand up for honesty, against prejudice, that is quite horrible. I stay because I love God and love the church, but it is like being in an abusive relationship."
Last Tuesday, bishops in the House of Lords were still fighting for the church's right to discriminate in employment, not just among the clergy (there is already exemption for them), but its other employees too. They were opposing the government's equality bill and, since it is unlikely that they want to discriminate against black or disabled folk, one must presume it is sexual orientation that is at issue. Dr Peter Forster, bishop of Chester, argued that the proposed legislation "concentrates too ... excessively on the rights of the individual, essential as these are".
More culpable than this little reported rearguard action has been the Church of England's response to two events on opposite sides of the world: the election, in Los Angeles, of a suffragan bishop, Mary Glasspool, who is openly gay and has lived with her partner Becki Sander for the last 21 years.
This temerity on the part of Californian Episcopalians in choosing the bishop they wanted produced a shocked reaction within hours from Dr Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, a man once thought sympathetic to the vocation of gay people. Glasspool's selection, he warned, posed very serious questions for the church. He took comfort in the possibility that her election might not be confirmed by the US house of bishops, even though no bishop has been rejected there since the 1870s.
What made his intervention worse was that at the same time he was maintaining an embarrassed silence about proposed legislation in the Ugandan parliament that would mandate the death penalty for some homosexuals, life imprisonment for others and prison sentences for friends and relatives who failed to inform the authorities of their existence.
Some Ugandan Anglicans have gleefully supported the plans: one, the Rev Michael Esakan Okwi, recently described gays as cockroaches and Bishop Joseph Abura warned against the wicked west "exporting" homosexuality to the developing world: "They want it to become a virtue ... Ugandan parliament, watchdog of our laws, please go ahead and put the anti-gay laws in place."
Through all this, there has been the muffled sound of gritted teeth from Lambeth Palace, all the more remarkable because the Church of England has long opposed capital punishment. A previous archbishop, Michael Ramsey, spoke against hanging and anti-homosexual legislation in Britain in the 1960s, and the Anglican communion calls on its clergy to minister sensitively to gay people, which would breach the Ugandan law. And yet Williams and John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, who is Ugandan and was once a judge there, kept quiet.
It was only last weekend, after even US conservative evangelical pastor Rick Warren had vigorously condemned the Ugandan proposals, that Williams, finally, sotto voce in an interview in the Daily Telegraph, murmured about the proposed law's "shocking severity".
It seems the death clause may have been withdrawn, but the threat of imprisonment remains and now neighbouring Rwanda is reportedly considering similar legislation. Meanwhile, the possibility of being expelled from the Anglican communion, or downgraded within its counsels, hangs over the US Episcopal church.
It comes to this, wrote the Guardian's commentator Andrew Brown: "Under Williams, the church that marries two women who love each other is to be thrown out of the Anglican communion. The church that would jail them both for life and revile and persecute their defenders stays snugly in its bosom. Not even the archbishop's gift for obfuscation can conceal these facts forever."
Tom Butler, the bishop of Southwark, who retires in March, said: "Rowan is an enigma. I don't think he is a pushover. He is patient and stubborn and he frequently says with God the impossible is always possible. The Ugandan situation is extremely sensitive. Archbishop Sentamu's advice is taken extremely seriously."
Ask him whether he condemns the legislation and he spars uncomfortably before finally admitting: "It's obviously a wicked law, which I could not possibly support, but whether I would help the situation by denouncing it publicly, I don't know."
And what of women? They now provide between a quarter and a third of the church's clergy, though many give their services unpaid, but, 15 years after they were first ordained, they still can't become bishops, because a handful of male clergy insist they could not accept their authority or abide their episcopal touch.
In October, Pope Benedict XVI stuck his oar into the Church of England's internal controversy by offering those opposed to women's ordination a refuge, a sort-of separate corral where they will be able to follow some Anglican rites while essentially converting to Catholicism. The words poisoned and chalice come inescapably to mind, since the offer is not quite as it first seemed, but it leaves Williams looking even more buffeted.
Now the dust has settled, Anglo-Catholics within the Church of England believe only a small handful of high-church vicars may be tempted - most of those opposed to women's ordination left for Rome years ago.
The irony, says Andrew Nunn, sub-dean of Southwark, himself an Anglo-Catholic, though one who supports women's ordination, is that the refugees might find themselves having to use Anglican rites when they have been saying Catholic mass for years in their own church. "Their bluff has been called," he said. "They are beginning to realise they will lose the freedom they have enjoyed as Anglicans. What church other than us would allow people who don't accept its teachings to be ordained?"
The liberals within the church nevertheless feel isolated, as conservative evangelicals - themselves a small minority - flex their muscles to wrest the church in their direction, one which in its more extreme fringes scorns the ancient rituals, its prayers, some of its hymns and certainly its vestments. These are among the churches that rip out pews, carpet the floors and erect video screens over the altars.
There is a fundamentalist tendency, says Slee, but it is not just in the church. "Fundamentalism is not just a Christian phenomenon. There's an appetite for hard-edged certainty. It's as if we can't cope with debate or difference and that is a real danger to humanity."
With tactics remarkably like those of the Militant tendency in the 1980s, the church's conservative evangelicals are getting their people in place. Recently, Peterborough found itself with a fundamentalist bishop on record as saying that non-Christian religions are a "sinful perversion of natural revelation" - something which may not go down well with the large Muslim population in the Rt Rev Donald Allister's new diocese. Meanwhile in Kent three lay people from the same aggressively evangelical Sevenoaks parish church have got themselves elected to the six-person delegation which will choose the next bishop of Rochester on behalf of the whole diocese.
Yet, all this is as distant rumbling to the pervasive Christmas spirit. Up in North Yorkshire, the Rev Julie Nelson is vicar of a group of parishes spread between seven villages in Wensleydale. Two of her four churches date from Norman times and all are listed buildings. Each will have its carol service and she expects half the population of 2,000 to turn out this week. "It's the church that holds the villages together," she says. "There's only one shop left around here.
"People have a longing to get back in touch. They like to revisit the old story. They are astonished by the divisions in the church. It doesn't really impinge on them. They see the sexuality questions as a distraction from the church's real mission. We'll be out carol singing round the place, in the snow. It always snows round here when we go carol singing."
Back at Southwark, Bruce Saunders, the cathedral's canon pastor, sighs: "I don't do groups myself - I don't belong to any factions. I always say there's a distinction between the kingdom of God and the Church of England and I'm prepared to die for the former, but not the latter."