The King, the C of E and I

A version of this was published in the Tablet in coronation week

I have sometimes wondered whether the Church of England might drive me round the bend. Maybe it’s quite common to feel conflicted about one’s religious tradition, but this tradition, I submit, takes the maddening biscuit. For in this case one is also talking about other things: national allegiance, monarchy, a class-tinged style of culture…There’s a lot going on.

Let me offer, as a sort of coronation gift to my new king, a brief account of my experience of this tradition.

I was raised in the old Anglicanism of reserve, tradition, order, propriety. This form of religion was quietly aware of its centrality to the national character, of its establishment in a wide sense. Its style was high rather than low, but it was hardly conscious of the fact; it hardly needed to acknowledge the existence of evangelical enthusiasm, or trendy reform, or Roman Catholicism. For centuries, it had simply been religious normality – what kings and queens believed, what inspired the Empire, what the Bible was written for – well, the Bible in its Authorised Version. Other forms of Christianity were known to exist, but this was the authorised version. But this aura was fading as I grew up: being actively Anglican was becoming a bit unusual, at least in London (in small villages it can still feel culturally central). 

I was confirmed as an Anglican while at my public school, meaning my posh private school – class is part of this story, of course. Did I give any thought to the Church I was being confirmed into? No, the Church of England was just normality. I was vaguely proud of its national character, and the fact that it was Protestant. I learned in history that the nation had become Protestant under Henry VIII, that the English Reformation was a massive act of modernization, a clear-out of medieval superstition. Protestantism was therefore progressive, and it helped to make us the pioneer modern nation. On some level the Church, despite being ‘in decline’, still provided the nation with its official ideology. I felt vaguely proud to be part of this. As my Dad later quoted to me: there’s life in a ruin.

As a teenager I became sceptical of the authoritarian side of religion – this antiquated Church was under suspicion. On the other hand, it contained lots of good liberals who questioned everything. As a student I found I needed faith – but I wanted a version of Christianity that was fresh and relevant, that could appeal to my generation. I wanted a clear new form of religious socialism – and surely a radical commitment to building the kingdom of God on earth was at odds with the C of E, whose vicars pledged allegiance to the Queen. Some might denounce the Tories, but weren’t they all signed up to high Toryism, and monarchism? 

I kept my distance from organised religion, partly because of this ambivalence about my tradition. It was so full of nostalgia and muddle – and yet it felt like home, or more so than any other tradition. I was studying theology now, but avoided confronting the conundrum. 

Then came 9/11. I needed to know what I thought about religion and politics. As a liberal, I couldn’t accept the defining feature of my tradition, its established national role. For the key task of theology was to show that Christianity was compatible with liberal values, opposed to theocracy. It had to cut its ties to the Crown: I had nothing against the Queen, rather I had a vague sense of loyalty, but clarity about one’s religious allegiance had to come first. I wrote a little book arguing for disestablishment (I was encouraged by a publisher who later became a big-shot editor of a certain Catholic weekly). It felt like a cause that might re-invigorate the Church of England, by sort of turning it inside-out. I know, a long shot – and a slightly crazy one. 

I began exploring the history of the issue. I was drawn to the English civil war period, to thinkers like John Milton, who announced a new era of political freedom. It was not a secular vision but a Christian one – he said that true reform meant the rejection of theocracy, which meant monarchy and establishment. I wanted to echo this, but I gradually admitted that it felt a bit unreal. For the established Church had, since Milton’s time, gradually become pretty liberal. And yet it also outwardly retained its reactionary side – what a muddle! Other Anglicans seemed happy to muddle along with the muddle – but I seemed to need clarity. How does this Church relate to politics? My misgivings put me at odds with church, and I only attended worship occasionally. I suppose I feared getting comfy with the nostalgic and class-bound aura of the Church, the more-tea-vicar thing.

It was while living abroad, in New York, that I felt able to reconnect with Anglicanism. I needed the whole national established thing to be out of the picture for a bit, so that I could get back in the habit of church. The Episcopal Church (US Anglicanism) was just what I needed. Back in Britain, glad to be home, I found that I was moving to a new understanding of the establishment question. 

For me, liberal Christianity is defined by its attitude to modern politics: it is wary of a powerful Church, and has a positive view of the liberal state. An established Church, tied to a monarchy, seems directly at odds with this: it preserves some key features of Tudor-era theocracy, for goodness sake. But here’s the strange thing: Britain became a liberal state – arguably the pioneer liberal state – by preserving these antiquated structures, using them as a sort of exoskeleton. I hesitate to say it in these pages, but uniting around Protestantism was part of this. The exclusion of Catholicism from the monarchy in the Glorious Revolution sounds like indefensible bigotry, but it was part of how the nation found a common ideology, in which liberal politics could grow. And as it grew, the meaning of establishment gradually changed. The Church of England emerged as a Church that was married to political liberalism, in a way that other churches are not. For some, including almost all of the blowhard religious thinkers of our day, that is a dubious thing. For me it is a major plus.

And the monarchy has been part of this odd process, of a theoretically theocratic structure becoming a bastion of liberalism. Monarchs have tended to be figures of unity, fostering good relations between different creeds. Despite the official Protestantism, Catholics have tended to approve of the high ritual aura, the para-papal pomp. A monarch can be a more ecumenical and inter-faith figure than an archbishop, who has to promote his own creed. We saw the with the late Queen: she presented the Church of England’s role as helping other faiths to have a public voice. This would be theologically dubious coming from a bishop, but it was the right thing for her to say. And Charles has gone further. He has dared to present himself as a sort of high-priest of traditional spirituality, confident that this chimes with his official Anglican role. It does: a liberal established Church needs a figurehead who is Christian in a loose, eccentric way.

Can the strange dance continue long? I don’t know, probably not. With fewer people exposed to Anglican culture, the rational modern case against monarchy and establishment strengthens. It all just looks like empty traditionalism, an old-guard clinging on to power. My argument, that these antiquated forms have actually nurtured our liberal culture, probably makes little sense to most people not raised within this tradition. For the average person assumes that religion is opposed to liberal values, and the media reinforces this: only actual exposure to religious culture can challenge this. And even then, as in my case, it’s hard to get one’s head round the paradoxes of our history.

Instead of the normal flow of pious royalist treacle, I’d like to see some honesty from Anglicans in the wake of the coronation. In recent decades we have failed to develop a clear account of our tradition, especially its relationship to politics. We have failed to make a virtue of our dramatic history, allowing a vague post-imperial embarrassment to dominate. Charles himself has made some efforts in this direction: he dared to start a discussion about his inter-faith role. Anglican leaders, and thinkers, should echo that boldness, and explain to the British people that there is more to our constitution than all this exotic gilded pomp, and that there are good liberal grounds for saying: God save the king!

A recent talk at an academic conference

The Kenotic Roots of Liberal Christianity

A Short Paper delivered at the Society for the Study of Theology, April 2023

A few years ago I saw a good cartoon, I think in the New Yorker. A beggar is sitting on the street, holding up a sign that reads ‘Hungry, Please help’. And a rich banker passing by wags his finger at the beggar and shouts – You can’t bully me!

What’s interesting about power is that, especially in our time, the perspective can be inverted. In this case it’s absurd for the banker to reframe the power dynamic, making himself the victim. 

Maybe something like this has been going on in theology. We’ll come back to this – but first a question.

Should the Church reject violence, the violence of enforcing religious uniformity, of persecuting heretics? 

Yes, you will say, at least I hope so. But why do we think so? Why was the opposite view axiomatic for most of Christian history? When we say yes, the Church should reject such violence, is this a theologically grounded yes? Or are we just dismissing the question by saying, Of course, times have changed – the issue doesn’t arise nowadays. You might say there’s more danger in secular forces oppressing the churches.

