No, Rowan Williams is not advocating that Anglicans should consume mind-bending drugs. Not this week, anyway. What this relates to is the Church of England holding its General Synod over the past week. And that can only mean it’s time to turn to the irrepressibly perky Ruthie Gledhill, who doesn’t even let General Synod get her down, and somehow manages to stay alert enough to notice the odd zinger:
A wonderful and most inspiring act of Christian self-abnegation has just awoken a sleepy Synod. No-one ever expects much from presentations with titles such as ‘An Address by the President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference’.
Ruthie is being a little tactful here. It’s actually one of those bits in the programme that signals to the assembled vicars that it’s time to nip out for a crafty smoke. But in that case, the vicars would have missed something:
So it rather surprised us all when we suddenly realised that David Gamble, President of the Methodist Conference, told us that the Methodist Church was prepared to sacrifice its very existence and return to the Anglican fold, for the sake of the greater good of the Gospel.
Say what? Actually, there’s little reason why not, theologically speaking. Notwithstanding some cultural differences – the Meths are stereotypically a bit more working-class – they could fit quite easily into the church of the Wesley brothers, their own views mapping reasonably closely onto the Liberal-Evangelical spread in the C of E. Generally quite liberal in theological terms, generally Low Church in style, plus adding the Wesleyan patrimony to the liturgical mix. Fascinating.
Of course there are a few problems.
You don’t say, Ruthie. I sense the dread question of ecclesial governance coming on:
Some Methodists are not sure about whether they want bishops or not, and some Anglicans, from the ranks of those who oppose women bishops, are not sure about whether they want Methodists. The reasons for both oppositions are the same: questions around orders and the Apostolic succession. But the Methodists might be prepared to accept bishops if women are allowed to join their ranks in the Church of England, as Methodism is fully inclusive of women in all leadership positions.
It is possible to envisage a scenario where those Anglo-Catholics who would oppose unity with Methodists leave for the new Roman Anglican Ordinariate as the Church of England proceeds towards women bishops, paving the way for full Methodist Anglican unity.
Well, that would be a neat outcome for all concerned. And yes, the validity of orders – an issue stemming from Apostolic succession – is the key thing here. To be honest, either you accept the validity of women’s ordination or you do not. If you’re prepared to accept women as priests, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have women as bishops, except the realpolitik reason, which is that opponents of women’s ordination (on precisely the grounds of Apostolic succession) were offered a ghetto to head off the likelihood of wholesale defection to Rome. Consecrating women as bishops ups the ante, especially for dissenting priests, and the stakes are raised further by both General Synod deciding not to offer a special dispensation for dissidents, and simultaneously Pope Benny calling the Anglo-Catholics’ bluff by offering them more than they were asking from the C of E. Let’s see how that pans out.
The joint church then gets the squillion pound Westminster Central Hall (just £94 million in fact), one of the top pieces of real estate in the entire country, if not the world.
Oh yes, that would sweeten the deal. One of the big question marks over the Ordinariate has been the real estate issue – whether Anglo-Catholic congregations could bring their beautiful old churches with them, rather than being forced into the 1960s concrete monstrosities favoured by English Catholicism. If the Meths can add a bit of capacity, that may create a little bit of wiggle room.
But that wasn’t the only thing worth remarking on at General Synod. There was also the ABC’s Presidential address. This being +Rowan, there are the usual bits of infuriating waffle, as well as a rather surreal invitation to us all to put on 3D glasses, but there were also points of interest, not least because he was concentrating on these equality issues that have got everyone so het up recently:
The heated debates around the Equality Bill brought this out in one way, some of the renewed flurries of pressure and anxiety about euthanasia and assisted dying in other ways. And as we look forward to our own debates later in the year on women bishops and on the Anglican Covenant, we may see the parallels.
What Rowan is talking about is a theme regular readers of this blog will be familiar with, which is the difference between a concept of civil liberties and a concept of positive rights, specifically the problem that liberal rights theory has never figured out what to do when two sets of rights conflict.
