Feminists and homophobes have destroyed a unique four-hundred-and fifty-year-old English compromise

 5th August, 2008

It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it.

Preface to the Book of Common Prayer

The disarray in which the Lambeth Conference broke up just a few days ago has led to considerable and, often, incredibly misinformed scrutiny of the issue that, above any other, is dividing the various component parts of which is losely called the Anglican Communion: whether a Church should knowingly consecrate an openly gay man as a bishop. Curiously, the other matter about which the Anglicans have been bickering, whether women can validly receive holy orders, while admittedly a thorny issue at the Conference, did not lead to nearly so much debate. And, more strikingly, the wider, traditional division line among Anglicans, that between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals, was never really a factor in all these disputes. Indeed, the gay clergy and priestess/bishopess issues do not fall neatly within traditional doctrinal divides, with Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals being found, on both issues, on either side.

I have found this pretty incomprehensible, nay, stupefying. Since its inception, the Church of England, which was the fruit of political compromise, represented a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism. Elizabeth I who, far more than Henry VIII, was the effective founder of Anglicanism, kept an altar, crucifix, candlesticks and vestments in her chapel to the end of her reign and was reluctant to open windows in men’s souls. After the extraordinary revival in Catholic practice and dogma resulting from the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century, what had by then become the Anglican Communion brought together practically every range of churchmanship, from the lowest (in effect, no different in their beliefs from Calvinists) to those who contended that the Church of England’s doctrine, to the extent that it had been defined at all 1 was compatible with Roman Catholicism.

It has always been the pride of Anglicans that, mindful of the wisdom of Elizabeth’s pragmatic compromise, their national Church had stayed clear of fighting over secondary doctrinal subtleties. With typical English pragmatism, common sense and a reasonable dose of optimism, the English people’s deep sense of religion was fed, not by theological debate, but by a set of more tangible things, which may sound trivial yet, put together, fostered a profound, genuine piety which lasted for centuries, gave inspiration for countless feats of bravery and still profoundly pervaded the England in which I was brought up: foremost of these is (was?) pride in the liturgical beauty of the Prayer Book, which must count as one of the most splendid collection of texts ever written in the English language, with the Authorised Version of the Bible coming a close second; in addition to Cranmer’s magnificent prose, English churches and cathedrals, great and small, resound with the sublime music of Tallis, Byrd, Tomkins, Gibbons, Purcell or Handel, to name but a few, sung by the world’s best choirs, accompanied by that attention to the beauty of ceremonial which is an endearing characteristic of the British race; austere in Evangelical parishes, stunningly elaborate in Anglo-Catholic ones, it never falls prey to that ridicule or indignity which is so often the fate of liturgical practice, especially since the 1960s, in less fortunate nations.

So what went wrong? Why have Anglicans of late found no remedy in compromise, indeed the view that pragmatism is in reality itself a profoundly Christian attitude, that kept together (with the occasional grumbling and bickering, admittedly, but without any danger of actual schism) people who were completely at odds over fundamental questions of faith, such as transsubstantiation or the sacramental character of ceremonies? Why are they now seemingly irreparably torn apart by what the man in the pew, by all accounts, rightly regards as a very secondary subject, the issue of gay clergy, which has no impact on doctrine at all and is a purely disciplinary, or at most moral issue? Whereas in the case of female clergy the issue is doctrinal 2 and indeed in the case of female bishops crucially doctrinal.

On this point, unusually for I normally subscribe to his views, I disagree with Damian Thompson, who cannot see the point of traditionalist Anglicans making a fuss about bishopesses, given that the issue was decided ages ago, when women were first ordained 3. Yet from the point of view of the Anglicans who, like Damian, oppose female ordinations but, unlike Damian, believe (or try to believe) in the validity of Anglican orders, there is a major difference in gravity, although both are uncalled for, between women being made priests and their being made bishops: if only priestesses are ordained, then the consequences can be contained, for those determined to stay on, by simply avoiding frequenting any sacraments celebrated by priestesses; but with bishops, if episcopal consecrations of women are invalid, then the apostolic succession, which the Anglican Church holds that it has validly kept, will be broken, and any priests, male or female, ordained by women bishops acting alone 4 cannot validly say Mass or absolve. Short of requiring all priests to wear badges prominently certifying that there are no women bishops in the line of succession that ordained them, there is no solution to this problem.