What if I change the question a bit – should the Church reject the ideal of unitary theopolitics, the ideal of politics and religion in harmony?

Maybe not here, but at a lot of theological gatherings, the feeling in the room would change. Many would say that this is not just a valid ideal but the true task of theology in our time, to restore this sort of harmony, for otherwise religion is privatised or sidelined by the liberal project. But they might add that of course they don’t advocate the bad old effects of theocracy – persecution and so on. They might do so in a tone of irritation that they are being tarred with this brush from the distant past.

Some of us might want to challenge this response and say Hang on, maybe it’s not OK to advocate unitary theopolitics in a highbrow abstract way, maybe there’s a link to the actual harms relating to theocratic violence. And we might point to the Russian Orthodox Church’s complicity with Putin’s agenda as a current example of such harm.  And we might challenge the postliberal denigration of the liberal state, for surely such a state guards against the sort of religious violence that was once prevalent in Europe and still is in many parts of the world.

There is a surely a real clash of theological visions here.

So where is it?

I suggest that the culture of theology, in church and academy, evades this clash of perspectives.

For various reasons it has become difficult to debate this basic issue – basically the issue of theology’s relationship to political liberalism.

Of course the key thing is the decline of liberal Protestantism since around the 1980s and the rise of postliberal theology. Through a sort of self-censorship, the impulse to raise the issue is reined in – for fear of seeming dated, lacking in theological relevance or astuteness – and also politically incorrect. Maybe a desire to warn against theocracy is rooted in a liberal Protestant or whiggish prejudice against Roman Catholicism. Or maybe there is bigotry of another sort – for in recent times, the danger of theocracy has been most clearly evident in Islam.

So for these reasons it has become difficult to point out what used to be obvious to mainstream, fairly liberal theologians – that Christianity has a positive affinity with political liberalism. 

So when liberal theologians get together to discuss power, the question is – do they make any attempt to challenge this culture of evasion? Or do they go along with the powerful orthodoxy of their discipline?

At the risk of sounding polemical, and ungrateful to my hosts, I think that the plenary papers at this conference exemplify such evasion. I don’t see an appetite to address this big picture – to take a step back and ask what has happened to liberal theological tradition, to ask why it still fails to challenge the dominance of postliberalism or neo-orthodoxy. The theme of the conference, ‘Power’, is a decent enough way in to this big basic issue, of how Christianity relates to political liberalism. As I’ve suggested one could refer to the theocratic potential of Russian Orthodoxy. Or one could look at the coronation, and ponder the British tradition of church and liberal state.

So – I think the key task of theology is to reassess Christianity’s relationship to the liberal state.

We should start by stepping back even further. As I see it Christianity can relate to political power in one of three ways.

It can reject all worldly politics. This option will call political power ungodly, demonic, and urge withdrawal to a strictly separate enclave, as the apocalypse approaches. This is seemingly the New Testament view. 

Or it can give its blessing to a state that empowers it, that establishes it as the dominant religion. This can take various forms: for example, a Christian emperor can work closely with the Church, leaving it little autonomy. Or a religious movement can found a state in its image, as in New England. But in all cases, there is an alliance between politics and religion, whereby one form of Christianity is given supreme cultural power by the state. A unity of religion and politics is assumed to be necessary and benign. This second option might be called ‘theocratic’, but maybe that sounds polemical, and ‘Integralist’ is better, or ‘unitary theopolitics’. 

Or – the third option – Christianity can affirm a new sort of state, the liberal state, in which all beliefs are protected, in which politics is effectively secular. 

In practice, things are a bit messier. Option Two is the traditional approach of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and conservative Protestantism, from Calvinism to evangelicalism. And yet modern western Christians inhabit liberal states, which means that Option Three is in some ways imposed upon them. But their attitude to this is conflicted. In some ways they are happy enough about it, for the benefits of liberal democracy are considerable, but they fear that this entails a loss of authenticity. So they loudly denounce political liberalism, partly out of guilt that they are partially accepting it and benefiting from it. 

As you might infer, I favour Option Three. But I see it as surprisingly frail. Though the liberal state is pretty robust, or at least has been around for a while, the tradition of Christianity that affirms it has never really stabilised. It never developed a robust theological core- even though it was dominant for most of modern times in Protestant countries.

So I want to sketch the history of this tradition, with the emphasis on power and kenosis, the giving up of power. 

Of course Option Two has dominated Christian history since the time of Constantine. The Church entered into a deep alliance with political power, in the form of an empire, and then the various nations of Europe. Amid all the complexity, the ideal of a harmonious alliance was pretty constant. It was taken for granted that religious unity was necessary for political order. 

The main Protestant reformers did not challenge this. They still said that the state must uphold an official religion. But it was challenged by radical reformers like anabaptists who rejected state power.

The radical, or sectarian, reformers had a horror of the alliance of religion and violence – the forcing of consciences, coercion in religion. They said a pure church is one that rejects any alliance with a theocratic state. But they had no vision of a new sort of godly state, they assumed all politics was tainted. 

A breakthrough came with the crisis of England’s civil war. When bishops gained new powers under Charles I, an opposition movement drew on the radical reformers, but also on Puritan hopes for a fresh start, a godly nation – and something surprising and new emerged.

The new idea was this: the true church rejects coercion, theocratic violence – and therefore a new sort of state is needed, to ensure the protection of such a pure church, or rather churches plural, for lots of different churches must be tolerated.

The church that rejects theocracy calls for a new sort of politics, a new ideal of the state as the defender of religious liberty. So the church renounces its desire to be culturally dominant – but it authorises a new secular idea of politics.

This new vision was put forward by a few liberal Puritans in the early 1640s, including Roger Williams and John Milton. The state should not impose an official religion but should enable toleration, religious freedom. This vision was pursued by Cromwell, with mixed results. Of course this new ideal had to exclude the old theocratic ideal, it couldn’t extend toleration to Catholicism or episcopal Anglicanism. This post-theocratic revolution could hardly be attempted otherwise.

This new idea of the state is fraught with ambiguity. It serves a radical Christian agenda – the defence of liberty, the rejection of theocracy, so that churches can be powerless and pure. And of course it opens up a new secular political and cultural space. It begins to protect people’s right to be non-religious. You can see why we are still confused about it, why Christians are still torn as to its merits.

The experiment soon petered out. The English state could not suddenly get away from the fact that stability came from unitary theopolitics. So the old Church was restored, with the monarchy. But the post-theocratic vision was not quite banished: it influenced the Whiggish development of the constitution, especially in 1689. From now on the established Church co-existed with the ideal of toleration, an ideal that gradually expanded. Britain became the pioneer liberal state. And the Church was subtly transformed, by virtue of being the established Church of such a state. 

In conclusion, we need a fresh debate about theopolitics – after decades in which the core issue has been obscured. And in which liberals have been cowed by a confident neoconservatism.

The core issue is whether Xy affirms the liberal state. There is an either-or – a choice between unitary theopolitics, meaning the theocratic ideal, and the tradition of the liberal state. The normal response is to fudge it – to see political liberalism as deeply valuable, part of who we are – but also to allow a neo-orthodox rhetoric to dominate theology. There’s a fear of getting under the bonnet and exploring this contradiction – it might make us look sympathetic to a discredited sort of liberalism, it might associate us with a form of modern western power that we don’t want to be seen with.

A very brief word on the C of E. I used to feel that establishment was unjustified – at odds with Option Three. But I gradually came to feel that appearances were deceptive – in this tradition something unique and paradoxical is going on – when a church is established in a liberal state, then it is tied to Option Three, it is committed. And non-established churches will naturally gravitate to Option Two. 

