This week the senior primates of the Anglican church will meet in Africa. Many predict the outcome of this meeting will be an outright schism in the church over the issue of gay priests.
Tony Grew examines the nature of the Church of England and questions whether it can ever be a home for radical evangelicals.
My dad used to tell me that the Anglican church is not really a religious denomination as such. It is more of a social club.
Unless clearly a member of another religion, people in England can be assumed to be C of E. Just assumed.
I love asking English people about their religious beliefs and watching them vaguely mumble that they suppose they must have been baptised at some point, but that religion means very little to them.
Raised as a Roman Catholic, I was taught from a very early age that religion was your life.
It was such a revelation to come from Belfast to London, to a place where people, while appearing to possess every attribute a Christian should, had absolutely no interest in theology or the mechanics of faith.
Unlike being a Muslim or a Roman Catholic, the Anglicans always seemed to have been free to believe – or not believe – what they liked.
The purpose of the national church was to provide a unified home for all the different shades of Christian belief, from the bells, smells and pretty priests’ robes of the High Church to the unsmiling, unadorned face of Low Church worship. Something for everyone.
And was it successful? Indeed it was. It provided a home for everyone from traditionalists to radicals, Tories and Christian socialists.
At one point in the 1980s they had an Archbishop who appeared not to believe in the Resurrection of Christ.
A broad church indeed, and also an organisation, like the House of Lords, that was England, English values, English hypocrisy, English tolerance.
The more hysterical gay commentator is always ready to scream abuse at Christians and mutter darkly that they are all homophobes. That is nonsense. It is the same as saying all gay men are politically active and obsessed with their own rights
We all know that is not true. While the majority of gay men are obsessed with something, it definitely isn’t politics.
Similarly good Christians, such as my brothers and sisters, do not spend their time obsessing over what I get up to in bed or whether I should be allowed to adopt. They are all far too busy trying to get on with leading a reasonably decent life, raising their kids and hoping and praying that everyone is happy, loved and safe.
We should remember that when good, decent, fair-minded people in beige 1950s England started talking about how wrong it was that homosexual men were being criminalised just for being alive, the loudest voices calling for reform and a more tolerant approach were Anglicans.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Women’s Institute vocalised the prevailing Anglican opinion that arresting people and leaving them open to blackmail was a not very British way to behave. Distasteful. Not the sort of thing any decent person wants to read about over their cornflakes.
In 1957, ten years before the eventual decriminalisation of homosexuality, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, had this to say about the matter:
“There is a sacred realm of privacy… into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude. This is a principle of the utmost importance for the preservation of human freedom, self-respect, and responsibility.”
For some though, in our modern world, one where personal belief has come more and more to clash with state-enforced ideas of morality, the tolerant voice of the Anglican church is under threat.
The threat, ironically, is not from secularism. Although the vast majority of English people are not spending their Sundays in church, I would contend that same majority broadly agree with the principles of the Church of England.
Mainly because those principles are classic British values. Tolerance, compromise and above all an attempt to speak to people with respect. To listen and consider, and to disagree politely.
The threat to this thoroughly correct way of thinking comes from radical Christians who are poisoning the Anglican church with their fundamentalist views.
The rise of the evangelicals has appeared like a plague to your average Anglican. In particular the hounding of gay and lesbian clergy has become increasingly unacceptable. Let us be frank. Everyone knows that the priesthood has always been an attractive profession for gay men. At times it seems that most priests in the Church of England are gay.
The church managed to get through the issue of the ordination of women with relatively little damage. Some found they could not remain in the church and defected to the Catholics.
Regrettable, but entirely right, for if it has been decided that women too can be called to serve God in this way, then they must be allowed to.
The presiding bishop of the American Anglicans, a woman, and I might add a bloody good one, told the New York Times today that:
“We have had gay bishops and gay clergy for millennia. The willingness to be open about that is more recent.”
Gay priests are a different matter from women priests. In the modern world, gay people are more visible than they have ever been. The priesthood is no different.
But the enemies of tolerance have seized upon the existence of out gay men and women in the church and are attempting to do something that is fundamentally alien to the Anglican tradition. They want to start persecuting people, driving them out of their parishes.
And so we turn to the man with the worst job in England. Rowan Williams is a good man in a very bad situation.
On the one hand he is charged, as Archbishop of Canterbury, with holding together the 37 Anglican churches across the world.
On the other he is trying to firefight the evangelical influence on the church that, if unchecked, with burn away the tolerance that Anglicans are rightly praised for. They want to destroy the broad church and replace it with their narrow little edifice.
Archbishop Williams needs to stop trying to hold this fractured communion together.
He needs to make it clear to the African bishops and every other primate who shouts abuse about gay people being evil and unbiblical that they do not belong in the Anglican church.
The “Global South”, a group of ultra-right wing, anti-gay bishops led by the Nigerian archbishop, Dr Peter Akinola in letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury last year urged him to reconsider his personal views on homosexuality: “we urge you to rethink your personal view and embrace the Church’s consensus and to act on it, based as it is on the clear witness of Scripture.”
Dr Williams has in the past been tolerant of gay clergy and at a meeting of the General Synod in March 2006 in London, he called for reconciliation over the issue of gay clergy.
He is a good man – but it will not work – let me give you one example.
When Canon Jeffrey John was nominated as a bishop in 2003, it was because he was the right man for the job. He had the skills and the intellectual prowess to make a major contribution.
And the evangelicals attacked him and stamped their homophobic feet and shouted and screamed and threatened. It worked, and Canon John was hastily de-nominated as a bishop. Because he is gay.
I hope the outcome of this week’s meeting is a realisation on the part of Archbishop Williams that gay people have as much right to be in the broad Church of England as everyone else. I hope he will realise that giving in over the ordination of Canon John as a bishop was a huge tactical error, for the evangelicals will not settle for one victory and then be quiet and behave themselves.
I hope he will realise that those who show no Christian understanding or tolerance have no place in the church. That he has to take a stand. That this is the moment to make that stand.
If he does not, if he once again backs down from a confrontation, then he will fail the church he loves so much. He will fail the millions of tolerant, fair-minded people in this country who no matter what their views on gay people, instinctively think that hatred is not acceptable.
The English are a tolerant people by and large and never much taken with radical or extreme positions. The evangelicals are just that – radicals driven by a belief that they are right and everyone else is wrong – and going to Hell.
You cannot continue to accommodate these strident voices within the Anglican tradition. It will break his heart to do it, but Archbishop Williams will have to break apart the Anglican communion if he is to preserve the Church of England.
It’s schism time. He should not be afraid of it, he should embrace it.