Liberalism and Anglicanism: Saving Ourselves to Save Others

Speech given to Affirming Catholicism at St Nicholas' Church, Brighton on 22nd January 2011

There are two aspects of liberalism which are frequently confused: first, a liberal is someone who believes in pluralism, who is happy to see a wide variety of opinions and practises flourishing simultaneously, who, to use the hackneyed dictum, will defend the right of people to say what he disagrees with; secondly, a liberal in giving equal objective weight to a variety of views and practises, regardless of her personal opinion, is against any authoritarian tendency which might try to narrow or close down those options.

The problem for liberals is that there is a deep paradox between these two meanings which is that the liberal who makes room for other opinions and practises cannot simply rule out those which are authoritarian and which might even advocate closing down the enterprise of liberalism. In other words, if liberals provide unconditional space in society for authoritarians, those very authoritarians, facilitated by the liberals, will repay liberalism by trying to stifle it. At the very last, then, liberals need to consider the relative merits of these two stances and consider conditionality.

I want to suggest that this is the central dilemma of self styled liberals in the Church of England both in respect of the issue of women bishops and the Anglican Covenant.

The major issue which has run through the debate about the admission of women to the Episcopacy is, to our eternal shame, not the benefit or otherwise of women in the prosecution of Christ's mission, but whether those who are theologically opposed to such a reform are properly protected from contamination. As some of you know, I recently failed to be re-elected to the General Synod. I suspect this was because I openly supported the ordination of women to the Episcopate whereas most of the candidates who were opposed to this framed their election addresses in terms of accepting the reform if "proper provision" is made for those "loyal" Anglicans who dissent. Now there are three reasons to suspect this formulation: first, the use of the term "loyal Anglicans" at the very least implies that the vast majority, in favour of women bishops, are somehow disloyal, the kind of linguistic device one would hope was only used by duplicitous politicians, such as those who termed East Germany the "German Democratic Republic" but, in any case, I see nothing particularly loyal in threatening to leave if you lose out after due process; secondly, "proper provision" involves the paradox in my introduction that liberals should refrain from majoritarian imposition and make room for dissenters who in turn wish to maintain the freedom not to recognise the liberal position which is very similar - and I am using my words extremely carefully - to those who accuse Muslims of expecting to build mosques in the UK while forbidding Christian worship in Islamic countries; thirdly, such "proper provision" involves a redistribution of power which leaves the Church of 'England with its two current provinces but adds a third Province for dissenters which reserves the right not to communicate in any way, with the other two which is a dilution of liberal power.

There are those who wish to preserve themselves from "taint" but say they are not in favour of a third province, but the doctrine of taint makes this inevitable as soon as an English Primate has ordained a woman bishop, or even ordained a male bishop who has ordained a woman priest.

So, in summary, what liberals are being asked to do by a minority of dissenters is not only to give them equality of expression and action but also the power to weaken the liberalism which has given them what they ask for.

Now that is bad enough but the proposed Anglican Covenant poses a much greater threat to liberalism.

Unlike the situation with women bishops in the Church of England where there is a clear cut liberal, reforming majority and a very small dissenting, conservative minority (or, rather, two minorities), in the case of the proposed Covenant for the Anglican Communion we are faced with a solid conservative core, a modest liberal bloc and an undeclared majority.

The Covenant is a method of defining Anglicanism which therefore requires a procedure for drawing lines; those for whom it was specifically created, the fundamentalist Evangelicals, have already said, like the opponents of women bishops, that what they have been offered is not enough.

Let us be clear, regardless of what the Archbishop of Canterbury may want or surmise, the outcome of the Covenant's adoption will be the exclusion of the liberal Episcopal Church of the USA, almost certainly followed by Canada, thus weakening liberalism and therefore altering the balance of power in bodies determining what and what is not true Anglicanism. Thus the covenant will steadily increase the power of the majority; but whereas a liberal majority would seek to strengthen and broaden pluralism a conservative majority will progressively close down options. An Anglican communion that can exclude an Anglican Province for accepting the ministry of a gay bishop in a sexually active partnership will soon turn to Provinces with gay priests in active sexual partnerships at which point we in the Church of England will have to come clean. How can a Christian entity take refuge in the "don't ask, don't tell" policy which the US military has just abandoned.

And that is not all. There is a considerable minority of Primates, mostly in the South, who will insist on being part of the disciplinary machinery of the Anglican Communion even though they refuse to attend the Meeting of Primates. So much for any definition of "loyal Anglican". It is becoming ever more difficult to see what's in it for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Communion or the Church of England. If things proceed in the way they have started, the cure will kill the patient.