Maybe we can relate this to the cartoon – maybe there was a necessary rebellion against liberal theology a generation ago, but now the prime rhetoric of theology is a professor wagging his finger at an entity called liberalism, saying You can’t bully me. Maybe a claim to victimhood masks a seizure of power, which relies on the bogeyman of liberalism.

Recent thoughts on the C of E

I recently had a piece in the Tablet, looking at the split over the ordination of women. An old story on one level, but of course the likelihood is that a new form of ‘alternative episcopal oversight’ will soon be set up for evangelicals. Liberals should reject the idea of ‘mutual flourishing’ and plainly say that the Act of Synod was a mistake, that a Church needs unity. You can read it below.

Also pasted below is my recent Spectator article suggesting that the evangelicals should not be indulged. The Church should have the guts to pursue its liberal reform on homosexuality without repeating the mistake of 1993, allowing a separate structure to take shape. In fact the below is a fuller version than was published. It says that the C of E has a core tradition, that is relatively new – liberal Anglo-Catholicism. It just needs to stand up for itself, and that involves defying the postliberals – as I hint, this core tradition is almost embodied by Rowan Williams and Giles Fraser, but they are both led astray by the spurious radicalism of defying ‘the liberal project’.

Can a church live with division? 

(A version of this was published in The Tablet, 1 April)

Following Synod’s approval of the blessing of gay couples, the Church of England is heading for a formal division over homosexuality. The Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) has called for ‘new structures’ and ‘good differentiation’.

This is not entirely virgin territory for the Church of England. Thirty years ago, after the decision to ordain women, it developed new structures to enable dissenters to stay within the Church. So will another new network of bishops have to be set up, to cater for the evangelicals?

How did the last split go? Or rather, how is it sill going? Does it show that the Church of England has the ability to accommodate strongly opposed viewpoints? Or does it serve as a warning – that trying to please everyone leads to a debased version of ecclesiastical authority?

The old rift has been in the news a couple of times this year. In January a traditionalist was appointed a diocesan bishop. And then two new traditionalist bishops were consecrated, in a ceremony in Canterbury that conspicuously sidelined the local archbishop.

Anyone need a quick recap? In 1992, the Church decided to ordain women to the priesthood (but not the episcopate). And the following year, the Act of Synod allowed traditionalists to create a new episcopal structure, with ‘flying bishops’. This allowed them to avoid receiving the sacraments from a woman – or even from a bishop who had ordained women. In 2014 Synod voted to ordain women to the episcopate. 

Surely the progressive cause had now fully triumphed? But it didn’t feel like that. Though only a small minority (about five per cent of parishes), the traditionalists remained bullishly in place, and retained the power to rattle the majority. Traditionalist Anglo-Catholic clergy formed a new grouping, the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda, which seemed to give them new energy. It might seem odd that such a small dissenting body can bother the majority, but their influence is inflated by the semi-traditionalism of mainstream evangelicals. A large and rich chunk of the Church is on the fence: it doesn’t see the issue as central, so doesn’t require alternative oversight, but it invariably favours male leadership.

But it’s the Anglo-Catholics who are the most paradoxical dissenters. For they have a ‘high’ theology of the Church, and insist that bishops are crucial symbols of the Church’s unity. And yet they also feel obliged to reject the full authority of the episcopacy, when it ordains women. As the late Judith Maltby argued in an essay of 1998, ‘the concept of extended episcopal oversight reflects, surely, a more radical departure from a catholic understanding of orders than the extension of that order to include women.’

I pay a visit to the Bishop of Fulham, Jonathan Baker, who oversees London’s Anglo-Catholic traditionalists. Despite his title he’s to be found in Holborn: the complicated arrangement sometimes involves some geographical slippage. How well does he feel the Church has coped with this division – does it basically work? ‘I feel the Church has reached a creative and fruitful place’, he tells me. ‘The arrangement enables us to offer a pretty thorough degree of episcopal minority to our parishes, and also to ensure the succession of bishops, as we’ve seen with the recent consecrations. From my perspective it works, in general, very well – especially in London. But it’s not a perfect system, and some would take a different view of its general success.’

But doesn’t a Church need a single united episcopacy? Isn’t alternative episcopal oversight deeply un-Anglican? ‘There have been many examples in the history of the Church, the whole Church, where ordinary jurisdiction has been separate from order and sacramental ministry. For example abbots and abesses have exercised oversight without being in episcopal orders, and in the history of the Church of England there are all sorts of quite quirky examples, such as Westminster Abbey.’ But these examples don’t arise from a theological disagreement, surely? But perhaps he doesn’t hear my question. ‘So the current arrangement is unusual, but it’s a worked-out solution, or attempted solution, to deal with the fact that within one Church you have two expressions of full communion, but you still have one structure. So, novel perhaps, but not entirely novel.’ 

The awkwardness of the arrangement is especially acute if a diocesan bishop is a traditionalist. For in theory he oversees women priests in whose ministry he does not fully believe. Until this year there was just one such bishop, in Chichester, but in January a traditionalist Anglo-Catholic, Philip North, was appointed diocesan bishop of Blackburn. Back in 2017 he was appointed to Sheffield, but local opposition forced him to withdraw. I suggest to the bishop that surely the problem still remains, that women priests of the diocese will be overseen by someone who denies the authenticity of their orders. ‘I think the key point here is that Philip North has been serving in the diocese for many years and has earned huge respect from all parts of the Church, including female clergy. I think he would have become a bishop whatever his position on this matter, such are his abilities and gifts.’ But a bishop is meant to affirm the validity of all the priests of the diocese – so isn’t there a contradiction here? ‘No, I don’t think there’s a contradiction. He will give full-blooded and committed care to all his clergy, female and male.’

Is there room in this Church for another split, or ‘impairment of communion’? Will the divide over homosexuality be a repeat of this divide, but on a bigger scale? ‘Well, they are different issues – one is about order, one is about teaching. So I think the issues are different and the response will be different, though there may be some learning from our situation. I’m sure there will be secure pastoral accommodation so that consciences are respected. My instinct, and those I look after, is always for that movement towards greater unity. Fractures in the Church happen quickly and take a long time to heal.’

I raise the recent consecrations of a new traditionalist bishop at Canterbury Cathedral. Because only Society bishops performed the actual consecration, all laying hands on the new man, it looked as if the traditionalists don’t even observe the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, I suggest. ‘I wouldn’t agree with that. The consecration demonstrated the principle of one structure, and two expressions of communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury presided over the whole event, and the bishop of Chichester clearly received from him a mandate to consecrate, and the new bishop made his oath of canonical obedience to the Archbishop.’ 

After our chat I pop in to his church, St Andrews, which feels like a well of timeless quiet. There’s an austere, old-fashioned aura, a clean contrast to the secular normality of central London. Maybe traditionalist churches have a stronger sense of ‘otherness’, I reflect – but how is one to distinguish the valid spiritual yearning from a nostalgic sexism?

For the other side of the picture I go for coffee with Rev. Martine Oborne of Women and the Church (WATCH). She does not agree that the Church has handled the matter as well it as it could have. Though she seems a cheerful sort of person, her face takes on a weary expression as soon as we get stuck in. ‘It’s all so exhausting, having to call out the subtle sexism at work in the Church, having to assert one’s validity as a priest, over and over again.’ 

Though she has some specific complaints about the way that the division is managed, it is clear that her real beef is with the fundamental set-up, with the sheer fact that the traditionalists are still around, casting doubt on the validity of women’s ministry. But she’s uncomfortably aware that she’s not really allowed to say so, that all clergy officially believe in the ‘mutual flourishing’ of all parts of the Church, and have agreed to exercise ‘gracious restraint’. ‘The situation forces us either to keep quiet or to sound like we’re complaining, fighting for our rights. If we dare to complain, we’re seen as nags, scolds. And we sound like we’re campaigning for our rights, in a secular way.’ 

Though WATCH objected to the recent appointment of Philip North, the tone was wearily accepting. I wonder why there was no local protest, as there was in 2017? ‘It’s a good question. It’s partly that the Church managed it carefully, and didn’t give opponents any warning. And the row over gay blessings served as a smokescreen.’ It was a bit of an ambush? ‘Something like that, yes.’ What annoys her is that the Church emits a flow of warm words about unity and good relations, and discourages open and honest debate about the theological problems involved. ‘One anomaly is that women serving under this bishop have no right to ask for alternative oversight by a bishop who actually sees them as fully valid priests. It’s a clear double-standard.’

Another specific complaint is that traditionalist parishes often fail to make their allegiance clear to parishioners. ‘You have to be well versed in church politics to find out that your local priest is opposed to the ordination of women – there’s so much jargon to confuse the issue. So we are calling for greater transparency, so people know what these parishes believe.’

But at root the problem is the Church’s toleration of an alternative structure isn’t it? So the Act of Synod was a mistake? ‘It was an emergency measure, to keep a large sector of the Church on board at a time of crisis, but the long-term consequences weren’t thought through. There should really have been a sunset clause, or at least the chance to rethink. But instead division was set in stone.’ So how might change come? ‘Maybe through parliament: MPs could vote for a time-limit to the Church’s exemption from the Equality Act. And that would address gay marriage as well.’ But she is aware that even saying this offends against the rules: both sides are meant to wish the other side’s perpetual flourishing, at least outwardly. 

Finally I ask Oborne what she thinks of The Vicar of Dibley. She shrugs, she has no strong opinion on the long-running sitcom. But I think it matters, I tell her. It subtly presented women priests as jolly lightweights, whose virtues (empathy, good humour) are more secular than religious, more like good mums than channels for holy mystery. And isn’t that a fundamental problem? Women priests are easily boxed as more worldly than male ones, more in tune with the culture around them. This is somewhat inevitable, for their existence does reflect contemporary social politics. And so, in contrast, the opponents of women priests have an aura of austere, counter-cultural otherness.

And, good liberal though I mostly am, I admit there is something alluring about that aura. Religion needs to be set apart from normal culture, and social conservatism is a sort of short-cut to this. Maybe the Church should have anticipated this, and insisted that such a difficult innovation needs to be executed with ruthless fullness. But I suppose that this isn’t the Anglican way. The result is that a question-mark still hovers over the authenticity of women priests, in an objective sense. While the Church enables opposition to their ministry, their validity is questionable. 

Does the C of E need the Evangelicals? 

(a version of this was posted on the Spectator site April 8)

The Church of England is in for an explosive summer. In February Synod decided to allow the blessing of gay couples, and hinted that it will lift the ban on actively gay clergy. Conservative evangelicals have warned the bishops that if they really go ahead with this they will create a split that dwarfs the division over the ordination of women. The bishops have accepted that this is on the cards: a ‘settlement of differentiation’ is likely to be needed, meaning new structures for the conservatives. Now there’s an awkward wait before the bishops’ next announcement, expected by July.

They can hardly back down – for one thing there is a lobby of MPs, led by Ben Bradshaw, urging bolder reform. But nor can they pretend that conservative opposition is melting away: a couple of weeks ago the Church of England Evangelical Council, which is no minor pressure group, issued a punchy statement entitled ‘Why We Are Compelled to Resist’. If the Church goes ahead with its plans, the group will denounce the innovations as heretical, and insist that it only remains ‘in full communion with those Provinces of the Anglican Communion who also maintain the biblical and historic teaching of the church catholic.’

On one level, what’s new? The evangelicals have been semi-separate for decades. Some of the large evangelical churches have often refused to pay in to the central funds, in protest at the leadership’s failure to defend traditional sexual teaching. More widely, many evangelical churches will only invite the right sort of bishop to come and do a confirmation service. The split is already a reality, but half-hidden under a veil of strained politeness. Now that veil is being pulled aside. One leading evangelical tells me of a significant development: evangelical ordination candidates have begun to question whether their local bishop has the authority to ordain them. ‘The bishops don’t quite seem to know what’s coming’, he says. ‘It will be a new version of women’s ordination, but squared. For that wasn’t a primary issue for evangelicals. This is.’

It’s a deeply sad moment for the national Church, according to most commentators; a failure of the Church to hold its factions together. But I’m finding it hard to keep my sad face on. As I see it, this is a major opportunity for mainstream Anglicanism to renew itself.

But surely evangelicalism has always been an important part of the Church of England? Yes, but it has become a destabilising force, a liability. And it is less indispensable than it thinks. 

Evangelicals are different from other Anglicans. And very proud of it. If they have finally decided that they are too pure and righteous for the national Church, well forgive me for not being entirely depressed.

I first noticed this form of religion when a recent old-boy came back to give a talk at school. To illustrate his message he drew a diagram, with stick-men, about how the Cross saves us from sin and hell. And I remember thinking: that’s odd, that he wants to turn religion, a thing of ancient wisdom and mystery and drama and bottomless dusty beauty, into a sort of chemistry lesson. Later on, as a muddled liberal Christian student, I was half-impressed by their clarity, and their stunning willingness to admit they were virgins. But their presence made it harder for me to come out as a Christian: I didn’t want people thinking I was that sort of Christian. I gradually got over this, but the more I saw of them the stronger the impression grew: this form of religion stood out from the rest of the Church of England, like a sore thumb, or like raised prayer-hands at Evensong – and it revelled in the fact.

Its origins lie in Calvinism, the English version of which was known as Puritanism. A reformed Church must stick to biblical teaching, said the Puritans, which entails certain clear rules about ‘godly’ behaviour. You are not a real Christian by virtue of your baptism: you have to sign up to a rigid version of orthodoxy. This is the only coherent alternative to Roman Catholicism, they insisted, and they had a strong case, such was the uncertainty of the post-Reformation world. But England didn’t want this sort of coherence and clarity. It wanted a less coherent national religion that retained some Catholic elements alongside some Puritan elements, and also incorporated some of the new liberalism that emerged in the seventeenth century. This farrago somehow endured. 

It wasn’t pretty. There was no golden age of Anglican theology, when the different elements harmonised. To start with, all religious zeal was muffled by gouty Tory squires. Then the Puritan spirit, modified by Wesley, shook things up, and the first Christians to be known as ‘evangelicals’ emerged. The emphasis was now on emotional transformation, being born again, and also on humanitarianism: their zeal helped to end the slave trade. Then the Anglo-Catholic spirit shook things up, and launched a new respect for sacramental worship, and a new affirmation of the urban poor. Both renewal movements were kept in check, and both had to accept the growing political and social liberalism of the Church. The frail alliance was partly kept together by national and imperial confidence.

In the recent decades of decline, the evangelicals have been doing relatively well. They developed networks and youth movements and summer camps and marketing campaigns, making the old-fashioned parish look very crumbly. But their success has been a poisoned silver lining for the Church. For evangelical dynamism cannot renew the Church as a whole. Its energy is too counter-cultural; it presents Christianity as an identity in sharp contrast to the surrounding culture, it insists that a true Christian is marked out by brave dissent from liberal views on sexual morality (see Farron and Forbes). An established Church cannot foreground such energy.

Well, they might rile liberals like me, but shouldn’t one be a bit pragmatic? If they now withdraw their dynamism from the Church, won’t it be weaker than ever? In some ways yes: it will have a yet another funding crisis, and will be mired in legal disputes with semi-departing evangelicals. But amid this new landscape, I suggest, something surprising will be revealed. 

Beneath the gloomy headlines of empty pews and bitter rows, mainstream Anglicanism has been quietly solidifying. Anglo-Catholicism and liberalism have become firmly wedded together. The Church now has a solid theological core – something it lacked throughout its centuries of seeming success. The question is whether it can find the boldness to assert itself.

