Thought for the gay

Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, sometimes I think the Anglican Communion is a bit like the Fourth International. I don’t mean in the theological sense, though I once heard Chris Bailey call Cliff Slaughter a mediaeval scholastic, which I thought was a bit hard on mediaeval scholastics. If St Thomas Aquinas could have travelled through time to a WRP dialectics class, one suspects his first instinct would have been to point and laugh.

No, I was thinking in terms of a disparate group of people who on the face of things don’t have a great deal in common, and are held together mostly by tradition and sentiment. A more exact parallel would be with the USec of the 1970s, a church divided into two hostile factions, barely on speaking terms with each other. In that case, things were complicated by the fact that the European sections had the majority but the Americans had the money. In the Anglicans’ case, the Africans have the numbers while, again, the Americans have the money.

Things have come to a head with the opening of the once-a-decade World Congress, sorry, the Lambeth Conference, a giant knees-up for the Communion’s bishops. And at the eye of the storm is Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who comes across in his TV appearances as a very nice, intelligent and witty man. Just the sort of bishop you’d like to have. Unfortunately, Bishop Robinson is openly gay, as opposed to the legions of closeted gays in the Anglican ministry, and the macho men of the Nigerian and Ugandan churches, who are locked in fierce competition with Muslim proselytisers, have taken exception.

In a vain effort to smooth things over, the Archbishop of Canterbury, affable John Peel lookalike Dr Rowan Williams, rather ostentatiously left Bishop Robinson off the invitation list for Lambeth, which puts Gene in the good company of Bishop Kunonga of Harare, a staunch supporter of Uncle Bob’s firm-but-fair regime in Zimbabwe. Alas, Rowan’s efforts were to no avail, as the Africans aren’t bothering to turn up anyway.

The other big issue, at least for the Brits, is the consecration of women bishops. This is really a rerun of the hoo-hah a lot of years ago about women priests, which actually managed to cause a minor schism in Ireland. That said, I haven’t heard tell of the Church of Ireland (Traditional Rite) for years, and fear they may have gone the way of the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist).

On the face of it, there really shouldn’t be an issue. If you’re willing to accept women as priests, there’s no obvious reason why they shouldn’t be bishops. But that would be to underestimate religious people’s ability to get upset over the strangest things. And also the Anglican knack for turning a relatively simple question into an enormously complicated fudge.

Last time around, I was tickled by the proposal for the brilliantly titled “flying bishops”, who would, it was foreseen, cater for those parishes unwilling to accept Dawn French as their vicar. Sad to say, the flying bishops never really got off the ground, as most people who cared strongly on this point upped sticks and defected to Rome. This time around, and sticking with the superhero motif, the C of E tops are mooting “superbishops” to attend to the recalcitrants. I suspect that the superbishops too will be, in the good old Yiddish phrase, nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn.

This is the background to last month’s GAFCON conference in Jerusalem, which has effectively seen the creation of an international opposition tendency, consisting of those traditionalists who object to swishy poofs, uppity women and the modern age in general. Prominent in their platform is an ambitious plan to set up a parallel section in North America, shadowing the liberal leadership there. So far, the Africans have been careful not to push things to an outright schism, perhaps being mindful that the Americans and Canadians bankroll many of their missionary and humanitarian enterprises. But one senses that Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria and his chums might just be painting themselves into a rhetorical corner.

Would that Joe Hansen were alive at this hour. He would have loved this.


  1. Mark P said,

    July 16, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Hilarious stuff.

    The USFI comparison is apt, and you are right that the 1970s incarnation of that esteemed body was a better fit in organisational terms, with the two equally matched, geographically based factions. In one way though the current USFI is closer to the current Anglican shenanigans in that the main divide within it seems to be between soft woolly ecumenist sorts and harder, traditionalist sectarians!

    This isn’t really much of a struggle though, as the fuzzy unity sorts are completely dominant while the old school Mandelite sectarians are very much confined to the margins. The few minor sections where the sectarians are in charge are treated with open contempt by the international leadership.

    They don’t get kicked out for the most part. Instead they are just worked around. In Germany and the US, where the hard line types run the traditional section, the USFI also recognises smaller groups more in keeping with the left unity stuff as sections. It looks reasonably likely that they may do the same thing in Greece if they can convince the ex-SEK, ex-DEA group Kokkino to join. Kokkino is inside SYRIZA while the existing section, OKDE-S has been running around trying to build some revolutionary alternative with the SEK.

    In Ireland of course Socialist Democracy are regarded as something of a joke by their comrades on the continent, who allowed a punter or two to retain individual USFI membership while outside Socialist Democracy. You may also have noted that the LCR have sent one of their leaders over to boost some People Before Profit meeting that the SWP are holding tomorrow night, despite the fact that their Irish sister organisation is opposed to PBP. The only thing that holds these currents together is the shared delusion that they are THE FOURTH INTERNATIONAL.

  2. ejh said,

    July 16, 2008 at 6:47 pm


    Thank God there’s one, sensible organisation among all the loons eh?