I’d say that the main thing is something to do with the nature of freedom in society – and thus also with how we talk about our ‘rights’. Of course, this was most in evidence in the Equality Bill debates, though it was obscured by fantastic overstatements from zealots on both sides. The basic conflict was not between a systematic assault on Christian values by a godless government on the one side and a demand for licensed bigotry on the other. It was over the question of how society identifies the point at which one set of freedoms and claims so undermines another that injustice results. As in fact the bishops’ speeches in the Lords made quite clear, (despite the highly-coloured versions of the debate that were manufactured by some) very few Christians were contesting the civil liberties of gay and lesbian people in general; nor should they have been. What they were contesting was a relatively small but extremely significant point of detail, which was whether government had the right to tell religious bodies which of the tasks for which they might employ people required and which did not require some level of compliance with the public teaching of the Church about behaviour.
The rights and dignities of gay and lesbian people are a matter of proper concern for all of us, and we assume with good reason, even, I should say, with good Christian reason, that the securing of these rights is obviously a mark of civilised and humane society. When those rights are threatened – as in the infamous legislation that was being discussed in Uganda – we quite rightly express repugnance. But not all governments are benign and rational. And it is a short-sighted government that creates powers for itself which could be used by a later government for exactly opposite purposes. Not the least irony in the recent controversy is in the echoes of debate twenty years ago about another government’s attempts to regulate teaching about sexuality in schools – but in a quite opposite direction to what we now see prevailing. The freedom of government to settle debated moral questions for the diverse communities of civil society is not something we should endorse too rapidly: governments and political cultures change, and it is a mistake to grant to governments authority that could impact on us in other and even weightier areas, whatever authority we grant government to define fundamental and universal legal entitlements in society at large.
This is a very important point from a civil libertarian point of view, although I suspect it may be lost on some of those who were on the rather silly “no platform for non-atheists” rally at Westminster Cathedral today. When people like Terry Sanderson and Peter Tatchell were campaigning against Section 28, a crucial part of their argument was that the state had no business telling people that their sexual preferences were wrong. I don’t believe they had in mind – at least I hope they didn’t – that a future government would set up a whole series of liberal Section 28s aimed at enforcing uniformity on people whose views aren’t as advanced as theirs. Putting your trust in legislation or court rulings aimed at securing the supremacy of liberal mores is fine, until the mood changes. When the mood swings back again, then you’ll be in trouble. That’s why a civil libertarian position will do you more good in the long term than a statist interventionism that might seem tempting in the short term.
The debate over the status and vocational possibilities of LGBT people in the Church is not helped by ignoring the existing facts, which include many regular worshippers of gay or lesbian orientation and many sacrificial and exemplary priests who share this orientation. There are ways of speaking about the question that seem to ignore these human realities or to undervalue them; I have been criticised for doing just this, and I am profoundly sorry for the carelessness that could give such an impression. Equally, there are ways of speaking about the assisted suicide debate that treat its proponents as universally enthusiasts for eugenics and forced euthanasia, and its opponents as heartless sadists, sacrificing ordinary human pity to ideological purity. All the way through this, we need to recover that sense of a balance of liberties and thus a conflict of what may be seen as real goods – something of the tragic recognition that not all goods are compatible in a fallen world. And if this is true, our job is not to secure purity but to find ways of deciding such contested issues that do not simply write off the others in the debate as negligible, morally or spiritually unserious or without moral claims.
Quite so. I think it was Hegel who said that the essence of tragedy was when both sides were right. Worth remembering, too, that while single-issue activism puts a premium on uncompromising stridency, if you’re trying to take a holistic view of things that means taking the heat out of certain arguments, and very often messy compromises.
It’s worth your while reading the whole address, if you’ve got the time. It’s thoughtful and nuanced – Rowan’s problem is that he’s often too thoughtful and nuanced – and gives a rounded perspective that’s been lacking in a lot of the self-righteous polemic we’re used to witnessing. Well said that man.
*Title nicked from Fr Dwight, to whom a tip of the hat.