WHEN RATIONALITY returns and some bright young scholar makes his reputation with a block-buster of ecclesiastical history entitled ‘The Rapid Rise and Demise of Liberal Christianity’, one of the book’s most interesting chapters will be that on fantasy (or should we call it ‘phantasie’?) Like the joy-rides in a theme park, the Phantasialand of liberal Christianity has four realms.
The First Realm is the Cavern of Concocted History.
Liberal Christians have a compulsive (and understandable) desire to beat the traditionalists at their own game. Wilfully mistaking the argument from tradition as a simple assertion that what has not been done can never be done, they are out to find examples and cite instances. And where instances and examples have proved not to exist, they have simply made them up.
The epistles of St. Paul were suddenly peopled with female apostles; bevies of female concelebrants of the Eucharist were intruded into the frescoes of quiet catacombs; and the whole of the late-classical Mediterranean world was littered with droves of Christian priestesses. In the Balkans in the seventh to the tenth centuries, in Armenia in the twelfth, on the German marches later in the middle ages, same-sex unions among Christians were uncovered with excitement, and rites for their celebration were recovered in tantalising fragments. The ancient fable of a She-Pope of Rome was dragged out and refurbished – and made to bear a theological burden which, even if it were true, it could not sustain.
With an unprecedented rapidity we have seen these products of a febrile imagination pass from the realm of activist propaganda to ‘serious’ scholarship, unchallenged and unquestioned. The fantasies of Joan Morris, Lavinia Byrne, John Boswell and Peter Stanford, have in themselves a certain bizarre charm, and little actual danger. But when Thomas Torrance and Henry McAdoo cite Morris and Byrne with uncritical approval, and Richard Harries devotes the lion’s share of an all too brief section on ‘Tradition’ in his ‘Presentation on Human Sexuality ‘ [ACC 10, Panama, 1996] to a consideration of Boswell, then it is clear that something is seriously wrong.
The Second Realm is the Maze of Malevolent Conspiracy.
A matter of days after the recent Lambeth Conference the conspiracy stories began to emerge. Mrs Jack Spong averred that there had been a ‘right-wing’ conspiracy to silence and side-line Mr Jack Spong (which was laudably loyal in an old-fashioned sort of way, but far wide of the mark). Barbara Harris claimed that African bishops had been bribed with chicken dinners, and Dick Holloway said that he ‘felt shafted’, but did not say by whom. He politely suggested that the Archbishop of Canterbury was too ‘pathetic’ to have done the job.
Now the Bishop of Rhode Island, Geralyn Wolf, alleges that her chaplain had first hand evidence of an African bishop receiving US$500 from Bishop James Stanton of Dallas. And Canon James Rosenthal of the Anglican Communion Office has claimed: ‘We have written reports about money changing hands at the International Conference of Bishops – they were running a separate Conference at the Franciscan Study Centre.’
These accusations, made by bishops of bishops, are of a seriousness which demands our attention (and extensive investigation by the authorities of the Communion).
I have contacted both the Bishop of Dallas, and the Bishop of Sodor and Man (chairman of the International Bishops’ Conference). Both categorically deny any wrong doing by themselves, or by others known to them, in this matter. And I have personal knowledge of the financial affairs – such as they are – of the International Bishops’ Conference, (administered by the ubiquitous Stephen Parkinson). They leave little room for chicken dinners, and none for bribery and corruption.
I confidently predict that none of these accusations will be or could be proven. Which leaves one with the problem of why, considering the damage they do to the dignity of the world-wide Communion and the much-vaunted collegiality of its bishops, they were made in the first place.
The Bishop of Edinburgh is clearly subject to irrational mood swings and uncontrollable outbursts of inappropriate language, and can probably be overlooked. But Geralyn Wolf, whom I have not had the pleasure of meeting, is described by all who have as a charming woman and a caring and pastoral bishop. And yet the story in her diocesan paper ‘Risen’ (originating from her chaplain, Ran Chase) about an African bishop clutching five hundred crisp greenbacks and wondering whether they were legal tender in the UK, is radically implausible and seriously offensive – both to the bishop in question and to the Bishop of Dallas, who is alleged to have bribed him.
