Seeking the gift the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us, I noticed a different persective on this week’s General Synod by Stephen Glover. Does this voice of Middle England deserve more serious consideration than comes naturally to Church political insiders?
Most people do not know the Church of England very well, and few of us regularly worship in its pews. But it is, for all that, our national Church, and most of us write 'C of E' when asked our religion. Millions of us are still married in its often glorious churches, and millions of us will have the words of its prayer book - transcendent ones, if they come from the 1662 version - spoken over our coffins when we are dead. So, however remote we may appear from the Church of England, it remains part of many of our lives, if less so than for most of our forefathers.I have certainly met good ordinary people, many of them lifelong core members of the Church of England, traditionally minded rather than traditionalist politicians, who think exactly along Stephen’s lines. They often feel that nobody in Synod speaks for them, and the whole focus of the present debate excludes their point of view. Discuss?
Strange and unfamiliar it may sometimes seem, but it is not some private sect whose deliberations are purely its own concern. And yet that is exactly what it has appeared to be these past few weeks, months and, I fear, years, as it has torn itself apart over issues that do not seem central to this nation's needs and concerns...
Our national Church is preoccupied - no, obsessed - with two issues: whether its priests should be allowed to be practising homosexuals, and whether women should be allowed to become bishops. I don't say such matters should be of no importance to members of the Church. But to concentrate on them so long to the virtual exclusion of more important things - well, that seems a form almost of madness, and certainly evidence of grotesque introspection.
One does not have to be apocalyptic to believe that we live, as David Cameron says, in 'a broken society' in which Christian values, as they would have been recognised by our fathers and grandfathers, and as they have been preached by the Church for nearly 2,000 years, are scarcely observed, or even understood, by many people.
Nearly half of marriages, which institution the Church has celebrated as the rock on which society is built, end in divorce. A growing number of people no longer bother to get married at all. The family, whose most perfect inspiration was the Holy Family, is no longer a paradigm for many people, and the Church of England only intermittently and half-heartedly promotes it. The Church is silent on many pressing social problems which seem to portend the slow disintegration of society, and often arise from the family breakdown about which it is comparatively relaxed. While it has been agonising about homosexual priests, ever younger children have been stabbed to death on our streets, and the level of mindless violence seems inexorably to grow. Yet our national Church has little to say about the brutalisation of our country...
The debate on the consecration of women bishops has been bewildering to many people, including some Anglicans. The Church of England decided 15 years ago, rightly I think, that there is no theological objection to the ordination of women as priests. Now half those accepted for ordination are female, and there are women canons, archdeacons and even a dean. Why not bishops?
One can understand that Anglo-Catholics should feel qualms about women bishops, as they did about women priests, and it seems reasonable that they should have their own male 'super bishops', as was proposed at the Synod yesterday. But the country looks on in amazement as Anglo-Catholics threaten to resign en masse, and to rip apart a Church that is, frankly, already tottering. Their arguments seem arcane, particularly in view of the earlier acceptance of women priests, and almost insanely inwardlooking.
Similar objections should be made to the Church of England's obsession with homosexual priests. Here, the factions are different, with the Anglo-Catholics being for the most part relaxed about homosexuality, while many Evangelicals, comfortable with the idea of women bishops, are distinctly queasy about homosexual priests. Many Third World Anglicans, especially in Africa, share their reservations.
But why in God's name does it matter so much? Both sides should be castigated for upping the ante. There are people such as the publicity-seeking American gay bishop, Gene Robinson, for whom homosexuality appears to be the most important issue in the world, and there are fundamentalists on the other side, the degree of whose intolerance seems almost un-Christian.
Everyone knows there have always been gay priests, and no one minded very much as long as they didn't demand instant and complete equality with heterosexuals within the Church. With good sense on both sides, there could have been a quiet evolution, which has been the Anglican way in past centuries, or at any rate since 1660 and the restoration of the monarchy and the Church of England.
As it is, with grandstanding crusaders opposed by intolerant fundamentalists, there has been an unedifying struggle about something not very important, while the rest of the country looks on in amazement at an increasingly monomaniacal national Church. Think what both Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals in the Church of England did for society in the 19th and early 20th century - building churches and opening missions in working-class areas, ministering to the poor, encouraging education, and inculcating Christian values.
And now, when our own century throws up its different but perhaps no less appalling social problems, our national Church, far from trying to fill this frightening moral vacuum, is too busy talking to itself.