Divided We Stand

This is my recent Spectator article (published 8 January with a couple of little changes)

Two years ago the Church of England decided to delay any public discussion of its deepest division, over homosexuality, for two years – 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. 

I think that there are grounds for hope, and not just on the gay issue. I think that the Church has a core strength that it is weirdly reluctant to draw on, a core identity that 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 in to the culture war, with knee-taking 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. The core Anglican tradition is 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 individualism and bossy legalism. This is, in my humble opinion, the best Christian tradition, which means, to be Christian-centric, and unanglicanly boastful, that it is the best tradition in all of human culture. So why does it have all the self-confidence of a pimply teenaged mouse?

Some readers will be surprised that I feel the Church lacks liberal confidence. Isn’t it full of trendy bishops trying to jump on woke bandwagons and modernise everything? Not really. Yes, there is a BBC-ish culture of political correctness, especially in the central leadership, but the bigger picture is that the Church lacks confidence in its own liberal identity. It nervily apes secular liberal trends because it has lost touch with its own liberal tradition.

Consider the above-mentioned former bishop. When Dr Michael Nazir-Ali became a Roman Catholic in October, he fired some parting salvoes at his old Church, uttered in a spirit of deep sadness of course. It kowtows to liberal orthodoxy and fails to stand up for core Christian values like the sanctity of marriage, he said. And in its excessive liberalism it fails to nurture a truly free society in which religious belief is protected from secularist tyranny. His core complaint was clear: the Church needs firm moral rules, and Anglicanism has decided that anything goes.

Did any voices question his logic? Did anyone in the press think to defend the C of E from these charges? Did anyone question whether the Catholic Church is really the superior defender of religious freedom, for example? No. Because in a sense he is right. The liberalism of Anglicans tends to make them cautious about voicing their liberalism, if it might cause offence to other traditions. Well, let me follow Dr Nazir-Ali’s advice and try to shake off some of that cowardice, and speak straight.

In an interview that he gave to this paper 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 to 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 in to 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. 

All I am saying is this: if Roman Catholics accuse the Church of England of weakness and muddle and liberal trendiness, they should not be surprised at the old-fashioned rejoinder. Their Church is…what shall we say, less intimately acquainted with the spirit of cultural freedom. It lays down laws, especially relating to sex, that give it the appearance of standing up to liberalism with hard-core crusading courage. Anglicans are somewhat impressed, for there is much in liberal culture that should be opposed, but ultimately we feel that true courage does not lie in anti-liberal reaction.

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. It 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. 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. For it set a precedent 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. This 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 quite 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.