By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 04/07/08):
Those eager for small talk with Gordon Brown should try Scots Presbyterian schismatism, on which he is remarkably well informed. British rulers since the days of Trollope have found the politics of religion an absorbing relief from the trials of office. It usually means someone in even bigger trouble.
But the show has always stayed on the road through the remarkable tolerance of the Anglican community, “broad of church and broad of mind, broad before and broad behind”. From Anglo-Catholics to happy-clappies, old codgers to gays and lesbians, the ever benign Church of England embraced them all, no questions asked.
Now those versed in these things tell us that the elastic has stretched too far. The church is on the brink of snapping apart. Need we care?
The scenario is near unbelievable. At a meeting last week in Jerusalem a dissident body called the Global Anglican Future Conference summoned 300 bishops and archbishops from round the world to set up a Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, within or without the “70-million strong Anglican communion”. So-called Gafcon and Foca might be from the satirical film Life of Brian. We read that Lagos is threatening to denounce Canterbury. Sydney is at loggerheads with Ottawa. America is threatening to create a “new province”. All and sundry are castigating the saintly Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, for failing to show “moral leadership”; if he did, they would certainly refuse to follow.
Meanwhile, 1,300 English clergy are about to defect if gays or women are given equal rights (or rites), while 800 more are forming “a church within a church”. St Bartholomew the Great is told that it may “disagree but not disregard” Lambeth Palace in blessing gay unions. Journalists must pore over the Book of Common Prayer to see how a blessing relates to a marriage, or an ordination to an enthronement.
It might be simplest to conclude that these are the last twitches of the British empire. The mind and the body may be long dead, but the soul has taken some time to catch up. It must be absurd to expect 70 million worshippers worldwide to accept the “discipline and leadership” of an archbishop selected by just 1 million in distant England – especially when each of 38 archbishoprics are referred to as “self-governing”.
Equally absurd is to expect the cultures and belief systems of Polynesians, Chinese, Africans and Americans to harmonise with the fast changing social mores of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant diaspora. How can African bishops commune with gay American ones, whom they regard as in mortal sin?
People of whatever spiritual disposition are less inclined to take dictation on how to conduct their lives. Few Roman Catholics adhere to doctrine on sex and procreation. The day has long passed when religious edicts can be enforced at law – though the sword can still do it.
The last great schism in the Church of England came with John Wesley’s Methodist defection in the 18th century. His was a protest against authority, not doctrine. Methodists, he wrote, should be “churchmen or dissenters, Presbyterians or Independents, it is no obstacle. None will contend with them. They think and let think.” His tolerant message was crucial in turning early America against Anglicanism.
The Church of England, for all its prominence in national life, is a modest phenomenon. Church attendances in Britain are in steady decline. A report in May concluded that in 2033 there would be more worshippers in mosques than churches. Even now, only some 1.2 million people go to an Anglican church at least once a month, fewer than to a Roman Catholic one.
The church has become bureaucratised, multiplying over the past century into 42 English dioceses and 114 bishops, whose obsession with faction and controversy has always been the curse of Anglicanism. Like medieval barons they are a nuisance to the king and a burden on the people. This week’s Church Times has feuding bishops dominating every one of seven news pages.
It would be better surely to detach this ecclesiastical conglomerate from its so-called establishment: from the monarchy, the bizarre 26 seats in parliament and the humiliating antics in Jerusalem. Repatriate it to Britain and allow it to find its own level in the marketplace of belief. The Church of England should be a church in England. If that means live and let die, which I doubt, so be it.
That said, critics rarely look beyond the doctrinal conflicts that so consume the headlines, and examine the church’s true costs and benefits. The picture is mixed. British churches have a good record in short-term tolerance but a dreadful one in divisiveness.
Religious doctrine is a menace that has spattered the world with blood as it now spatters it with acrimony. Rival narratives are deeply embedded in every community’s DNA. The shrill conflicts of Ulster, still enshrined in its politics and in public policy on schools and housing, show how fragile is the veneer of civilisation over the rock of religious bigotry.
I once attended a ceremony in Liverpool at which the then Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops, David Sheppard and Derek Warlock, staged one of their periodic reconciliations. Their personal bonding was impressive, as are all such top-down interfaith gatherings. But the led seldom follow the leaders.
When I suggested to the bishops that they could best practise what they preached by merging their offices, cathedrals, churches and schools and make religion a force uniting Liverpool, they looked appalled. Institutional division by faith remains the curse of urban Britain. The churches, now expanding their educational empires, are doing little beyond exhortation to heal it. Yet churches are community institutions and as such a fact on which reconciliation has to build. As in Ulster, so in the Muslim communities of England, also riven with doctrinal faction; grappling with religious discord probably holds the key to staving off ethnic conflict.
With the dismantling of local political responsibility by the Thatcher and Blair regimes, churches have stood increasingly alone in poor communities. Priests are often the only professionals still resident on inner-city estates. They are informal mayors, social workers, marriage counsellors, police and conciliators. They offer value beyond price – and beyond recompense.
Atheists should be realists. Churches, and for historical reasons especially Anglican ones, are among the nation’s most visible public institutions, and thus natural bases for social action. That they should be tearing themselves apart in the imperial detritus of world Anglicanism is a tragedy.
The Church of England is confounded by an absurd argument over gender and sexual discrimination, albeit often as code for a growing challenge to the authority of what is seen abroad as a still imperial church. A looser confederation of churches, a commonwealth of faith, ought to be good news.
It should enable the English church to concentrate on its home base, serving parochial communities in ways that extend beyond religion. But that is unlikely to happen if, as seems likely, even the church in England cannot find peace within itself. In which case, who gets the nave and who the steeple?