Bishop Wolf presumably believes the allegations, for she is an honourable woman. The question then remains, what corporate frame of mind exists which allows an otherwise gentle and rational person to repeat such unsubstantiated venom?
The truth is that conspiracy theories, on a massively implausible scale are all too familiar a part of the liberal fantasy world. Consider only the myth of matriarchy. There is no evidence whatsoever from any age or clime that there have ever been matriarchal societies. But so important to the whole liberal project is the notion that there might be (and so that there must have been!) an alternative to patriarchy, that the absence of firm evidence has to be explained by a male conspiracy of deception. The records and relics of whole thriving cultures must have been deliberately obliterated!
Once the idea has gained credence, of course, the notion of a universal conspiracy proves useful in other areas. Where evidence cannot be invented, its absence or paucity is explained by conspiracy. A Vatican cover-up of poor Pope Joan; a patristic conspiracy to eradicate the evidence of women priests in the early Church; a clerical conspiracy to minimise the role of women in the medieval church. And, in the case of ‘same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe’, for male conspiracy read heterosexual conspiracy throughout.
Those who see themselves as the custodians of self-evident Truth (in a world perversely blind to it) generate, it seems, a moral climate in which conspiracy theories thrive, and where vilification of one’s intellectual opponents seems no crime.
The Third Realm is the Dungeon of Indulgent Masochism.
The extravagant language of the Bishop of Edinburgh may be of little use in determining the veracity or otherwise of accusations of bribery and corruption; but it is a useful clue to the psychopathology which underlies them. The bishop felt ‘shafted’ and ‘gutted’ , ‘violated’ and ‘lynched’ – a concatenation of participles which will encourage the most casual observer to reach for her Penguin Freud.
The truth is, of course, that none of these things had taken place. To the relief of all, the Bishop of Edinburgh’s physical integrity remains inviolate. All that had happened was that Dick and his friends had been roundly defeated in an open forum of debate, which like their opponents they had sought to influence and manipulate by every legitimate political means.
Dick’s language, however, allies him unmistakably with the victim culture which is one of the marks of liberal fantasy. Its prime characteristic is emotional overkill. To describe the sufferings of women denied ordination in the Church of England, a whole panoply of images associated with the Atlantic slave trade was shamelessly brought to bear. Despite the inherent implausibility, women fellows of Oxford and Cambridge Colleges seeking ordination were portrayed as shackled and bound like hapless natives of the Bight of Benin.
Rape, a vicious and deplorable crime (though not statistically predominant among crimes of violence against the person, even of women) has achieved, in these circles a symbolic and talismanic predominance. And when the group culture has established the legitimacy of such allusions, it is not strange that someone of the proven belligerency of the Bishop of Edinburgh should, in defeat, fall back on the stereotype.
In the period immediately before the passage of the 1992 Measure in the Church of England, I remember numerous claims in the national press of demeaning acts (and worse) directed against its female proponents. They were (allegedly) hissed at, jostled, and spat upon. One woman claimed to have had harassing telephone calls which included death threats.
I remember my own astonishment when, after a Cost of Conscience meeting in Church House Westminster, allegations appeared in the Guardian newspaper that women demonstrators had been spat upon by entering delegates. My amazement was well founded. I had myself remained on the steps of Church House until the last delegates arrived. I had joined in the singing with the women demonstrators (numbers of whom were known to me personally, and who seemed to value a tenor line). No one was assaulted, in my presence; and they left in good order and good spirits, rolling up their banner, which had been fabricated in the Blackheath garden of someone who I am proud to call my friend.
The Fourth Realm is the Horizon of Fraudulent Futurity.