  3. WorldbyStorm said,

    July 16, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    One big problem for GAFCON is that should they split they lose the infrastructure of the currently existing C of Whereevers. Which might lead to an interesting round of changing and rechanging on locks on offices, churches and cathedrals.

    So… another similarity with further left politics then… 😦

    MarkP, I only caught a glance of the PBP poster for tomorrow’s meeting as I sailed past. Thought I’d seen a French name, and the initials LCR came into my mind. I see it’s about building a New Europe. Hmmm… if there is dissension on the ground re PBP that can’t bode well for the future…

  4. Mark P said,

    July 16, 2008 at 8:04 pm


    Actually, in my view quite a few sections of the USFI are interesting and most of them, once they got past their infatuations with student vanguards and guerillaism, proved to be quite sane. They get some things wrong and some things right but most of their major organisations should be taken seriously. However their international organisation, such as it is, is messy and incoherent.


    The speaker is Francois Duval and he is indeed an LCR leader. He isn’t billed as being from the LCR though, instead he is presented as a “founder of the new anti-capitalist party”. Which is odd as that party doesn’t exist yet and therefore isn’t likely to be sending representatives to Ireland.

    I’m not sure what you mean about “dissension on the ground” about PBP though.

  5. Renegade Eye said,

    July 16, 2008 at 8:49 pm

    This is what is left of Healyites in the USA.

  6. dave said,

    July 16, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    You’re right, Joseph Hansen would have loved it — and for all the right reasons. I remember Joe Hansen’s memorial meeting, held in New York city in the winter of 1979. I was quite a young lad, having been recently snatched from the farmlands of northeastern Ohio by some renegade organization called the YSA. New York was quite enough all by itself (I thought Akron was metropolis), thank-you very much, but the memorial meeting was — well, the memorial meeting was a horse of a different color. A huge crowd, speakers from all over the world, including from places I had never heard of, a magnificent banner over the speaker’s podium that proclaimed, in rousing words, “Workers of the World, Unite!” A throat-clearing redition of the Internationale, followed by all the meatballs you could possible eat, made for a very splendid night, indeed. Fact is, I thought I died and gone to heaven. A couple months later I learned there was no such thing as heaven (which was okay by me because that meant there was no such thing as hell, either).

  7. charliemarks said,

    July 17, 2008 at 12:52 am

    I’m sorry, Rowan Williams looks nothing like John Peel (RIP). More like Gandalf, if you ask me – specially when he’s wearing his bishopy clothes.

    What is it with these guys, anhow? It’s all “gays, gays, gays”. I’m hoping that the Second Coming happens soon and that Jesus wears one of those t-shirts that says, “some people are gay – get over it”. Man, that’d result in a theological U-turn that would take some finessing… But if not the gays, who would get these guys worked up?

  8. Mike said,

    July 17, 2008 at 9:43 am

    It’s worth noting that the Anglican communion has a MASS membership which is more than can be said for the small groups of the disUnited Secretariat in the 1970’s. And as such the slow split in their movement is worthy of serious attention on the part of revolutionaries.

    Having said that Splinty is correct in noting the dfferent drives of the African and North Amerian Anglicans. What was not noted was the contradictry class bases that this conceals. Lets not forget then that the African Anglicans are very plebian and, more ofetn than not, proletarian. And due to their social policies have a real influence on the actions of their members which is no longer true of the moribund petty little conformists in the imperialist based churches.

    Finally I note that in terms of their own theology the more liberal elements are in fact revisionists who are in a process of completing the split with Rome begun under Henry 8. In other words if they do accept Women Bishops they cease to be both Catholic and Reformed. Frankly its a daft sirtuation that means jack shit to anybody sane but hey thats religion for yah.

  9. Ken MacLeod said,

    July 17, 2008 at 10:09 am

    I see in yesterday’s Indie that the Pope is not encouraging schism or Romeward defections, and is lobbying hard for the USec Anglican Communion to stay united. What’s up with that? Am I right in suspecting that old Ratzinger is something of a dark horse, and may yet do a Gorby on the Vatican?

    (I’ve always liked the analogy of official Communism as the Catholic Church and Trotskyism as the Protestants, with the Sparts as Latter Day Saints.)

  10. ejh said,

    July 17, 2008 at 11:07 am

    It was Orwell who came up with it, I believe (I think he says it in connection with Eliot).

    It’s somehow hard to see the CofE as being quite as fractious as the Trotskyites.

  11. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 17, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    It works even better if you see JP2 as Pollitt and Benedict as Palme Dutt. Cliff sometimes reminded me a little of a Hassidic rebbe, or sometimes a mad scientist, which is kind of the same thing.

    Hansen of course was raised a Mormon, as was Myra Tanner, and it never did them any harm.

  12. Dr Paul said,

    July 17, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    A few random thoughts on all this.

    Firstly, the strangely-named GAFCON, the conglomerate of Anglican fundamentalists (now that’s a contradiction). Spell it backwards, and we get No C Fag, an abbreviated, nasty way of saying ‘No Christian Gays’. Has anyone else thought of this?

