Monday, 2 July 2012

The Future Depends On It

As I make my efforts within the Unitarian fold, it gets more distant to comment on Anglican affairs. The whole business regarding women's ordination as bishops is more a sad tale than anything else.
Basically, it's a bloody mess and it is a mess to add to a succession of stupid interventions and directions. So despite the sadness in the train-crash detail it is important to keep hold of a wide as possible picture available.

The first stupidity was the Anglican Communion Covenant. The sense that it was being forced through by authority grew over time, and as it did so, and against any consensus, the narrow votes fell across dioceses to dismiss it out of sight. Though some would drag it back for a second go.

The second stupidty was the recent high handed comment about gay marriage and marriage in particular. Well, most denominations have said the same thing, but the dismissal of marriage for couples of the same sex here was absolutist in tone and narrow in source. It gave no sense of the debate actually going on and shifts in opinion.

Then the amendments were the cackhanded result of leaders being too close to the subject, an inability to see that an amendment far from being a tweak was an innovation to bring to an institution a view about unpolluted apostolic succession at the very time of the innovation to have women bishops. One simply undermines the other, and makes it contentious throughout the institution.

All this is the result of a disastrous Archbishop of Canterbury who, on his way out, led the wriggle room to cause violent shakes instead. He'd thought he could apply a Covenant and saw no other way, and others have had to say no; he has stood on his own head on the gay issue and this represents its inherent authoritarianism and clash with unrecognised secular responsibilities, and finally has come this intervention when the dioceses had made it clear what was going to pass.

At the heart of all this is a view stating that we do not live in a liberal-secular state where ethics are under constant negotiation (such as what constitutes marriage) but in a series of different communities to which each of us is signed up as a member and has its own authority structure. This is bad multiculturalism without any unity between them, a conserving postliberalism of frozen narratives in every little place. Some can have Sharia Law, some do not. So if you are an English Anglican Christian then you should 'read the ordinal' and take your authority as it is dished out, and it has been dished out on the basis of matching up with a deeply unethical Anglicanism abroad or in its sectarian features at home. Instead of challenging these, this Archbishop has simply promoted the institution as a sort of compulsive base for unethical theology and ecclesiology. He has proven to be deeply illiberal.

This is not the Anglicanism many recognise and which has been part of Englishness as an open, if class-ridden, grope towards negotiated change and different views of progress. Instead it is a fantasy Anglicanism of purple and authority, or story-narratives of the close kind.

The upshot is that, once again, the people of the Church of England are going to have to rescue the Church from its inept inward leaders. They are inept because they thought they should follow the leader and his 'teaching'. The rescue will be to get the bishops to take the amendments back, and return without any. If the bishops don't, then the legislation will collapse.

What has happened with the gay marriage statement - people are leaving - will also happen if there is a collapse in the process that dioceses showed would have been passed. All the authority was behind passing into reality the ordination of women as bishops. For it to collapse because an Archbishop, on his way out, can't leave be (and others doing the same), would be a tragic result and a conclusive demonstration that the bishops need to change as a whole.

The problem is that in these days of differentiation and specialisation, the Church of England is too broad. Secularisation theorists might have thought that the mainstream Churches would break up into aggressive sectarian evangelicals and defensive sectarian Catholics, with only a rump liberal group trying to stay in 'negotiation' with society. I'd say those new denominations are definitely in there and where the energy for change exists. But one should allow for institutions to have their own peculiarities, and one may be a Church of England that still combines different tendencies but does this over a narrower range. One should almost expect conservative evangelicals to go off and form their own Church, and indeed for traditionalist Catholics to form existences within Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. In such a trimmed Church away from these constituents, the liberal wing may find itself part of a settlement that demands a level of subscription that its radicals cannot bear. It would be like a new settlement Church, where there is a greater harmony of purpose between wings that do actually relate to each other. This sounds fine and clear-cut, until the liberal reluctance to say it as they think comes through, with the tendency to subscribe and keep quiet in the face of opposition. Plus the debate will be on how to relate to wider society, because not even the trimmed Church will do that.

Incidentally, the 'Not in My Name' petition against the recent gay marriage statement was organised at least initially by Ian Stubbs, and I knew of him from my 1990s Sea of Faith days. Now I don't know his views at present - I note he is called "Father Stubbs" by many (never would be by me) and has an Anglo-Catholic appearance, if married to a female Methodist minister. The question (I am asking, that's all) is how liberal could be a trimmed down Church of England and would it (should it?) include the Ian Stubbses of the former, overstretched Church? Don Cupitt, of radical views, decided, in the end, to be out - that his critics were right, and a number have agreed, but some are still in and clerical too, obeying the creeds and the historic formularies as a whole.

What recent episodes show, however, is that Catholic authoritarian ecclesiologies are still alive at the top, at least for some months yet, as are those strange views about obeying scriptural passages. If the gay exclusion view persists, and if the bishops do not do the decent thing and force the amendments, then the all male led Church will persist. Who's to say that a future attempt to have women bishops won't come up against a stronger conservative evangelical resistance or a renewed traditionalist Catholic Anglicanism? In that sort of Church the women will walk as the gay folk are doing, and the Church will become the sectarian bolt hole that some seem to want. In this situation disestablishment will be virtually a necessity and we shall have a Church in England instead, but one that is remote and irrelevant to everyone else.

So next Friday the fun starts, and let's be honest. There's not a lot riding on it - only the whole future of the Church of England, to trim itself and try at lest to have some sensible relationship to ordinary thought and practicalities, or to become a sectarian memory rump of fantasy-land evangelicals and Catholics.

But just to help, will the present and retiring Archbishop just go quietly and realise that his thumbprint on the institution has been a disaster at every turn, leaving others to prevent the outcome he intended. It would not be his last Synod, if the legislation unamended is to return to a Synod say in November. Perhaps waiting until February 2013 might be an option, when he is gone.

No comments: