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A very English coup — and the end of our national church

On the eve of the General Synod and the Lambeth Conference, Theo Hobson says that the sleeping giant of evangelical and orthodox Anglicanism has been awoken by liberal agitation and Rowan Williams’s failed leadership. The church is damaged beyond repair

2 July 2008

12:00 AM

2 July 2008

12:00 AM

On the eve of the General Synod and the Lambeth Conference, Theo Hobson says that the sleeping giant of evangelical and orthodox Anglicanism has been awoken by liberal agitation and Rowan Williams’s failed leadership. The church is damaged beyond repair

Some years ago a vicar gave a sermon in which he tried to explain the latest developments in the Anglican Communion to his congregation. Afterwards an old lady came up to him, a bit bemused. ‘How does all this stuff about Anglicans affect us?’, she asked. ‘Well,’ he replied, smiling warmly at the old biddy, ‘we’re all part of the global Anglican Communion, aren’t we?’ She looked still more bemused: ‘I thought we were Church of England.’

She had a point. Over the last few decades, the Church of England has increasingly presented itself as one part of the global Anglican Communion. This seemed a way of reinventing itself, of edging away from the embarrassment of being a state church. But the move has turned out to be disastrous. It has been the undoing of the C of E and has led what was once a pacific, tolerant church to its present state of exhausted collapse. On the eve of the Lambeth Conference (it begins on 16 July) we are witnessing the End Times of the C of E. The bickering factions in the worldwide Anglican Communion have simply pulled our church apart.

Every day, in the run-up to Lambeth, there’s a new crisis for poor Rowan Williams. On Monday, 1,333 ‘traditionalist’ clergy threatened to defect to Rome in protest against women bishops. The same day, 2,300 clergy in favour of women bishops signed a statement protesting against the protesters. On Friday this week the General Synod will discuss the two separate, but equally intractable breakaway groups — the English traditionalists (whose beef is with women) and the worldwide evangelicals (who complain most of all about homosexuality).

Our well-meaning, tolerant Archbishop should have put the C of E first, and taken ‘the Anglican Communion’ with a pinch of salt. Instead, excited by the thought of a worldwide church, he has allowed his hands to be tied and — whatever happens next — the heart and soul of our national church to be damaged beyond repair.

When historians look back at the rise and fall of Anglicanism — from the Reformation to the 2008 Lambeth conference perhaps — they will note that the meltdown of the Anglican Communion in general, and the Church of England in particular, began with what is best described as an attempted coup.

Last week a new Anglican movement emerged, at a conference called Gafcon (Global Anglican Futures Conference) in Jerusalem. The new movement calls itself the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (‘Foca’ — no sniggering, please). It accuses the official leadership of failing to keep liberalism at bay. It has 300 bishops and archbishops, and claims to represent roughly half of global Anglicanism: that’s 40 million people worldwide. Most of these bishops, including a few English ones, are boycotting this month’s Lambeth Conference, on the grounds that the Archbishop of Canterbury is too tolerant of the gay-friendly American and Canadian churches.

One of the rebel English bishops is the controversy-loving Michael Nazir-Ali, the bishop of Rochester. He told last week’s conference: ‘You are the beginnings — the miraculous beginnings, you could even say — of an ecclesial movement for the sake of the gospel and the renewal of Christ’s Church.’ It seems unlikely that he cleared this with his boss. Foca’s launch statement directly challenges Williams’s authority: ‘We do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury.’ Its location — Jerusalem — was another obvious slap in the face for England.

A couple of days after this declaration, Williams responded with weary bluntness, like a professor receiving a slightly mad script: ‘The Gafcon proposals for the way ahead are problematic in all sorts of ways and I urge those who have outlined these to think very carefully about the risks involved.’ He went on to say that a separate organisation for conservative Anglicans ‘will not pass the test of legitimacy’.

His words fall on deaf ears. The breakaway group knows it has the power to re-make the Communion. For it has already done so. Over the past five years the people behind Foca have changed the nature of Anglicanism, routing the liberals. They now want to go further, and launch a take-over. Talk of an imminent split, or schism, is for them a journalistic category error. Why would they want to form a new, breakaway church when the entire Communion seems within their grasp? They no more want to split from the main Church than New Labour wanted to split from the Labour party in the mid-1990s. They want to run it.

The seeds of this coup were sown ten years ago, at the last Lambeth Conference. A resolution was passed condemning homosexuality, and specifically forbidding the ordination of homosexuals. This was disastrous for the Church of England, for it was crucially important for it to stay on the fence on this issue. A significant proportion of its clergy was gay, and its expanding evangelical wing was strongly anti-gay. Most of its leaders hoped for a gradual diffusion of liberalism, taking the sting out of the issue. Despite the Lambeth resolution they trusted that the reactionaries would come round, that God and progress would defeat homophobia. Many bishops (including Rowan Williams) simply ignored the ruling, and kept on ordaining gay clergy. They believed that in time, love and tolerance would conquer all.