Unlike being female, being gay in no way detracts from the validity of Holy Orders. Thus homosexuality in clergy, while it may be a cause of embarrassment if it is acknowledged, is a non-subject doctrinally. So the real issue, the only real issue which, to my amazement, has never really been debated at the Conference or in the media, is where the Anglican Church stands on hypocrisy. Everyone knows perfectly well that there have always been gay clergy. Until the very recent period, however, they have almost without exception remained, out of necessity, safely closeted. Yet in my younger days when I was in closer contact with them than I am now, the general impression among my peers was that there was nothing else and I suspect that this has always been true. Many distinguished prelates, including John Henry Newman who is on the threshold of canonization, have been rumoured to have been engaged in homosexual relationships. Indeed there have in all likelihood been several gay popes including in the twentieth century. So does this mean that homosexual clergy are acceptable provided that they conceal their condition and that moral propriety and appearances must be preserved even if it is at price of deceit? What is more scandalous, that the Right Rev. Gene Robinson should acknowledge that he is gay, or that those who stay in the closet, by lying about it, systematically breach the eighth commandment? These men did not choose to be gay, they were born gay, just as blacks did not choose to black. Indeed, not that long ago, the Church felt it was acceptable to ordain black priests, but black bishops had to wait until much later, an historical fact which Peter Akinola (of whom more below) ought perhaps to ponder. While homosexuality, unlike race, can be concealed, it is surely just as repugnant to discriminate on either ground. And hypocrisy on the matter of gay clergy is daily becoming less justifiable in a world in which, apart from the more reactionary elements in the Churches, most Western societies are increasingly casting away homophobia and acknowledging homosexuality as a condition with which some men are born without having chosen it and which does not in any way prevent them from leading Christian lives. Can the Church, in the absence of any dogmatic controversy, durably bury its head in the sand in the face of constantly evolving standards of what constitutes acceptable social behaviour? Historical experience demonstrates that it cannot. The shifting attitudes of Anglican churches towards divorce in recent years, despite prima facie grounds against it in the Gospel, is perhaps the most striking example.

So why did it happen? Why did the bishops largely skirt around the very real, doctrinal problem of consecrating women bishops and wage a fight to the death over a purely disciplinary matter?

Contrary to what many commentators have said, I do not believe the Archbishop of Canterbury is to blame. While the current incumbent has a definite tendency to be wooly-minded and has provided weak leadership in a time of crisis, it is often forgotten that the Anglican Communion is, in keeping with the best British traditions, no more than a gentlemen’s agreement whose only loose definition is that it includes those Churches that are in communion with the see of Canterbury. One could add to that, of course, a minimum corpus of faith in the form of the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles, but liturgical practice within the Anglican Communion has increasingly moved away from those historical benchmarks. And because they cannot see the point of defiance towards excessive zeal on matters of dogma, traditionally regarded as pointless and, indeed, out of tune with the English character, those who argue that the Anglican Communion needs its own Holy Office are showing contempt for an essential, defining characteristic of Anglicanism. Indeed one could argue that the Anglican Communion never really existed: it is a gathering of national churches, which are completely autocephalous and in no way subordinate to each other’s authority. Even within the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury wields no authority over the rest of the episcopate despite being Primate of all England. This is unquestionably a good thing, but it is being utterly forgotten, by people who call themselves Anglicans but have no understanding of the spirit and history of that Church.