And, as the liberals are squeezed out, the remaining conservatives will continually narrow the membership criteria: after gay bishops, women bishops; after women, priests; after priests, office holders.

For Anglican communion Provinces that are minority denominations or sects, the Covenant may be of marginal importance but for the Church of England which is established and claims to minister to every person in every parish, the consequences will be catastrophic: first, whichever way the vote goes at General Synod on the Covenant, there will be an aggrieved minority with no place to go, no mode of appeal or immediate amendment; secondly, as is likely, if the Covenant is approved, the tolerance of the Church of England will steadily be eroded by the majoritarian rulings of Anglicanism. Never mind the disingenuous gloss that no Province can tell another what to do; if the Covenant were so weak it could do nothing it wouldn't be wanted. There never has in history been a power fashioned for a body that has not been exercised. And while I would share the Eucharist with anybody - on the basis that we all fall short - there are many Anglican bishops who wouldn't share it with me. Codifying bad behaviour is a bad practice; thirdly, and connected with bad behaviour, the Anglican Communion is making a fundamental mistake of the secular world in pandering to trouble makers at the expense of its own loyal core.

To be liberal, in the sense that Queen Elizabeth I wanted no windows into "men's souls", is part of our Church of England heritage which Elizabeth herself struggled for against Puritanism and, in spite of extreme provocation, she was remarkably tolerant towards Catholic dissenters. Like the Militant tendency, the fundamentalist Evangelicals want their own GAFCON and power within the Church of England and, like the old aristocracy, the traditionalist Catholics want their own jurisdictional settlement regardless of the majority.

It is time for liberalism to assert itself or it will be driven out of Anglicanism and the greatest piece of collateral damage will be the Church of England.

First, the central issue is the use of the democratic process to limit the dictatorship of the majority. As liberals we should insist, on behalf of minorities (gays) or under-respected majorities (women) that majorities can only be used to prevent abuse and to promote pluralism. On the basis of an inclusion criterion a majority that allows women bishops is acceptable; a majority that forbids gay clergy is unacceptable. A majority that promotes human rights is acceptable, a majority that narrows human rights is unacceptable. This is not simply a philosophical point: as I reminded us earlier, the Church of England is, to its very core, liberal and, in the technical sense of the word, permissive. Our self understanding, our heritage and our mission do not allow us to become a sect.

Secondly, on that basis, we should make absolutely no concessions in any way to those who wish to limit our inclusiveness and if that means the disintegration of the Anglican Communion then that is a price worth paying. We don't have the political heft to liberalise the Anglican Communion, not least because liberalism has been conflated with colonialism, so we should protect what we've got for now under a non-aggression pact. This is regrettable because it will delay the progress of inclusion in the South but we have to hold on until we have a chance to reverse the trend.

Thirdly, we are going to have to hold on in a progressively difficult political environment in England. The Archbishop of Canterbury has apparently opted for coherence over plurality and because of his many virtues the majority of the General Synod will support the Covenant on the basis that he wants it but it doesn't matter much either way. I hope the majority is right but I fear that history is against it. I wouldn't want to go as far as Bishop Wallace Benn's German analogy by reminding us of the way the Reichstag put itself out of business but it is pertinent to point out that the Christian Church has a long and shameful history of using its power to boss people about under the pretext that it knows what God wants;  but even if it does, it has no Scriptural enforcement warrant.

The times are therefore grim but not desperate. it's significant that the Measure for women bishops has got as far as it has without the Primates of England lifting a finger to help it; rather the reverse. Their mantra is that we should give due weight to the views of those with whom we disagree; but sooner or later they will have to face up to the simple reality of ideological conservatism, that no concession is ever enough. Whether you're thinking about opponents of women bishops in England or gay clergy in Kenya, there isn't a deal to be made. According to those to whose opinions we must give weight, Our God in heaven is an authoritarian rule maker who knows what he wants because he wants what they want; and where does that leave the Jesus of love?

As I said, the times are grim but there is hope. If we follow Jesus and try really hard to reduce the anger level we will find an opening. People are ideological in general and flexible in particular. Whereas meetings like this are good for building up each other, we need to make ourselves known to those who are far enough away not to see the damage when they fire missiles. We must not use scripture as artillery but as a way of clearing mines from our sorry world. It is the bravery of the one who works, often alone. Liberalism has always been a sacrificial creed but the one thing we cannot and must not sacrifice is liberalism itself. As an act both of self-interest and generosity we have to save liberalism for ourselves now so that in future we can save others.