For the evangelicals, the Lambeth resolution was a Godsend. It gradually transformed their identity, from a puritanical awkward squad to the true defenders of Anglican orthodoxy. They started expressing this new self-image in 2003, when they forced the freshly enthroned Williams to retract Jeffrey John’s appointment to be Bishop of Reading, due to his enthusiasm for the ordination of gays. The authority and structure of Anglicanism was shaken, for the Archbishop of Canterbury was very obviously bowing to a massive pressure-group. This was the beginning of the end.

Then, later in 2003, the Anglicans of New Hampshire chose the openly gay Gene Robinson as their bishop. Last week one of Foca’s leaders, Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney, called this the turning-point of recent Anglican history. In ‘an extraordinary strategic blunder’, he said, the liberals roused ‘the sleeping giant that is evangelical Anglicanism and orthodox Anglicanism’. In fact, this giant was not so much woken up as newly concocted from an alliance of American conservatives with the ‘global South’, led by the rather scary Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola.

Williams was still hoping that the Anglican Communion would simply agree to differ on homosexuality, with some provinces more liberal than others — as is the case with women priests. But now things were different. The roused giant was stomping around, insisting that no province should be allowed to innovate in this way. So Williams felt obliged to condemn the liberalism of New Hampshire, and to create new rules forbidding gay-friendly reforms, and even new structures for the enforcing of these rules — a new, global Act of Uniformity.

Williams’s job was made particularly tricky because in recent decades the old alliance between Church and culture has crumbled. In the past, there was a huge constituency of cultural Anglicans who went to church for love of C of E traditions whatever the actual state of their beliefs. Catering for them kept the Church on a pragmatically liberal course. But about 50 years ago these old-school Anglicans started staying in bed, the lazy sods, and soon the Church’s cultural centra
lity was more of a memory than a reality. Without the support of decent, tolerant agnostics, Anglicanism became a liberal tradition that half-hates its own liberalism. And to complicate things, it has two ways of half-hating its own liberalism: an evangelical way and a Catholic way. Holding this all together is about as easy as being Amy Winehouse’s shrink.

This is why evangelicals have been able to enjoy the most astonishing success over the last five years, which is a very short time in church politics. They have vim and direction and they have changed the nature of the Communion, from a loose federation of autonomous provinces, united by its respect for Canterbury, to a global ideology, united by its rejection of homosexuality.

So does this movement represent the future of Anglicanism? Can it renew the tradition, as Nazir-Ali thinks? Can it even revive the Church of England? The short answer is no — or not in any way that leaves our church recognisable. Though it’s a popular movement, though there are millions of young Christian evangelicals and the Alpha movement is the only big success story the Church of England can boast in a generation, a Focafied C of E is nonetheless unimaginable.

The important point to remember about the Church of England is that it was part and parcel of the world’s first and greatest liberal culture. No other church in history has been so firmly tied to political liberalism. It has always been explicitly subject to the will of Parliament. As an established Church, it had to adapt to the unfolding of the national character. To retain its centrality it had to be flexible, to go with the cultural flow.

Of course this produced theological tensions. Are we really putting the Gospel first, earnest young clerics wondered, or have we sold out to liberalism? In the 18th century the Methodists broke with Anglican liberalism. In the next century it was the turn of the Anglo-Catholics to get all soul-searching and stroppy. Instead of leaving, they determined to change the Church’s self-understanding, and half-succeeded. But if Rowan Williams had just focused on the Church of England without kowtowing to the rest of the worldwide Communion, he might have kept these tensions from destroying our national church.

But he didn’t, because Rowan Williams never believed in the established Church, to which he didn’t belong until he moved to Canterbury (the Church in Wales is not a state church). He has always believed in the international Communion. In a sense, the events of the last five years have not been entirely negative, from his perspective. For the body in which he has always believed has got itself noticed. The Anglican Communion is fast eclipsing the old image of the English established Church. This is so close to what he has always wanted — and yet so far. The problem is that the new Anglicanism runs counter to the logic of Anglican tradition, which aimed to diffuse Christianity through a liberal culture.

It must be amazingly frustrating for the Archbishop of Canterbury to see the Anglican Communion gradually coming into its own at last, this body capable of being a more enlightened version of Catholicism, of pursuing Christian orthodoxy in a spirit of freedom and honesty, and then to see it taken over by a conspiracy of bigots, wide-eyed fundamentalist righteousness and sub-Calvinist sloganising. It will be no consolation to him to realise that this new alliance will very soon be as irreparably schismatic as the old one.

Theo Hobson’s book, Milton’s Vision, is published by Continuum later this year.

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