Anglicans to ingest Meths*

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.

And further:

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.


  1. andy newman said,

    February 15, 2010 at 10:29 am

    Well I am a big fan of rowan Williams, but for me the big issue in this Synod has been the relationship between North America, and the African and Middle East chrurces; where the Anglican communion seems to be involved in some gymnastics.

    The recent resignation of the Archbishop of Jeruslaem from the governing committee of the Anglican communion on the basis that he was always ignored, and was there a a token underlines the point that for many Anglicans they wil make any sacrifice to keep the Canadians and Americans on board, and are even willing to allow the greater financial weight of the North American churches to bring inflence to bear of thr African churches.

    If you read the tenor of discussion from the North Americans they are to a certain extent informed by “taking up the white man’s burden” with a zeal that their own views on gay and Women bishops which happen to be closer to the liberal consensus of our society are self evidenty right, and the African churches need to be led by the enlightened nice white folk.

    As socialists we may ptrefer the views of the Notrth Americans, but the African churches also have a point not only in terms of there being scriptural authority for their position; but also that social attitudes in Harare and Nairobi are not the same as in Los Angeles and Brighton. Part of the intransigence of the African bishops s certinly iinformed by their admirable insistance that they are no less importnat than ther Americans.

    Gven that this issue is the political hot potato in the cmmunion, then i cannot see the methodists being anything but a distraction.

    With regard to the possible defections to Rome, I still cannot see this being significant, those minded to go would have gone by now. The Archbishop of Yorks recent insistence that the C of E is a Catholic Church has weight, and there are so many complications, not least that the majority of Anglo-Catholics are probably liberal on the issue of women priests and gays, but inclined to Catholicism over more abstruse issues such as transubstantiation, and apostolic succession. and very few defectors would take their congregations with them.

    I woudl mhave thought Allowing the Mthodists to join the communion would

  2. Phil said,

    February 15, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    What absolutely isn’t going on in the Anglican Communion is a confrontation between The Episcopalians And Guardian-Readers and The Reactionaries; one way of understanding what Rowan W. in particular is grappling with is the danger of a kind of liberal absolutism turning that polarisation into reality.

    I think Andy’s right about the ‘Roman’ tendency in the C of E – if anything Benny’s called their bluff; anyone who wants to go can go, it’s not going to make much of a splash either way. The Anglo-Catholic area is much broader; I suspect the numerical majority of people who are actively committed to A-Cism (as distinct from parishioners who don’t object to it enough to change churches) is made up of people who basically like the clothes and the incense, some of whom are pretty liberal on women’s ministry, at least in theory, and very liberal indeed on Teh Gays. (And not only in theory – my parents’ priest (as he preferred to be known) resigned from a celibate Order on the stated grounds that it wasn’t fair to his partner. Ironically his successor, who was a lot more low-church (and a much nicer bloke, as it happens), actually was celibate, on the general principle of “it’s not actually approved by the Church so why make trouble?”.)

    Most importantly, none of this maps directly on to politics more generally – Ken Leech is a great one for the frock. If the African conservatives have got any friends on these islands they’re on the evangelical side of the church – which doesn’t have much truck with apostolic succession & hence isn’t too bothered about women clergy.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      February 15, 2010 at 8:16 pm

      One interesting point is that if the Pope had an objection in general to employing gays, he’d hardly be trying to recruit Anglo-Catholic priests.

  3. February 15, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    reading the term “Anglicans on Meth”, I was first thinking of Pentecostals 😉

  4. weserei said,

    February 15, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    So an intake of the Methodists would raise a lot of questions about the status of the doctrine of apostolic succession in the Anglican Communion–which in turn increases the pressure on the Catholic-sympathetic wing of the AC to make up their minds already. Everyone (for a certain value of “everyone”) seems to recognize this.

    But doesn’t it also raise questions about the group that has just gone over to the Catholic Church? A year ago they were Anglicans, members of a church that made no secret of its decidedly non-Catholic attitude toward apostolic succession and transubstantiation–just to pick two issues, that happen to be pretty important to the theological understanding of the concept of “The Church.” Now they’ve come over to the authority of the Vatican, which hasn’t made any theological concessions to them, right? Pope Benedict guaranteed ex-Anglican Catholics a permanent parallel structure to that of the Latin Rite English Catholics and permanent use of their distinct rite. Isn’t that a little trivial? If they really believe in Catholic teaching, what exactly were they doing in the Anglican Communion?