    Secondly, do not forget that one of the founding fathers of British Trotskyism, Reg Groves, was a lifelong Anglo-Catholic, a ‘smells and bells’ branch of the Church of England. Groves and his comrades, known as the Balham Group, used to meet in the local vicarage. A certain Father Bucknell (I think that’s the name) used publicly to defend Trotsky’s politics in the C of E in the Midlands for many years. The Stalinists used to have a faction in the C of E; my forthcoming book The New Civilisation?: Understanding Stalin’s Soviet Union, 1929-1941 (currently at the printers) touches on this, and shows how they used Christian theology to justify the Moscow Trials.

    Thirdly, when the latest Pope took up the job, I made a comparison between him and his predecessor and the twin peaks of the old Communist Party. The last pope was a Harry Pollitt sort of bloke; a down-the-line Catholic party-liner but with the common touch that made him accessible to ordinary folk and appear as a regular sort of guy. The new one, Ratfinger, on the other hand, is more like Rajani Palme Dutt; austere, aloof, the éminence grise rather than the chummy ‘man of the people’. Like Dutt, he could work behind the scenes, laying down the line, but as a front man, and again like Dutt, I don’t think that he is effective.

  13. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 18, 2008 at 7:50 am

    The dean of Canterbury would have been the most notorious Stalinist, wouldn’t he? Douglas Hurd tells a story of visiting Mongolia in the 1950s and being asked by the top Buddhist lama about the great lama in Canterbury.

  14. ejh said,

    July 18, 2008 at 8:11 am

    Ooh, citing Douglas Hurd. You’ll be in trouble.

  15. WorldbyStorm said,

    July 18, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    Mark P, apologies, I was just sort of thinking through what you’d said about the local LCR cheerleaders being anti-PBP. I’m sure the numbers are low so it’s not that significant, but it just seemed not to auger well for unity around PBP, at least for that fraction…

    Hmmm…. Ratzinger as Gorby… Perhaps. Not so far though. Anyhow, who’ll be the Yeltsin and have the sit on top of the tank moment when the arch conservatives occupy St. Peters Square?

  16. WorldbyStorm said,

    July 18, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    Of course it won’t be a tank, it’ll be a Popemobile, and…

  17. green said,

    July 18, 2008 at 10:58 pm

    “That said, I haven’t heard tell of the Church of Ireland (Traditional Rite) for years, and fear they may have gone the way of the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist).”

    Dude, where’ve you been?

  18. Mike said,

    July 19, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    I note that the joke told in both posts 11 and 12 was told by me to Splinty after I had it from Dr Paul. Shame on you Splinty for your theft of a copyrighted gag!!

  19. John said,

    July 19, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    S.S. Yes, i seem to remember reading (i think that i still have it) a copy of ‘Soviet Strength’ by Hewlett Johnson (Dean of Canterbury) back in the dim distant past.

  20. Ken MacLeod said,

    July 20, 2008 at 8:33 am

    Hang onto it, John, it may be a rarity. Hewlett Johnson’s bestselling book was _The Socialist Sixth of the World_. I used to come across secondhand copies of the Left Book club edition all over the place, and I regret to say I never bought one.

    Having glimpsed Ratzinger quavering his apology for child abuse on telly last night, I think my Gorby analogy may have been a stretch. The man has the radicalism of Andropov and the charisma of Chernenko. But I still think he may have some surprises for us.

    On the general point … I sometimes wonder how much people’s religious background still colours their understanding of (say) Marxism, even if they’re sound materialists. Francis Mulhearn (who happened to be a neighbour) once told me over a pint that he could never get his head around determinism, and I told him I could never get my head around free will, and we guessed it was because he’d had a Catholic education and I’d been raised a Calvinist.

  21. Dr Paul said,

    July 20, 2008 at 11:25 am

    Re Mike’s comment # 18: this was in New Interventions, Volume 12, no 1, Spring 2005, to which I plead guilty for writing: ‘There is a problem for the Vatican in that Ratzinger lacks the charisma of Wojtyła. He is to his predecessor what Rajani Palme Dutt was to Harry Pollitt, the dour, publicly humourless eminence gris of the British Communist Party as against the apparently amiable front man with the common touch. Whereas Dutt and Pollitt worked for most of the time in tandem, here the cold theoretician and apparatchik has taken the place of the longstanding genial public face of Roman Catholicism. Ratzinger’s opinions are no different to Wojtyła’s, but it is unlikely that this backroom schemer will pull in the crowds in the way that his charismatic predecessor was so adept at doing.’

  22. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 20, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    I plead guilty to the theft of that gag, and offer in mitigation that it was a good one. But Ratzinger is very much a product of the German rationalist strain in Catholicism. JP2 on the other hand held to that mysticism that’s quite strong in the Polish church, and maybe indicated that the Poles aren’t as different from the Russian Orthodox as they like to think.

  23. July 21, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    btw … the American SWP expelled gay members until 1970, see:

  24. dave said,

    July 22, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    That was then and this is now. It’s no doubt true that the older generation harbored prejudice against gay people, but that all went away when the younger generation — born of Cuba, Vietnam, Birmingham and the women’s movement — assumed leadership.

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