This morning’s newspapers (and indeed the airwaves) are full of apocalyptic predictions about the future of the Church of England. The failure of the General Synod to ordain women bishops has surprised plenty of bishops, many of whom express their ‘deep sadness’ about the affair to the (£) Times’ Ruth Gledhill. Yet the threat of schism on this issue is not wholly surprising, not least because the Anglican Church has rarely taken happily to reform. From the storms over Matthew Parker’s 39 Articles to this latest controversy, the C of E’s evolution has often been fractious.
However, as a relatively faithful parishioner of the CofE, this affair does surprise me in one respect. The Church of England has contrived to defend “tradition” on this occasion when arguably it should not have done so, while at other times it has “modernised” when it clearly should not have done so. To adapt Edward Gibbon’s famous remark about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, institutions that behave in this manner risk collapsing under the weight of their own stupendous contradictions.
Women bishops are a totemic issue and doubtless there are some theological arguments against their introduction. (Although that prompts the question: why have women clergy at all?) Yet the inescapable fact is that a huge majority of the British people (74 per cent according to a Com Res poll) believe that women should be ordained as bishops. 132 members of the Synod voted in favour of women bishops and 74 voted against; close (6 more votes in favour would have tipped the balance), but not close enough for the church to avoid being described, perhaps justifiably, as ‘out of touch’.
Should the national church reflect the views of the nation? This seemingly fashionable question is deeply historical, reaching far beyond the debate about women bishops. The CofE’s recent marginalisation of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James’ Version are, in my admittedly worthless opinion, among the greatest acts of cultural vandalism ever to be self-inflicted by an institution. Cranmer’s prayer book and the KJV are the Church of England, and perhaps represent its most valuable contribution to the life of God’s Church as a whole. More importantly, those books place the Anglican Church very near the centre of Britain’s historical story. It is not possible for them to be irrelevant in modern Britain because they helped to form modern Britain. The liturgy and theology of Anglicanism may be recognisably Catholic; but their creation and development is emphatically not Catholic. Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch provides an infinitely more scholarly sketch of this narrative than I could, in this review of Eamonn Duffy’s recent book Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition.
There is a human tendency to identify those moments in the past which came to define a nation. The Glorious Revolution is a popular choice, together with the formation of the Bank of England, Trafalgar and the Battle of Britain. As Roger Scruton and Simon Jenkins both argued in a recent issue of the Spectator, the Church of England’s vast history clearly merits inclusion on such a list.
It surprises me somewhat, in this era when national self-confidence is, to an extent, being reasserted, a trend seen at the Olympics and in the cross-party enthusiasm for refashioning our relationship with Europe (and therefore the rest of world, too), that the national church is, well, so trivial. Secularisation, it seems to me, does not amount to an adequate explanation because the Church of England has always been about rather more than God.