  5. robert said,

    February 15, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    If the meths come in and a large number of Ang Cats leave that will help move the C of E to being a protestant church, which is all to the good. The Meths have had women ministers for years so it may help to bring on women bishops as well; again good news – I don’t see what the problem is once you have women priests objecting to women bishops is simply misogyny.

  6. shane said,

    February 15, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    I once visited an Anglo-Catholic church in Edinburgh (the name escapes me) which celebrated the 1962 Roman Missal (aka the Tridentine Mass) ad populum, but also had women clergy and was (so I’m told) ‘affirmative’ in the area of homosexuality. In the Anglican church, ‘Liberal’ theology doesn’t seem to be incompatible with a preference for ‘High’ ritual.

    Maybe Anglican liberals have better taste than the Catholic variety. In the Catholic Church in Ireland, the post-Vatican II ‘new priests’ (who triumphed with the appointment of Dermot Ryan to Dublin, but are now the Church Establishment) quickly set about destroying church interiors the length and breadth of the island. In the recent media coverage of Longford Cathedral and Cathal Daly not one reporter mentioned what the latter done to the former.

    As an example here is what the Augustines of Galway done in the name of ‘involving the laity’:

  7. Phil said,

    February 15, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    If they really believe in Catholic teaching, what exactly were they doing in the Anglican Communion?

    Steady. The Church of England is a Catholic church – at least, people (R. Williams included) claim plausibly and logically that it is a Catholic church. “Roman Catholic” is two words.

    • weserei said,

      February 15, 2010 at 6:18 pm

      Sorry for the terminological error, and I think there’s an important point there–I think the question of where the various Old Catholic communions fit in in all of this is also quite interesting. All I can say in my own defense is that it was still early in my part of the world and the coffee hadn’t kicked in yet.

      If I could rephrase what I was trying to ask:

      Prior to the administrative decision taken by B16 last fall, and their subsequent entry into the Roman Catholic communion, what was their stance on those theological issues on which the Roman Catholic and the Anglican teachings differ? (Consider the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is central to the Roman Catholic understanding of Jesus’ self-sacrifice and the constitution of the Church, but which is explicitly rejected by many if not most members of the clergy of the Anglican Communion.) If they agreed with the Roman Catholic teachings, why were they not already Roman Catholics? If they disagreed with the Roman Catholic teachings, have they actually converted in terms of their beliefs?

      • andy newman said,

        February 15, 2010 at 7:47 pm

        Well this is pretty much exactly the point made recently by the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, that unless those who join Pope Bendict’s Ordinariate are prepared to fully accept Roman doctrine, then they will be second class members of the Roman communion; meanwhile, there is a highly plausible argument from within the Episcopalian tradition that they are a Catholic church – a view that woud be perhaps shared by most non-conformist protestants; but vehemently disputed by low church Anglicans.

        Indeed it is this ecumenical aspect of Anglicanism, that it is THE Church of England, which unites both protestants and catholics in one communion, governed by the bishops but with laws made by the synod, that is its unique feature. Indeed a curiously English sort of lash up, where practicality and muddling through is considered more importnat than doctrinal coherence.

        If left to its own devices then i am sure that a compromise could be reached over gays and women bishops within the English church; the complications come from the global communion, who do not share the English predeliction for muddle; and do not have the uniquely English advantages of being the established state church. This is where dr Williams does such a good job in almost impossible circumstances of trying to keep all the plates spinning.

        The cultural difference also shine through at the global level that the North Americans are minority chuches seeking a USP in a crowded marketplace, while the African churches are in societies where they are overwhelmingly hegemonic, and a force for national stablity in relatively new and muti-national, multi-ethnic states; and so the churches there have an institutional interest in stability.

      • jc said,

        February 15, 2010 at 7:59 pm

        A couple of points:

        Women bishops are much more problematic from an AC standpoint than women priests. ACs believe in the apostolic succession, which they believe is present in the Anglican episcopacy because Anglican bishops have received valid holy orders through an unbroken lineage going back to the pre-reformation English church — Henry VIII did not adopt a new set of bishops, he simply instructed the existing bishops that they were no longer in communion with Rome. An AC can take the position that a woman priest does not have a valid ordination without that fact negating the valid orders of the (male) bishop who ordained her. A much bigger problem arises when you have female bishops (the validity of whose orders ACs reject) purporting to annoint bishops themselves. Very quickly, the validity of the Anglican episcopacy become hopelessly compromised in AC eyes.