In the mid twentieth century, Anglo-Catholicism still felt alien to most Anglicans, with its enthusiasm for ‘smells and bells’. It seemed at odds with Protestant simplicity, rationality, progress. This changed in the 1960s with the success of the Parish Communion movement, which called for the eucharist to be the central act of worship in every parish. Before that, a parish might only celebrate it a few times a year. Sacramental worship became mainstream, not just the preserve of high church types. Even the evangelicals accepted, in theory, that it was the new normal. 

Soon after this, liberal theology underwent a change. It looked like a collapse, but it was actually a healthy pruning. For most of the century, a reformist liberalism, very close to the humanism of the Enlightenment, had seemed cutting-edge. The old doctrines had to be ‘de-mythologised’, adapted to modern thought. The trend was typified by Bishop John Robinson’s book of 1963, Honest to God. In the 1980s, serious theologians began to reject such ideas, and learned to root their thought in the distinctive practices of the Church. But a political and cultural liberalism remained in place, a deep respect for the tradition of the liberal state.

So a moderate Anglo-Catholicism joined forces with a moderate liberalism. It might not sound like the sexiest coupling the history of ideas, but it means that the Church finally has a solid core. The obvious representatives of this new centre are women priests, for they embody the Church’s social liberalism, and their ministry is more fully encouraged by the Anglo-Catholics than the evangelicals. Also, they have forced Anglo-Catholics to decide if they are liberals or not – and the vast majority have made the right decision.

Most Anglican academic theologians are also sympathetic to this new core, but here the picture is complicated. For the most attention-grabbing thinkers of recent decades have attacked liberalism in sweeping terms – a modish posture, often rooted in stale Marxism, that is deeply unhelpful. (Rowan Williams almost embodies the positive shift I’m describing, but is held back by this academic defect, and the same goes for Giles Fraser.)

Some will say that the Church needs the energy of the evangelicals, that their flexibility and instinct for adaptation are more important than ever. I’m not so sure. Unless attempts at innovation are rooted in the fullness of Anglican tradition, they will wither, and cause division. The ‘fresh expressions’ movement proves the point: it became dominated by the standard evangelical idea of mission, and threatened the primacy of the local parish. A spirit of innovation must arise from the Church’s core, its liberal Anglo-Catholic core. 

I hope I do not seem hostile to evangelicalism. I simply see it as a different form of Christianity from my own, like Roman Catholicism or Pentecostalism. Good luck to it. But let it no longer claim to be central to the Church of England. Let the Puritans depart in peace.

My theology – condensed manifesto

I’m proposing a new liberal theology.

It is liberal in that it affirms the liberal state, which means freedom of religion, the rejection of unitary theopolitics. It rejects theocracy and the postliberal idealisation of theocracy. 

It is not sympathetic to ‘liberal theology’ in another sense – the idea that religion must be modernised on rational-humanist grounds.

It does not affirm ‘liberalism’ in general, which is too wide and contradictory to be affirmed. But nor should ‘liberalism’ be denigrated, for at its heart is the liberal state. 

The new liberal theology affirms the liberal state not just with the normal shrug, but in strangely strong terms. It says that something new happens in modernity – a fuller revelation of God’s will, in the political sphere. God decrees a new politics of liberty, in place of the old ideal of theopolitical unity, and this entails the seeming weakening of his church, echoing the kenosis of Christ – it will now reject the old desire for cultural supremacy, and affirm its co-existence with secularism, in a creative tension or dialectic. The liberal state is God’s gift to modernity.

The sacred worth of the liberal state

The Tablet, 8 April

We have taken the liberal state for granted. The tragedy in Ukraine has awakened many commentators to a renewed appreciation and admiration for the miracle of liberal democracy – flawed, tottering but still standing. They salute the courage and resilience of the people of Ukraine, and marvel at the extraordinary price they are willing to pay to belong to the “free world”. They note that liberal democracy has a new icon in the form of Volodomyr Zelenskiy. Then their gaze turns to their own flabby, cosseted culture. Let this be our wake-up call. The oration might cite Auden: we have colluded in “a low, dishonest decade”. 

On one level, these writers, journalists and broadcasters have no trouble articulating the features of liberal democracy. It is a form of politics based on individual rights, tolerance of opinions we don’t much like, free elections, free speech, free press, equality under the law, and so on. But something is missing. Such defences feel rather little, rather dry, rather dated, even rather beleagured. Francis Fukuyama’s famous “end of history” thesis, first set out (with more nuance and qualification than Fukuyama is usually given credit for) in 1992, that the evolution of forms of government has reached its highest form with the creation of liberal democracy, has been scoffed at from Left and Right almost from the day it appeared. (Fukuyama himself has recently published a sequel recommending his own strategy for keeping the flame alive.)

This exposes the gaping thirty-years’ gap where new and richer defences of classic liberalism should have been. There’s a sense of stagnation, and a sense that liberal thinking lacks vitality and depth. Yes, when a crisis comes and when we see what the alternatives to it entail, we can agree that liberal democracy is the best – or least worst – type of politics in a fallen world – but why do we say so in a tone of weariness rather than excitement?

Theology has been complicit in the malaise in liberal thought. Instead of prodding the liberal tradition to new life, some  influential strands in contemporary theology have demoralised and undermined it. You might think that most secular commentators are utterly indifferent to religious thought, but in fact theology has remained surprisingly intellectually influential. Of course religious conservatives – Catholic and Protestant – have always looked on liberalism with hostility, seeing it as a rival creed, a deadly enemy. But in Britain mainstream religious thought – especially in the established church – was broadly supportive of the forward march of liberal values of toleration, of live and live, of individual freedom. But in the past thirty years, that mainstream liberal tradition has faltered, especially in academic circles. Since the 1990s, most of the most influential theologians have been sharply sceptical about liberalism. We can trace this to a book published in 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and, to a lesser extent, George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, published three years later.

Both were decidedly unenthusiastic about the enlightenment and the conceits of modernity. Liberal individualism was a bogus ideology, a new barbarism. They influenced theologians as widely different as the American theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas and the English Anglican theologian John Milbank, founder of the “radical orthodoxy” movement, which declared that theology must denounce the idolatry of secular modernity and declare itself the true foundation of politics. With dazzling erudition, Milbank presented this startlingly neoconservative position as cutting-edge, postmodern. Two of Milbank’s followers have had some political influence: Phillip Blond’s book Red Tory influenced the Cameron government, and led some policy-wonks like David Goodhart to herald postliberalism as the big new political idea. Adrian Pabst’s co-authored book Blue Labour and his more recent Postliberal Politics have impressed some politicians. 

These thinkers call for a deeper democracy, based in religion rather than in the falsity of secular individualism and the excesses and idolatries of the free market. Their dislike of liberalism has a strong Marxist tinge (many of these theologians were deeply sympathetic to Marxism in their youth). They protest that they are not dangerous reactionaries, just harmless academics. But it is not entirely harmless to idealise a unity of religion and politics, to attack political liberalism for disrupting that unity – and, when geopolitics tuns ugly, and real-life theocracy rears its head, to claim to be loyal defenders of liberal democracy against its enemies. Some postliberals are less ardent (one might include Rowan Williams and Giles Fraser here, as well as Goodhart and Pabst), but they too see liberalism negatively, as a mix of rampant capitalism and community-eroding individualism. They fail to see that liberalism is baby as well as two varieties of bathwater. 

