Establishment Antics

THE FALKLANDS WAR now seems far away and long ago; and yet, watching the bombing of Baghdad in the recent War of Clinton’s Impeachment, I was vividly reminded of it.

At the time of the Falklands invasion the Deanery Chapter – not always a body noted for its interest in scholastic theology – asked me to deliver a paper on Aquinas’s understanding of a just war, and the conflicting views of Peter Lombard and Albert the Great. So I dusted off the Summa and set to work.

Even allowing for the shortage of time in producing it, it was a lousy paper. But that did not matter. As it turned out, the rural dean (in those days an old fashioned broad church liberal of impeccable pedigree) had designed the event less as an academic exercise and more as a gladiatorial contest. The idea was that the Chapter would corporately convict me of my iniquity in supporting the Thatcher Government, and my credibility in all matters else would be seen to ebb away like blood into the sand.

Those were days, if you remember, when the degree of acrimony toward the elected government among clergy of a certain kind was almost inconceivable. The Labour party was so ineffective that a snob like Robert Runcie reading speeches written by a reactionary like Richard Chartres could be mistaken for the authentic voice of opposition. It was only a few weeks before the sinking of the Belgrano reduced the dinner parties of NW1 to helpless vexation.

That dedicated left-wingers could continue their hatred of the Iron Lady into a condemnation of the Falklands War was, of course something of a tour de force. Yet, difficult as it was to make response to the unprovoked armed invasion of an innocent populace by a fascist dictatorship look like shameless war-mongering, they threw themselves boldly into the task. I was on a hiding to nothing, with my all too slender theorising about the Just War.

This time round, however, judging from the quotations in The Church Times, response to war has been more muted. The voice of the People’s Church (New-Labour-at-Prayer) was the Bishop of Oxford, who struck a nice note of regretful necessity on Radio Four. It could have been Harry Enfield from the pulpit of St Albion’s.

Gone, it seems, is the anti-American fervour of those distant Falklands days, when the sycophancy of the British Government before the regime of the Great Communicator was daily reviled. Unquestioning support for a President of the United States who is being impeached before his own legislature for what the wits are describing as ‘fly crimes and miss-demeanours’ has somehow been rendered politically correct; and virtuous clergypersons seem inclined to forget the rash of mysterious and unexplained deaths which have dogged his eventful career.

Since I am inclined to think that most politicians are more or less corrupt and most senior clergy shamelessly opportunistic I am not surprised by any of this (though it cannot be good for one to have one’s prejudices so satisfactorily confirmed).

I cannot help wondering, however, what the Great British Public (supposing it to have a long enough political memory) makes of it all.

Probably it confirms their prejudices, too. The GBP is pretty used to being simultaneously pandered to and lectured by the clergy of its National Church. And it has very effectively succeeded in ignoring them for several generations. Probably the GBP has ceased to expect guidance – even less consistency – on any subject. The phrase which, I suspect, has cut deepest into the national consciousness is the description given by the religious affairs correspondents of the latest documentary outpouring of the General Synod and its diuretic Boards: ‘the current teaching of the Church of England’.

‘Current’; now there’s a word! If you don’t like what we’re saying at the moment, hang around – we’ll change it tomorrow (or the next day), and our next opinion may be more to your taste.

Yet consistency (and its more pious correlative, fidelity) is what people want from a Church. If it is against war, fornication and adultery, then it should be so in season and out of season; against all war, all fornication, and all adultery. Fairness and fidelity are what the GBP thinks that religions are for; and they are not far wide of the mark.

Paradoxically, of course, the GBP wants this fidelity in reverse proportion to its actual attendance at church services. Which is disappointing in one way, but which has the advantage that it makes the Church of England (the Church which the English nation loves not to attend) into a very uncongenial place for liberals and radicals. Hence the relentless jokes about unbelieving bishops in the middle-brow newspapers.

‘Traditional values in a contemporary setting’ (John Prescott’s agenda for the Labour Party), is what the GBP is after. ‘Radical modernisation’ (Tony Blair’s prescription for the Labour Party) is generally seen as going too far. The great British Public has little interest in theology and none at all in radical theology. It views ‘modernisation’ of the Church in much the way in which it would view an extension to York Minster by Richard Rogers or the bulldozing of Stonehenge.

So the question remains: what do the modernisers think they are up to? They have for decades proclaimed that their programme is intended to court popularity (‘evangelism’ is how this is tendentiously expressed). But there is ample evidence, both anecdotal and statistical, that their activities have the opposite effect. The only conclusion must be that they are in search, not of popularity but of self-approbation. Liturgists, not surprisingly, like liturgy – and they want, in the cant phraseology of the time, ‘to do liturgy’. So the rest of us are condemned to the inconvenience (and expense) of liturgical novelties every twenty years. And theologians, understandably, want ‘to do theology’ (which nowadays generally means undoing it).

The fact that the liturgists very quickly grow dissatisfied with their own work and the theologians generally continue a liturgical life wholly unrelated to their daring speculations (I vividly recall Dennis Nineham in Keble Chapel, genuflecting like a copy of Fortescue and O’Connell, unrevised) should be enough to blow the gaff. But the show goes on regardless. An army of apparatchiks and middle management rapidly adopts and disseminates the jargon of the advance guard, and it is thoughtlessly mouthed by the well-meaning at those most depressing gatherings of the modern church, deanery synods.

Small wonder that the People’s Church is developing such a marked affinity with the present government. It is, after all, New Labour minus the electoral success.

We should not be surprised; Erastianism is a faith of many faces. Once the C.of E had ceased to be the ideological bastion of the Divine Right of Kings (c.1688), it had to find another raison d’etre. That, when its equilibrium (as at present) is undisturbed by shameless enthusiasm and unrepentant revivalism (Wesley, Simeon, Newman, Pusey, et al.), is identified easily enough. It is a vocation to bond with the chattering classes – who are, after all, what ‘establishment’ has now come to mean.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.