        There is significant variation in the positions taken by Anglicans with respect to the doctrine of transubstantiation. If anything, I think it would be fair to say that most clergy in my own church (US Episcopal) are intentially vague on this point. The strong protestant position was certainly the position of the early Anglican church, but many post-Oxford Movement Anglicans — including Rowan Williams — could fit comfortably within the Roman Catholic church on this issue. Papal infallibility and folk-Marianism of the Medjugorje variety are more likely sticking points for ACs. That and the utterly debased nature of modern RC liturgy.

        In an odd way, I think a strong catholic ecclesiology is behind some of the reluctance of ACs to convert. They see the Anglican church as the church catholic in its specific local cultural form and believe that the ideal is for the Anglican church to reconcile with Rome as a whole church, rather than as an individual matter of conscience. Ecumenism is about reconcialiation of whole sections of the church, not the picking off of individual Anglicans/Orthodox/Lutherans by Rome.

      • chris y said,

        February 16, 2010 at 12:30 pm

        but vehemently disputed by low church Anglicans.

        Indeed? Then what do they do when they’re reciting the Creed and they get to the bit that goes (or went, I’m sure the language has been modernised since my day) “I believe one holy, Catholic and apostolic church”.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 15, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    The validity of orders is a key point here. I know that if an Orthodox or pre-Chalcedonian priest goes over to Rome – which, on a bigger scale, is how the Uniate churches came into being – his orders are accepted more or less automatically. Anglican orders aren’t exactly regarded as dodgy, but defecting priests will get re-ordained just to be on the safe side. How the Ordinariate is going to work in practice is anybody’s guess. (And the waters are even muddier for the TAC, who requested the Ordinariate in the first place, since they have a bit of a subculture of episcopi vagantes.)

    If you look at it from the Eastern point of view though… the Orthodox Churches have never had a problem describing themselves as Catholic, it’s just that for historic reasons they were out of communion with Rome. (The same position as held by a lot of mainstream Anglicans.) The current peace process is dealing at the moment mainly with the extent and limits of Papal authority, which is the obvious stumbling block. But there are also some issues, a lot of them liturgical in nature, that Rome sees as basically matters of form but the Byzantines regard as having some theological significance. That process looks glacial, but when it does start to move it’s likely to move very fast indeed.

    And so, I suppose, with the ACs. They’re being offered a deal that would put them, not in exactly the same status, but in the same ballpark as the Maronites or the Ukrainian Uniates. Their bluff is called indeed.

    • andy newman said,

      February 15, 2010 at 9:23 pm

      well yeah, but the complication is that those Anglo-catholics who are minded towards Rome in terms of an aspiration for a universal church, are also likely to be more liberal than the evangelicals who don’t see themselves as catholics, but who are closer to Rome’s teaching on gays, women priests, etc.

      As such the only ones interested in the Ordiniate are likely to be those who are BOTH catholic and socially/ scripturally conservative. And that may not be many clergy; and even fewer of the laiety. In England certinly, though the situation in Northern America may be different.

      i don’y share Splinty’s view that this could be quickly resolved, because I think that the tnesions within the Anglican communion are pulling in sevral different directions at once.

      • splinteredsunrise said,

        February 15, 2010 at 11:10 pm

        The latest is that Forward in Faith’s Australian branch has welcomed the Ordinariate. North America will be worth watching in terms of the conservatives who have split away from TEC – which is basically staking out a liberal USP in a crowded marketplace – and there are rumblings from Canada as well.

        But the Anglican Communion does find itself in the old Fourth International bind, where the North Americans have got the money but the Africans have got the numbers. And poor old Rowan playing the Ernest Mandel balancing role in between, not to mention his own factional situation at home.

      • jc said,

        February 19, 2010 at 5:30 pm

        Most of the breakaway group in the US are actually evangelicals, so unlikely to move to the RC, which they view as unsound on the three solas — sola gratia, sola fide and sola scriptura. Evangelicals believe that RCs have a heretical focus on works righteousness. You have to understand the US churches very differently — people have very little brand loyalty to denominations. Many of the disgruntled ECUSA members are people who came in from other denominations because of their attraction to a particular parish or priest, rather than any commitment to the Anglican tradition. They are really just generic evangelical protestants, who will be more comfortable in a conservative splinter group than in the catholic church. Falls Church in Virginia (which has many prominent DC conservatives as members, including Clarence Thomas before he returned to Rome) has provided a lot of the leadership in the dissenting group. An NY Times article a couple of years ago pointed out that a large proportion of the Fall Church congregation had never even officially joined EPUSA.

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