The unfolding agenda of liberal Christians, it is claimed, serves one purpose and has one function. It is said be evangelistic. It is dedicated to making Christianity relevant. In the words of its great originator, it is ‘Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers’. And yet, the observable truth is that it does not deliver on its promises.
When I entered the University thirty years ago the Church of England was engaging upon its first frenzy of liturgical reform. The new liturgies, we were assured, would render the Church relevant, call back those who had deserted it, and encourage commitment among the young. The Methodist Reunion Scheme, to which our attention was drawn at about the same time, was commended in a similar way. It would increase relevance, halt numerical decline, and be attractive to young people. The ordination of women was sold on the same terms. The Church was out of touch with secular norms: women’s ordination would render it relevant. The Church was alienating women: women’s ordination would change all that. Young people saw the Church as antiquated and obscurantist: women’s ordination would draw them in.
No one now makes such sweeping claims for the ASB. We are revisiting Methodist reunion; it will be interesting to see if the old mantra is recited again. In the latest case (of women’s ordination) it is now clear that such claims have no cash value. Despite the proposed panacea the numerical decline has accelerated. And since the electoral rolls of English parishes have been predominantly female since the Second World War, the majority of the losses, despite the ordination of women, must have been of women. And no one would claim that there has been an upsurge in teenage church attendance.
Just as liberal Christians fantasise about the past, so they lie to themselves about the future. (Even liberal Roman Catholics place an implicit but pathetic faith in the opinions of the next Pope but one.) They imagine themselves surf-boarding toward a bright Tomorrow on the white water of inevitability.
‘I believe that the arguments levelled against the ordination of women to the priesthood…are examples of profound argumentation against a self-evident truth that will inevitably win its way’, said Holloway in a letter to me dated July 7, 1989. ‘I am happy to let history decide the matter, and I have no doubt at all that you and those who think like you will one day be shown to have been trying to sweep back the tide of God.’
I imagine that he would say the same of the present struggle in which he is engaged.
Yet beside the intellectual braggadacio, which that quotation and others like it evince, there has always been a tragic vulnerability. Liberal Christianity has always been fuelled by an institutional neurosis about numbers. And because it has largely abandoned the notion of salvation (in a progressive system there is nothing to be saved from), it has seen those numbers not as the community of the redeemed (an end in itself) but as a springboard to desirable political action. (Bishop Holloway now tells us that his reason for continuing as a bishop, rather than taking his place in the new Scottish Parliament is to pursue the cause of Lesbian and Gay Equality).
A view of the Church which has emphasised its role in society over and above its mystical nature and origin has naturally spawned an ever-increasing managerial class (bishops and archdeacons). From their (admittedly) depleted resources the Church Commissioners now make £24m available for the payment of the parochial clergy and £13m for bishops and their suffragans.
[The corporate psychopathology of bishops is a fascinating subject in itself. I was once stranded at the airport in Guilin. In the VIP lounge (where, as a traveller who had paid hard currency, I was immured) were a group of late middle aged, white-haired, well-scrubbed Chinese. They were accompanied by similarly turned-out ladies, to whom they courteously deferred. As time went on my companions came to seem strangely familiar, until I realised the truth. They were Communist party apparatchiks en route for a conference in Beijing. And I had mistaken them for Anglican bishops.]
The reductio ad absurdum of the liberal striving after ‘relevance’ is therefore itself appropriately episcopal.
It is, alas, poor John Shelby Spong (sadly reduced in this egalitarian world, like William Jefferson Clinton, to being defended from a right-wing conspiracy by a woman who is prepared to stand by her man) who has finally blown the gaff. His twelve ‘theses’ were ostensibly intended to commend Christianity to its less-than-cultured, post-modernist despisers in the diocese of Newark, New Jersey. In fact they abandon every distinctive Christian doctrine in an effort which is classically self-defeating.
In order to pay an imaginary debt, the entire collection of family silver has gone under the hammer.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.