We have recently been entertained by two more Church of England cliffhangers. Will Jeffrey John, the homosexual Dean of St. Albans, (at last) be made a bishop, or won’t he? Prime Minister David Cameron made it clear that he was supportive of the proposal. In the event, Jeffrey John wasn’t recommended for promotion as the Bishop of Southwark after (it was said) the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘lost his temper’ at a meeting of the Crown Nominations Committee that rejected Dr John’s nomination. (Daily Telegraph, 4 July, The Times 9 July) Next: Will there be women bishops? Yes. Next: Will such bishops have full parity with the male variety? Yes or No?
This is where Tom Baldry comes in. Following the compromise proposals tabled by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to provide safeguards to ‘traditionalists’, which were voted down by Convocation on July 10, the Sunday Times of the next day reported that Mr Baldry said that the ‘equality agenda’ had strong support in Parliament. The report concluded
He said that task he would face of steering legislation through parliament to make provision for traditionalists who oppose women bishops could become ‘impossible’ if there is ‘any scintilla of suggestion that women bishops were in some way to be second-class bishops’.
There it is, in a nutshell or two. The Church of England is these days vestigially Erastian. She no longer has to please the king, but she still has to please Parliament when legislation affecting that church is required in order to legalise any proposed changes. A generation or so ago the Church could count on the membership of the Commons having a soft centre of loyal Anglicans, but this has largely disappeared. Furthermore, out in the constituencies there is nothing that can be identified as ‘The Church of England vote’. In political terms, there is nothing to be gained by siding with ‘the traditionalists’. Given its present make up, Parliament is not going to tolerate what it sees as the marginalisation or women in the Church of England, whatever the theological arguments. And similarly with gay bishops or archbishops. Sooner or later , probably sooner, there will an openly homosexual bishop. Over the issue of women bishops, it is not beyond the wit of man to devise another set of compromises aimed at easing the consciences of the ‘traditionalists’, which would succeed in getting through Convocation. But in ensuring the success of such a compromise, no amount of fulmination in the name of the Apostle Paul is going to count. Eventually, the cliffhanger will be decided by the operation ofthe secular ratchet. The changes will be made in one direction only. There won’t be any more re-runs, and no more compromises.
The Church of England by law established must follow the culture, as she has done (in effect) since the nineteenth century, usually after a gap of a generation or so. Edward Norman was Mrs Thatcher’s favourite theologians. I believe that the short list did not contain very many names. In his Church and Society in Modern England (1976) Norman showed the clock-like way in which the gap operated in the 19th century.
By now the gap has shortened a bit. In view of the success of the ‘equality agenda’ it is unthinkable that the Church of England could succeed in making herself a special case, an exception, while remaining as an integral part of the political and cultural establishment of England. On the other hand, in the face of the inevitable, it is hard to see Church of England evangelical congregations, together with their clergy, forsaking their buildings and other ties, and seceding from their Church, though some may. One reason for this is that those loyally evangelical ministers of the gospel presently in the Church of England may be able to continue in good conscience, in virtue of the positions they already occupy. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how those with principles about women bishops or homosexual bishops, contemplating entering the ministry of the Church of England, or training for it, could do so without the sacrifice of principles which until very recently have been regarded as non-negotiable.
What is true of the Church of England is not true in the same way of the Anglican Communion worldwide. For these Anglican churches are ‘free’, non-established churches. They are post-Erastian. There may be crises in these churches also, as in fact there are already, but they must be handled differently. In Canada, for example, ways have had to be found, and have been found, though at some cost, for evangelical congregations to align with segments of Anglicanism who oppose the present position of the Church of England, and of some likely future position, or the present stance of their own national church managers. Here the mechanisms of change are not ratchet-like, but more complex, as it becomes increasingly clear that, outside England, ‘Anglicanism’ is in fact the collective term for an array of Protestant denominations (with a common history) alongside the myriad others. Perhaps the only difference between such Anglicanism, fully post-Erastian Anglicanism, and a run of the mill Protestant denomination, is that Anglican expresses itself transnationally, and has elements of transnational governance. It has this in common with Orthodoxy, but not with the usual denominations or looser groupings of congregations.
However, as far as the parliamentary interests of the Church of England are concerned Mr Baldry, the MP for Banbury, will play the part of the ratchet – man. He will have to manage the levering up (or down, depending on your point of view), of the structure and management of the Church of England for the next phase of the implementation of the ‘equality agenda’.