This week the General Synod edged one step closer towards permitting the ordination of female bishops. The final outcome is likely to be some kind of compromise to appease traditionalists similar to that in 1992 when the ordination of female priests was passed. But unlike that occasion, one crucial voice will not be heard nor probably venture an opinion — the Conservative party, which has distanced itself from ecclesiastical affairs over the past 20 years.
This was not the case back in 1992 when a band of Conservative MPs joined Anglican traditionalists in opposing female ordination. Enoch Powell considered it a ‘blasphemous pantomime’, Ann Widdecombe spoke of her ‘utter grief and anger’, while John Gummer judged that it undermined the ‘whole basis of the Elizabethan settlement’. In the end, many followed clergy and laity out of the Church of England to Rome.
No such protest is likely to greet a parliamentary measure on female bishops. The Conservative party, once the defender of Anglican interests, now looks upon the General Synod with bemusement or worse, uninterest. This distancing from the church reflects the party’s distancing from its Christian roots and, indeed, its secularisation.
This is a relatively recent phenomenon. It may have been a long time since the church could be called the ‘Tory party at prayer’ but it was not that long ago — the 1980s in fact — when Conservatives still perceived themselves to be the ‘Church party’. These were the days when MPs were elected on to the Synod, parliamentary ecclesiastical debates were well attended, and when Anglicanism and Toryism were considered to be complementary and intertwining allegiances.
In the 19th century, the party had acted as protector of the established church. In the late 20th century, Conservatives saw their role slightly differently, protecting the church against itself: defending the ‘ordinary man in the pew’ against the ecclesiastical leadership and its concessions to secular humanism, permissiveness and left-wing politics.
During the 1980s, Conservative Anglicans in Parliament worked with traditionalists in the Synod to reject church measures on revisions of the 1662 Prayer Book, the appointment of bishops and the ordination of divorced clergy. Unsurprisingly, the bishops did not welcome this intrusion into church affairs, although many in the pews did. The church was in the throes of a civil war between its liberal leadership and its more traditional laity: ‘Guardian readers preaching to Telegraph readers’, as one vicar put it. Meanwhile, the Conservatives played up their moral credentials. The party that passed Clause 28 positioned itself favourably against the ‘permissive members’ on the Labour benches and the ‘woolly liberal’ leaders of the church.
It was the church’s acceptance of female priests that proved a step too far for many Anglicans. Much like their 19th-century forebears in the Oxford Movement, they too turned to the Tiber, and so the historic strand of Anglican Toryism died with them. Conversion was not an easy decision. It involved a complete revision of their historical and political consciousness. ‘I feel rather like a man standing among packing cases and looking, for the last time, at the bare boards of his old home,’ lamented Charles Moore.
In the divorce between Conservatism and Anglicanism, the blame was put on the church. But the truth was that the party had changed too. Even in the 1980s, Anglican Conservatives were a dying breed. The new generation of Conservative MPs were more libertarian. Future Tory MPs would be sourced from a much wider pool both socially and religiously.
True, the Tory party today is not completely secular. While the High Anglican contingent may have dwindled (or converted to Catholicism), there are still prominent Conservative evangelicals. But they tend to hold a more individualistic and moralistic faith and care little for goings-on in the Synod.
Paradoxically, though, the Conservative party has become more secular at a time when religion has become an increasingly prominent issue. But faith is now spoken of in terms of the rights of the religious individual rather than the privileges of the established church.
While the Tory leadership may still sometime say that Britain is a Christian country and send out copies of the King James Bible to schools, there is little sense of a religious underpinning to current Tory thinking. If David Cameron has sought to hark back to a pre-Thatcherite tradition of Tory paternalism, he has done so without reference to its Anglican roots. Indeed, the confusion surrounding his ‘Big Society’ agenda may in part be down to its secular articulation (especially odd given that faith groups are expected to do so much of the work).
Until recently, this secularisation had gone unnoticed, concealed under the broader process of Cameron’s modernisation of the party, but the pushing through of gay marriage has changed all that. If the debate reveals anything, it is that the tables have turned; the Conservative party appears to have out-liberalised the Church of England. Cameron’s argument that gay marriage is an inherently Conservative idea is a legitimate one (which certainly reflects popular opinion, including Christian) but he has found it difficult to sell to those ‘swivel-eyed loons’, the Tory rank and file. They feel at odds with the party leadership in a way that many once felt at odds with the bishops. It is no wonder that many are now converting to Ukip.
Gay marriage may be seen by some as representative of the divorce of the Tory party from its Christian principles but, more importantly, it suggests that the gulf between its leadership and the grass roots may be religious as much as political. Let it not be forgotten that most dyed-in-the-wool Tories are still predominantly Anglican worshippers from which their traditionalist line on morality stems.
The party’s promotion of gay marriage and its apathy on female bishops are indicative of how much the parliamentary party has changed. This reflects a broader secularising trend across all parties and voters, but there is little doubt that the Conservatives have made the biggest leap in recent times. Conservative historian Maurice Cowling once judged that if the party renounced Christianity, Toryism would be left standing on only one of its historical legs.
When the measure for female bishops finally reaches Parliament, it will be regarded as a sign of progress, but it will also represent the final nail in the coffin for the historic marriage between Anglicanism and Toryism.
Liza Filby is a lecturer in modern British history at King’s College London.