‘This long and distressing controversy over capital punishment’ Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher once said, ‘is very unfair to anyone meditating murder’. And as much could probably also be said about the debate over the Scott-Joynt proposals, with regard to those seriously considering adultery.
The joke, of course, derives from the fact that laws cannot act retrospectively, and that there is something inherently comic in the public reversal of a fundamental ethical position. But there is also, more seriously, a fundamental injustice.
In a world where public figures increasingly issue apologies for crimes long past (the present Prime Minster, you will recall, accepted responsibility for the Irish potato famine), it seems almost impertinent that the Lord Chancellor, has not by now made fulsome apology from the Woolsack for the long history of the scaffold. One has to admit what an entertainment it would be (quite like the public executions of old!), watching Derry
sanctimoniously do the deed!
More delicious still would be the ABC, from the throne of St Augustine in his cathedral church: ‘And now dear friends, in a moment of silence, let us remember the needless self-sacrifice of those who endured life-long matrimony in the mistaken belief that the bond was indissoluble’.
But the Apologist’s Palm must surely go to the benighted soul whose role the Eames Commission on Communion and Women in the Episcopate has already daringly imagined: the ecclesiastical spin-doctor who might, at any time, have to announce that ‘provisionality’ has run out of steam, and that women’s ordination has not been ‘received’.
Then indeed there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth; for many will have been called and none chosen! Will there be a fist-fight, do you think, with Barbara Harris; or will the old curmudgeon bow out gracefully?
Whilst all this is amusing as mere speculation, it does raise the serious issue of how much change, in its core values, an institution can bear, before appearing ridiculous and redundant in the eyes of others. This problem is particularly acute in the case of the Church, which must necessarily claim to be the custodian of enduring, indeed eternal, values. We are the ones who, in a world of ceaseless change and fleeting alteration,
repose on His eternal changelessness. Except that, clearly, we do not.
You do not have to be Jack Spong (whose diary for 2001 establishes that he will be fostering novelty and sowing dissension on four continents in the course of a year – an
enterprising programme in retirement) to know that Anglicanism is presently erupting like a carbuncle on the body ecclesiastic. Pity the poor apparatchiks of the Council for Christian Unity who have to soldier on regardless, putting a brave face on it all.
Once upon a time the Lambeth Quadrilateral defined the parameters of Anglican ecumenism; but numbers of American dioceses have either taken decisions, or refused to take decisions, which set them against it. Blunt instrument though it was, it is now history.
Once the CCU had ‘full visible unity’ as its goal. As recently as the Fetter Lane Agreement with the Moravians, the meaning of that pregnant phrase was spelt out amply. It involves, says the Fetter Lane document, ‘the sharing of one baptism, the celebrating of one Eucharist and the service of a reconciled common ministry’. But that, of course is now a dead letter, too.
Anglicans themselves have a (recently) fractured and as yet unreconciled ministry; one which was deliberately broken by those who knew the consequences of their own actions, (both internally among the member churches of the Anglican family, and externally, with the greater part of Christendom, from the Lutheran Missouri Synod to the Coptic Pope). Some of those people (bizarre as it seems) were even subscribers of the Fetter Lane Agreement. Certainly they seem to feel entirely justified in lecturing the rest of us on our lack of enthusiasm for the ecumenical endeavour!
I recall with great warmth a party held in Church House which included a bevy of Moravian worthies. They were charming and sincere people. Only respect for my host restrained me from warning them of the danger they were in, to their own integrity
and self-respect. ‘This is my family, ‘ I wanted to say to them, ‘for better or for worse, I am stuck with it. But if I were not; I wouldn’t marry into it for the world!’
The fundamental injustice of all this is an injustice directed towards those of us who resolutely refuse to toboggan down the slippery slopes of change. Why are we marginalised because we hold to the views which not long ago, all shared? Why are our
ecumenical hopes and aspirations yoked to those of the feckless majority? Why do ‘liberals’, and post-modern indifferentists, feel the need to run the opposition out of town (as clearly they do)? And where, you ask, as everyone in such circumstances asks,
will it all end?
The classic consequences, of course, are smacked legs or tears. The answer is probably both. The present phoney war, in England, over women’s ordination, which the consecration of women as bishops will conclude, is but one skirmish in a battle the
intensity of which is only beginning to be felt, even in the USA. When the first English woman bishop begins to demand (as, if she supposes herself to be a bishop of the catholic Church like Jane Dixon, she must) the sacramental allegiance and fellowship of all her clergy then all the ingenious theological makeshifts of the intervening periods – flying bishops, reception, provisionality, pluriformity – will have run out of time.
The Church of England will then have to face up to the simple fact that it is not any of the things which it has prided itself in being: it is not inclusive, it is not tolerant, and it is certainly not catholic.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark