Rock of Ages, Cleft by the Pope

The images and clichés came spluttering out of the laptops of church people and religious affairs correspondents on Tuesday: The pope has parked his tanks on the Church of England’s lawn; Rome has made a hostile takeover bid for Canterbury. It is understandable if people are at a loss for words, since the move has been made so decisively and so without warning. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, knew nothing of the plan until a few days ago.

What has happened? Basically, it seems that Pope Benedict XVI has offered disgruntled Anglicans the opportunity to come over to Roman Catholicism en masse. Such an arrangement already exists in America. Anglicans who dislike the way they see things going in their own church (female bishops, gay bishops, gay female bishops — take your pick) are allowed to regroup within the Church of Rome. Although their priests will need to be retrained and re-ordained, they will be able to continue to use their traditional rites and Prayer Books, and to stay together as congregations.

There is talk in England of as many as 1,000 clergy members taking this offer. Even allowing for the numerical exaggeration, which always occurs when enemies of liberalism congregate, this is a huge potential figure. Let us say 500 Anglican priests and perhaps 10 bishops joined the new arrangement. Let us suppose they took with them plausible congregations. This would deliver a body blow not just to the Church of England, but to that whole intricately constructed and only semi-definable phenomenon, the British Establishment.

The numbers of practicing Catholics in England is greater than the number of practicing Anglicans. Within a generation, there will probably be more Muslims than practicing Anglicans in the British Isles. Britain will no longer be able to endure the absurdity of the laws relating to the religion of the monarch, the Act of Settlement and Royal Marriages Act, which among other things forbid the sovereign to marry a Catholic. Or the Coronation Oath, which promises to uphold the Protestant religion.

Britain has gone through a truly prodigious change in the last 30 years. It has moved from being a largely white culture with Christianity as its background religion to being a completely secular, multicultural society. The ease and good humor with which this revolution has occurred has made Britain — and especially London — an amazingly interesting place to be right now. A genial secularized liberalism is the new norm. It might be difficult to define it, but you feel when its codes are infringed, as with the controversies over “faith schools” that teach creationism, or with the misgivings felt by many secular politicians about such issues as the wearing of the burqa.

The moderate right at present in power in France talks freely of dissuading women from wearing a body covering like the burqa because to do so is un-French. In Britain, there is a much more tolerant attitude toward all faiths and none, with a great deal of rather likable muddle about where a decent liberal person should stand on such a matter. Maybe it’s just as British to wear a black bag over your head as to wear one of the bizarre outfits you still see in the enclosure at Royal Ascot.

In such a climate, the Church of England had no chance at all of surviving. It was bound to go, and it was just waiting, historically, for some catalyst to bring it to an end. That catalyst has been provided by the somewhat unlikely controversy over female bishops.

It is a strange breaking point, since there have been female priests for years. But conservative Anglicans object that other episcopal churches in the world — the Copts, Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholics — do not accept female bishops. Anglicans have believed since the Reformation that although the Church of England had separated itself from Rome, it retained the historic episcopate, descended from Christ’s apostles. As a result, there are now Anglican bishops who, because they are women, are not recognized as bishops by all Anglicans, let alone the other apostolic churches.

As a result, England’s church has managed an “Alice in Wonderland” situation in which those who do not like female bishops (or the bishops who ordained them) can owe obedience to so-called Flying Bishops, upholders of the traditional faith who “fly” from parish to parish, regardless of the boundaries of diocese. These bishops, and others who think as they do, have been prime movers in shaping the Vatican’s new offer.

How will it all work? Will the English Catholics, always hard pressed for cash, be in a position to take over the running of our medieval churches? What will happen to the cathedrals? As fewer and fewer real Christians exist in England, will the church buildings be taken over by some secular conservation group like the National Trust? Probably. And for the 55 million or so Britons who don’t regularly attend services — some 90 percent of the population — it is all rather unimportant.

But it is nevertheless a landmark. The Church of England has been the religious expression of that independent national identity which signaled the rise of Britain as a significant world power. Hatched by Henry VIII and nurtured by his daughter Elizabeth I, the Church of England was an expression of that combination of tolerance and arrogance that marked the English governing class. It sat light to doctrine, and tried to accommodate many. But while that seemed a gentle thing to do, it did so because it actually laid claim to governing and controlling all.

Now, as the pope looks to put an end to this facet of Britain’s character, there are ghosts smiling a little ruefully. For one, the Duchess of Windsor (a k a Wallis Warfield Simpson of Baltimore), denied the opportunity of being queen because the Church of England disapproved of divorce. The Catholic recusants, who huddled in priest-holes rather than acknowledge the monarch as supreme governor of the church, will be smiling a little grimly, too. In time to come, I confidently predict, there will be others smiling ruefully, too — such as the “liberal” Anglicans left behind, who will watch a pope (I guess 20 years from now) ordaining women to the Catholic priesthood.

Although it will be a sad day for those Anglicans who have reached a parting of the ways, for Britain itself, the pope’s maneuver is actually good news. It will formally bring to an end the idea of the Established Church, and of the monarch as that Establishment’s symbol and head. Whatever our private religious allegiances, we Britons no longer want to force our royal heads of state to jump through those impossible hoops. The paradox is that a move by a conservative pope to ease the tender consciences of conservative-minded Anglicans will actually be a move toward the complete secularization of Britain, and an acceptance of its new multicultural identity.

A. N. Wilson, the author, most recently, of the novel Winnie and Wolf.