Might the grief and suffering caused by Putin’s war jolt theology from this dead-end? His aggression is clearly rooted in a theocratic vision, and a hatred of the liberal state. Should this not give our brainy postliberals pause? Should it not lead Christians to reflect on the sacred worth of the liberal state? Yes, the sacred worth. For it is no secondary matter, that people should be free from tyranny, that people should live in states that respect human rights and freedoms. Liberal democracy is not the realisation of the kingdom, any more than it is the “end of history”, but it is a major expression, or outworking, of the Christian gospel, of the Spirit in human history. And it involves the rejection of the old theocratic model of religion and politics, the old ideal of their unity. 

Some argue for a sort of neutrality: liberal democracy is the least worst form of government, but to affirm it too strongly is idolatrous. But this just allows the reactionary view that liberalism is a threat to religion to gain ground. The liberal state is largely secular – so how can it be seen as holy? Well, liberal Christians believe that we must accept a tension, or dialectic, between the secular shared public ideology of liberalism, and Christianity. The dream of theopolitical harmony must be renounced, until God brings his kingdom. This is not a sell-out to a secular ideology, for the liberal state has Christian roots. It echoes the kenosis of Christ. 

The Church of England, as you might expect, is wonderfully on the fence. It is the established church of a liberal state – which commits it both to the old order of established churches, and the new order of affirming liberal democracy. Until recently it seemed to downplay the former, and accentuate the latter. Now, who knows? Has its attachment to liberal democracy weakened? No, but it has become harder to voice, with so much of the most influential theology of the past thirty years pointing in the other direction. It is time to articulate the Church’s positive link with the liberal state, with unprecedented clarity.

That useful idiot again

A few weeks ago I drew attention to the Catholic Herald’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis. In an edition of the magazine that went to press just before the invasion, there was an article by Mark Jenkins that discussed Putin’s religious motivation in a sympathetic tone, suggesting that the decadent liberalism of the West deserved some sort of comeuppance. In the 1920s and 30s people – largely religious conservatives – used to justify fascists in the same way, I observed.

In my naivety I wondered whether the Catholic Herald would apologise for this misjudgement in its next edition. Instead, it has printed another contribution by Mr Jenkins. Again he writes a slightly veiled defence of Putin’s religious vision, this time focusing on his holy henchman Patriarch Kirill. The Russian Orthodox leader sees the war ‘as regrettable but necessary in order to restore the divinely ordained unity of the Russian people – a unity undermined by the emergence of a western-oriented, independent Ukraine’. Though the rest of the Orthodox world condemns this, we should be more nuanced, says Jenkins. ‘Before scoffing too loudly at this idea, it is worth noting that it is Kirill’s vision of a Christian empire, rather than the Enlightenment’s vision of a secular nation state, that reflects the historic Christian position. In the 19th century, the Catholic Church was as vociferous in its condemnation of Italian nationalism as the Orthodox Church was of Greek nationalism.’

Kirill’s detractors have been influenced by secular thought, Jenkins suggess; by contrast, ‘Putin and Kirill believe the West is in the depths of a profound moral and spiritual crisis.’ He then observes that Putin has urged his underlings to read a work by the theologian Vladimir Soloviev called The Justification of the Good. It is a ‘vision of a union of European Christian realms, a kind of “conservative utopia” through which the ancient European kingdoms might rediscover their Christian identity and, under the strategic control of Russia, fight against the Antichrist – the modern, godless, liberal world order. Soloviev had a vision of a theocratic Russia led by a partnership between the pope and the tsar, saving the West from itself.’ Instead of criticising this vision, Jenkins concludes by suggesting that Pope Francis is fundamentally sympathetic to it: he has in the past joined Kirill in warning against ‘the negative impact of western liberalism on religious values’, and he knows that the ‘non-western world is…reluctant to march to the drum beat of 21st century neo-liberalism and modernity.’

I have seldom felt so grateful to an author as I am to Mark Jenkins. When I bang on about the dangerous ghost of theocracy that haunts religious conservatism I fear that I sound dated and a bit hysterical, like a no-popery Whig. But here it is, the traditional view of how Christianity should relate to politics, minus the normal obfuscation. For Jenkins is basically right that ‘the historic Christian position’ is opposed to the modern liberal state. At root, the Catholic and Orthodox churches both believe in the unity of religion and politics, though they pragmatically soften this in order to sound modern and friendly. And this model is even idealised by ‘postliberal’ Anglicans.

If anything good comes out of this ugly crisis, it might be that it prompts Christians to rethink their denigration of liberal values. Let’s be blunt. Christians must choose between the old model of religion and politics, which is theocratic, and the modern model, in which the liberal state is seen as an outworking of the gospel. The average Western Christian has been conditioned to recoil from such a choice, and to enjoy an armchair seat on the fence, denigrating the liberal state even as he reaps its benefits. It’s time to unlearn that lazy stance. The most fundamental religious debate of modernity, buried for generations by complacent evasion, is resurfacing. Bring it on.

Dostoevsky’s danger

On the Spectator website this piece was titled (not by me) ‘Dostoevsky and Putin’s useful idiots’.

When I was seventeen I heard the name Dostovesky, and was enthralled. Just the name felt so glamorously intellectual, so deep. I began to read some of his novels, and my admiration increased. A bit later I delved into his ideas, and my admiration became more nuanced. I partly admired his defiance of the rational humanist arrogance of the West, but I was also wary of his reactionary mystical nationalism, his faith in the anti-liberal Russian soul.

It seems that a lot of religiously minded intellectuals struggle to get past stage one. They are so taken with the flinty glamour of this writer that their critical faculties atrophy. They allow their aesthetic admiration to influence their religious politics.

Rowan Williams is a theologian I admire for the most part, but he has been overly romantic about Russian Orthodoxy, as if its vision of religion and politics in perfect harmony is more authentic than modern Western Christianity. And his love of Dostoevsky has been a major factor in this. 

Last year he wrote an article for the New Statesman in which he argued for the novelist’s abiding relevance. He acknowledged that ‘his opinions jar against every liberal orthodoxy you can think of. He was an authoritarian monarchist who loathed Western democratic ideals and thought socialism a diabolical perversion.’ But we should not dismiss his thinking too quickly, he argues. ‘He may have defended tsarist absolutism, but he provides the most eloquent argument of the 19th century against religious tyranny. He wrote toxic nonsense about Jews, but objected to any attempt to limit their political and religious freedom. He believed that Christian (more specifically, Russian Orthodox) faith was the only hope for cultural renewal and global reconciliation, but wrote a scarifying catalogue of the unavenged horrors of human suffering (including child abuse) for which the Creator had to be held to account. He imagined Jesus Christ being tried and condemned by the Spanish Inquisition. He claimed, with a typical mordant irony, to have made a better case for atheism than most atheists would dare.’

Williams implies that it is simplistic to criticise Dostoevsky for his anti-liberalism: there is actually nuanced vision here. I don’t buy it. His anti-liberal vision must be squarely addressed, in normal sober terms, without reference to the poetic passages in his novels. If a reactionary, theocratic version of Christianity is a bad thing, then his version of it is also a bad thing. If only Rowan Williams spent more time explaining that a more enlightened, pro-liberal version of Christianity is possible, rather than semi-glorifying reactionary versions.

A.N. Wilson also displayed his deep love for the Russian sage last year. In the TLS he reviewed various books about Dostoevsky, and concluded by suggesting that he foresaw some of the ruptures of our time. These include ‘the pathetic unravelling of liberal Western Christianity, and its attempt to marry Reason and the Gospel.’ This is a deeply clumsy little bit of theologising, and again it gives succour to an illiberal vision. Wilson is wrong to suggest that liberal Western Christianity is defined by ‘its attempt to marry Reason and the Gospel’. This was one aspect of it, but another aspect is its belief in political liberalism. By shoving these two aspects together, Wilson implies that the liberal Christianity of the West was a huge mistake, a failure of authenticity. Does he believe this – that we should have stayed with a medieval theocratic version? His desire to sound as deep as Dostoevsky has clouded his judgement.

