Two years ago the Church of England decided to delay any public discussion of its deepest division, over homosexuality, until 2022. So this might be the year in which an already troubled institution has a dramatic public meltdown. Or it might be the year in which the Church of England sorts itself out a bit. Yes, really. Stranger miracles have happened.
There are grounds for hope, and not just on the gay issue. The Church has a core strength that it could draw on, and a core identity that could stand it in good stead, though one it is weirdly shy to assert.
First let’s admit that things haven’t been going so well, even while the gay issue has been kicked into the long grass. The pandemic has obviously been a nightmare for church attendance and finances, but it also deepened a dangerous ideological rift. It emboldened those who want to experiment with more flexible structures, which alarmed those who don’t, and who fear the demise of the parish. This rift is dangerous because it strongly overlaps with the old rift between evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. At the same time the Church got drawn into the culture wars, with knee-taking progressive bishops irritating a large section of the faithful. The former bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was irritated all the way to Rome.
It might sound like crazy optimism, but challenging times can clarify minds, and prod an awkward, uncertain tradition into life. I refer not to the Church in general, which has pockets of passionate conviction, but to the core Anglican tradition of liberal Anglo-Catholicism. It is liberal in the sense that it affirms the liberal state and rejects a reactionary response to modern culture. It is Anglo-Catholic in the sense that it has confidence in ritual tradition, and is wary of simplistic emotional piety and bossy legalism.