So who are the real culprits? In the light of the above arguments, the blame is easy to cast. First, there are those who vociferously demanded the ordination of women a few years back and are now even more vociferously demanding that they be raised to the episcopate. By their intransigence, they have wrecked any prospect of reunion with Rome, because the Roman Catholic Church holds that women cannot ever validly receive Holy Orders 5. A direct, and often overlooked, consequence of the ordination of women was a significant shift in the balance of forces within the Church of England away from Anglo-Catholicism, to the benefit of Evangelicals. Anglo-Catholics attach much greater importance to the sacramental nature of the Ministry and always yearned, somewhat hopelessly, for the ultimate goal of reconciliation with Rome. But this did not prevent them from living in communion with Evangelicals who shared none of those concerns and indeed held diametrically opposed views. No one’s conscience was fundamentally endangered by these differences of opinion, despite the fact that the subjects of those disagreements were actually far from trivial. But female ordinations put an end to that: a substantial number of Anglo-Catholics understandably felt that they could not worship side-by-side with clergy who, in their view, were not clergy at all and whose sacraments were but charades. The recent decision to consecrate bishopesses has often taken it a step further: the Catholic party within the Church of England is in tatters and it is now more solidly Protestant than at any time in its history since the late eighteenth century.

Now for the second culprits. The very un-English intolerance shown towards Anglo-Catholics by the proponents of the ordination of women set a precedent. Those who so uncharitably condemn the Right Rev. Gene Robinson for being openly gay have clearly been inspired by it. Indeed they have not bothered to conceal that their motives are un-English. It is no coincidence that it is an African, the Right Rev. Peter Akinola, who has led the crusade against Bishop Robinson and has accused the English and American Churches of acting in a colonialist manner on this issue. However hard it is to see why gay rights have anything to do with colonianism, what the immature attitude of the African bishops shows is that the English and American Churches have moved on from colonialism, while Akinola and his kind are still stuck there. The constantly evolving standards of what constitutes acceptable social behaviour referred to previously have yet to impact Africa. Indeed, in Africa, if anything the tide is turning the other way, even if it is not politically correct to point it out. As Archbishop of Nigeria, Akinola, like many of his fellow black African peers, sees himself as in direct competition with the region’s increasingly vociferous and stridently homophobic Mohammedan majority. This view is shared by most African churches with the notable exception of South Africa, but setting up fundamentalist Islam as a role-model is a very curious way of preaching the Gospel.

In the circumstances, there is one point on which I agree with Damian Thompson: the Anglican Communion is doomed and schism risks even destroying the Church of England itself. That it should have been rent asunder by the relatively trivial and non-doctrinal issue of gay bishops when it successfully kept together men and women who held widely different and, indeed, totally incompatible beliefs on fundamental doctrinal issues for over four centuries is a complete mystery to me. But stubborn and uncharitable feminism fifteen years ago prepared the way for the equally stubborn and uncharitable African homophobia that, under the guise of perpetuating a form of traditional Anglicanism that in reality never existed, are actually acting not just in an un-English way, which would be forgivable, but in an un-Anglican way, which makes breakup inevitable.

  1. Meaning in the Thirty-Nine Articles, which the Tractarians held were compatible with Roman Catholic doctrine and the Book of Common Prayer which had retained more of Catholic liturgical practice than any other Reformed Church. ↩︎

  2. If a woman cannot validly be ordained because, as traditional doctrine would have it, Christ, by choosing His disciples among men only, seemingly indicated that it was not appropriate for women to be priests, then she cannot validly celebrate sacraments. ↩︎

  3. Synod members should summon up the courage to pull away the safety net from traditionalists who take the bizarre view that they can live in a Church that ordains women priests but not bishops. [Women bishops? Just get on with it., Holy Smoke, July 5, 2008] ↩︎

  4. In practice, the Anglican Church has always tried to maintain the traditional pre-Reformation practice of requiring three bishops to simultaneously officiate at episcopal consecrations, to make good any possible defect in the authority of any one individual. So in theory, if a rule were adopted always to have at least one male bishop participate in every episcopal consecration, the apostolic succession would be preserved. But I doubt the feminists would agree to institutionalizing such a rule. And to the best of my knowledge, the issue was never even discussed in these terms at the Conference. ↩︎

  5. Of course, reunion was always a pretty unrealistic proposition for a number of other reasons, chief among them the Roman Catholic position that Anglican orders are absolutely null and utterly void, defined by Leo XIII in bull Apostolicae Curae in 1894. ↩︎