So what, you might say – these erudite Dostoevsky-fans are not likely to approve of religious nationalism in real life. Surely I do not accuse them of being Putin’s useful idiots? Well, there is an article in this month’s Catholic Herald by Mark Jenkins that gives one pause. It too begins by explaining that Dostoevsky was a prophet of Russia’s religious renewal, and an antagonist of western individualism and rationalism. Then it explains that this vision was revived after the fall of the Soviet Union: an intellectual called Aleksandr Dugin heralded the rise of a new Russian empire, rooted in Orthodoxy. In writings that directly influenced Putin, Dugin announced that Russia’s holy calling is to destabilise the decadent liberal West and make the world safe for traditional Christian civilisation. 

Jenkins maintains a neutral tone as he describes such ideas, but presumably he disapproves of a grand plan to divide and weaken the West. But the conclusion suggests otherwise. Jenkins makes a surprising prediction: ‘In ten years’ time, Russian tanks in Ukraine might well be greeted with flowers, rather than bullets.’ Eh? Has the Catholic Herald really invited a Putin sympathiser to tell us about this crisis? It seems so, for he concludes: ‘Fundamentally, the current crisis in world affairs is rooted in the materialism and dualism of the European Enlightenment. It is a defective paradigm, remarkably similar to the one that brought ancient Rome to its knees.’ He then quotes Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s belief that the liberal order is a new barbarism. And he finishes with another quote: ‘As Friedrich Holderlin once said: “Where there is danger, deliverance lies also.”’ The implication is that Putin’s chaos is providential, a righteous blow against the false ideology of the West.

This is the sort of thing that was written a century ago, about another bold foreign leader who dared to stand up to the decadence of liberal democracy: Mussolini. Soon Hitler was also praised on the same grounds. Yes, he might be crude and simplistic in his rhetoric, but who else is defying the Communists, and the secular liberals? Yes, there might be tragic conflict in the short term, but maybe this is necessary, to shake the world from its captivity to liberalism. Yes, there might be unfortunate consequences for the Jews, but that will blow over when order is restored. Plenty of right-wingers said this sort of thing, right up to the outbreak of war, and religious conservatism was a major factor in their worldview.

I think it is time to question the theological disparagement of liberalism, the not-quite-harmless theocratic posturing of our leading religious thinkers.

Response to Milbank

My recent thoughts on the Church of England – see 2 posts down – provoked a response from the leading Anglican theologian John Milbank. He said they were ‘typically peculiar and unrooted’.

In fact, to call Milbank a leading theologian is understating things. I doubt that any British academic has had such an influence on his or her discipline in recent decades. In the mid 1990s he was the key founder of a movement called ‘radical orthodoxy’. With huge erudition, and enviable fluency in French postmodern theory, Milbank and others attacked liberalism in both politics and religion, drawing on Marxist as well as Catholic thought. They dominated Anglican theology, mainly through intimidating sceptics into silence. They have also influenced politics a bit: Milbank’s pupils include Philip Blond, founder of Respublica think-tank, and Adrian Pabst, theorist of post-liberalism, who is admired by Danny Kruger MP. 

According to Milbank, ‘liberal Catholicism in the C of E never meant acceptance of political liberalism…Anglicanism has historically been far more Tory than Whig, but Hobson wants to claim Whig Anglicanism as normative.’

This summarises the difference between me and him very usefully. He sees ‘political liberalism’ as a bad thing. He idealises the ‘integralism’ of the pre-liberal era, meaning the integration rather than separation of religion and politics. This surely makes him a marginal reactionary figure, you might think. But the whole trick of post liberalism is to present such thought as edgy and brave not reactionary but ‘postmodern’, post-secular’.

I have half-admired Milbank’s work for years – he was one of my teachers when I was a postgraduate in fact. His polemical pugilistic style is a welcome contrast to the dullness of most academic discourse. But he and his movement have enjoyed far too much respect. It’s partly the fault of more liberal theologians: cowed by the post-liberals’ erudition and self-belief, liberals have shrugged and withdrawn from the fray. No one wants to be dismissed as a dated liberal who doesn’t get it.

Well I’m proud to be a Whiggish Anglican, meaning one who affirms the liberal state as a good thing. The alternative is to idealise a theocratic model of religion. Milbank and co laugh when accused of this – we’re just harmless academics, they say, not blood-stained inquisitors! But it is not entirely harmless to pose as a defender of this old model, and disparage what is good in our politics. 

In a sense he’s right, though. The Church of England has never got off the fence and drawn a line under its early phase which was indeed integralist, because the unity of religion and politics was still taken for granted in Tudor times. It has never clearly articulated its affinity with the liberal state. That’s the task for our day.

In good faith

This was in the Spectator a few months ago

It would be weird if my 13-year-old daughter didn’t say she was an atheist. It’s what you say in our culture when you’re that

age. To be honest it would creep me out a bit if she was all pious. But she is getting confirmed into the Anglican faith. This is a piece of hoop-jumping that her parents have decided to require of their children.

I went for coffee with the vicar, to ask if she could join the classes. I admitted that she was a bit reluctant. In fact, it was a mixed picture. Whenever I mentioned confirma- tion she professed her atheism, but when I didn’t mention it for a couple of weeks she asked when the classes were starting. She is not entirely averse to attention, even if it is directed at her eternal soul. Her church- going to date has been patchy. She quite liked Sunday school for a while, when there were some good craft activities and some younger children she could dominate. And she likes occasional guest appearances at her grandmother’s church in the country, where she’s as famous as Pollyanna.

The vicar, no fool, smiled at my sheepish admission that I had not raised St Thérèse of Lisieux. He said that one of his rich arty parishioners had recently paid his teenager to attend church.

That’s what gave me the idea. At first I was a little shocked that a vicar was half- recommending bribery. But then I took the long view and recalled what I had once learned of the conversion of the Anglo- Saxon kings, in which worldly motives played no small part. Why not? Bribing her would settle the matter, and seal her commitment. Otherwise she would perhaps be tempted to stage a little drama of teenage power-play, threatening each week to walk out. And that would be arguably worse for her soul than the acceptance of this bribe.

I won’t say what sum she is promised, but it is far less than was spent on her secular development over the summer, as an ama- teur rock-climber, tennis player and cho- rus girl.

The idea, of course, is to expose her to something that her parents consider beneficial. Attending church for five weeks or so will slightly deepen her acquaintance with

Christian culture. Yes, she will encounter some boredom. But she will also be prod- ded to think about the world in a new way.

Religion is incomprehensible unless you have been exposed to it. To the outsider, it must all seem absurd. To the teenager studying RE, it must seem odd that atheism did not completely triumph circa 1900. But if you witness people worshipping, and join in, it’s all subtly different. You see that these words and gestures matter to people — people who seem decent and sane. You see that these stories are revered, but they are also puzzled over, and sometimes joked about too. You see that an assortment of awkward English people can come together, in an understated way, through singing hymns and speaking some set phrases together.

At first it seems a bit creepy, people uttering responses in the liturgy, as if we’re all pretending to be brainwashed. But then, perhaps, you get to quite like the calm poet- ry of ‘And also with you’ and so on.

And the business end of the liturgy at first seems like a lot of faff over some silver cups and napkins, and everyone pretending to find it all sombre and momentous. But then, gradually, you get a little taste for the group theatre of it.

Sure, it’s a bit too understated to rock a teenager’s world. I don’t expect her to be excitedly Instagramming the experience. But let her see something that doesn’t fit with all that. She might quite like the quiet otherness of it, even if she doesn’t admit it.

Some might say: fine, pay her to go to church for a few weeks if you want, but not to be confirmed. That should be entirely her decision, unclouded by bribery. It is bad for someone to profess faith without really meaning it.

Well, I’m not sure. In Anglicanism, teenage confirmation isn’t really a decisive testimony that one is saved; it is, in effect, a cultural gesture. The teenager is acknowledging that he or she is somewhat shaped by this tradition, and showing some respect for that shaping, without claiming that it is any sort of fixed identity. ‘I’ll go on thinking about it, from this base,’ they are saying.

Even this sort of gesture should be the teenager’s free decision, you might say. But the idea of total autonomy is an illusion. You can’t make up your own mind about religion unless religion has been a factor in the mak- ing of your mind.

If she gains a little bit more respect for this tradition, it will be the best money we have spent on her. Religion might be some- thing she ignores for a decade or two, then finds she is glad to have access to. It does not hurt to have such options in our lonely culture. It does not hurt to know that vicars are almost invariably good sorts: trustworthy, thoughtful, open-minded. They might not like me publicising the fact they offer free therapy, as long as you can present your angst in terms of spiritual seeking. I hope that she does encounter such angst. It’s a strange thing to say, but it’s an odd part of raising, or trying to raise, Christians. One hopes that they will not find things too easy, fit in too nicely, if it means they don’t learn faith’s necessity.

I don’t expect her to come out of the classes a fervent believer. Real belief matures slowly, and co-exists with scepticism. She’ll go back to her crappy TV shows and her gossiping and her thrift-store rummaging. But with a little seed sown in her.

Recent Spectator Article: full text

Divided we stand: Anglicans need to agree to disagree

From magazine issue: 8 January 2022

Divided we stand: Anglicans need to agree to disagree

Text settingsCommentsShare

Two years ago the Church of England decided to delay any public discussion of its deepest division, over homosexuality, until 2022. So this might be the year in which an already troubled institution has a dramatic public meltdown. Or it might be the year in which the Church of England sorts itself out a bit. Yes, really. Stranger miracles have happened. 

There are grounds for hope, and not just on the gay issue. The Church has a core strength that it could draw on, and a core identity that could stand it in good stead, though one it is weirdly shy to assert.

First let’s admit that things haven’t been going so well, even while the gay issue has been kicked into the long grass. The pandemic has obviously been a nightmare for church attendance and finances, but it also deepened a dangerous ideological rift. It emboldened those who want to experiment with more flexible structures, which alarmed those who don’t, and who fear the demise of the parish. This rift is dangerous because it strongly overlaps with the old rift between evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. At the same time the Church got drawn into the culture wars, with knee-taking progressive bishops irritating a large section of the faithful. The former bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was irritated all the way to Rome.

It might sound like crazy optimism, but challenging times can clarify minds, and prod an awkward, uncertain tradition into life. I refer not to the Church in general, which has pockets of passionate conviction, but to the core Anglican tradition of liberal Anglo-Catholicism. It is liberal in the sense that it affirms the liberal state and rejects a reactionary response to modern culture. It is Anglo-Catholic in the sense that it has confidence in ritual tradition, and is wary of simplistic emotional piety and bossy legalism. It prefers mystery, difficulty, open-mindedness. This is, in my humble opinion, the best Christian tradition, and in fact the best tradition in all of human culture. So why does it have all the self-confidence of a pimply teenager?Liberal parishes must be free to conduct gay weddings, evangelical parishes must be allowed to refuse to

Some readers will be surprised some feel the Church lacks liberal confidence. Isn’t it full of trendy bishops trying to jump on woke bandwagons and modernise everything? Well, yes, there is a BBC-ish culture of political correctness, especially in the central leadership, but that’s not true liberalism, that’s just another form of tyranny. The Church could and should champion its own truly liberal identity. It only nervily apes secular trends because it has lost touch with its own tradition.

Consider the above-mentioned former bishop, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali. In an interview that he gave to this magazine he spoke of his early life in Pakistan, and named one of the key differences between Islam and Christianity. The former religion is ‘legalistic’, he said; it puts rules in the way of the believer’s relationship with God. His use of this contentious term struck me as a bit rich, quite frankly, in the context of his move from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. 

Legalism is the belief that religion entails a ‘law’, or firm rules, about morality and ritual culture. Compared with other monotheisms, Christianity is relatively critical of this aspect of religion. You could even say that it separates religion and moral rules, arguing that God chooses not to be built into a particular moral system; he prefers to associate himself with an ideal of perfection. It is within Protestantism, and particularly liberal Protestantism, that this ‘post-legalism’ has been most fully attempted. This was a major ingredient of the modern liberal state: politics became secularised, as religious rules loosened. The Church of England partially and awkwardly signed up to this. It is joined at the hip to liberal culture. Yes, this makes it easy to criticise, but this is its special calling. 

So the Church of England should regain some pride in its positive affinity with cultural freedom. Admittedly this will not in itself get agnostics back in the pews: secular liberals obviously don’t think they need any lessons on cultural freedom. But it is a crucial part of Anglican identity, and only a church that has confidence in its core identity can attract people.

When the Church’s liberal Anglo–Catholic core finally rouses itself into life, its task is threefold. First it must simply assert its centrality in the Church. This means speaking up for the Anglican version of liberalism, and defying the fashionable post-liberalism that has over-impressed a generation or two of Anglican intellectuals, from Rowan Williams to Giles Fraser. It’s time for a nuanced approach, in which aspects of liberalism are criticised, but in which the basic Anglican affirmation of the liberal state is renewed. 

Asserting its centrality in the Church also means treating evangelicalism with a bit less respect. For decades it has unbalanced the Church by drawing relatively big (and affluent) crowds with a style that grates on most Anglican sensibilities. Its simplistic idea of mission has dominated all recent attempts at innovation, which have been heavily backed by the archbishops, leading to discontent in the parishes. A case in point is the newish Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell: though he comes from the Anglo-Catholic side of the Church, his promotion led him to an uncritical embrace of the evangelical model of mission, with its grim middle-management diagrams and cheery facile slogans. Evangelicalism remains ebullient as ever, but thankfully its reputation for trend-bucking success is now fading: a recent report showed that its latest church-planting efforts were largely fruitless. This makes it easier to put it back in its box. 

The second task is to begin to end the dispute over homosexuality. It won’t be solved overnight, or over-year, but the solution is clear enough. Diversity must be allowed: liberal parishes must be free to conduct gay weddings, evangelical parishes must be allowed to refuse to. The Church allowed such diversity over the ordination of women; there is no reason that this compromise should not be repeated. 

I have sometimes felt that the Church was wrong to tolerate dissent on the ordination of women and let the traditionalists have their separate structures, but it turns out that it was providential because it set a precedent that can now belatedly be followed on an even more divisive issue. Only by embarking on this admittedly messy course can the Church reaffirm its affinity with the moral culture around it.

The third task is to renew Anglican worshipping culture, both within the parish system and beyond it. Bold innovation is needed, but it must be in tune with the Church’s core traditions. We need a paradigm shift in which every parish has a dual function. As well as staging weekly worship it should contribute to wider cultural projects, such as local festivals, collaborating with other churches and other cultural bodies. Every parish should have an extrovert creative wing, an in-house arts centre. The aim is a new Anglican culture of creativity, rooted in parishes.

It is not an easy fate for a Church to be joined at the hip to liberalism. It is open to charges that it dilutes Christian orthodoxy and is full of moral muddle. The former charge must be refuted, but the latter charge cannot be. Our Church is full of moral muddle. But that is because you and I are. It reflects us. It is the muddle of honesty. The alternative is a Church that issues clear moral rules that most of its adherents do not quite believe in. You might say that a Church with a positive view of liberalism is simply too weak to stand. This sounds like a hard-headed analysis, but it’s not true. Plenty of us still feel called to keep the experiment going, of Christianity plus moral honesty. We trust that God will not allow this form of witness to run into the sand. He might even have grand plans for it.