Ed Tomlinson urges us to adopt the watching and waiting strategy successfully employed by the British army at the Battle ofBalaklava in the nineteenth century
I am no historian, and certainly no expert on military conquests, but that has not stopped me developing a fascination with Victorian conflicts. The cause of my intrigue comes courtesy of my good friend ‘Flashman’, a roguish cad whose exploits, whilst thoroughly unchristian, never fail to delight. If you have not yet enjoyed George MacDonald Fraser’s riotous novels then I heartily commend them.
My most recent indulgence was Flash-man at the Charge, which served to educate me on the finer details of the Crimean War. Not only did I discover that the military suffers the same misfortune as parts of the Church – plenty of good foot soldiers but dunderheads at the top! (Lords Lucan, Raglan and Cardigan were almost unbelievably incompetent due to poor communication and confused orders.) I also discovered that, in times of difficulty, lack of numbers or opportunity is not everything.
Thanks to Lord Tennyson, the Crimean War will always be remembered for that infamous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a hapless episode in which the foolish Cardigan led his men on a suicidal charge accruing high casualties. Indeed the move was so reckless that the enemy assumed the British were drunk! So foolish was the charge that it had the unexpected result of increasing our reputation abroad for sheer front and fearlessness.
All rather entertaining in hindsight, but I was more impressed by the charge of the heavy brigade! For this lesser known but equally thrilling battle led me to consider our predicament as Anglo-Catholics within the Church of England. To understand what I am driving at, allow me to set the scene.
The British camp is situated by Balak-lava and, lacking sound leadership, is a shambles. Disorganized and vulnerable, all that stood before it and 2,500 advancing Russkies was the small (but fierce) 93rd Highland Regiment, aided by a smattering of Royal Marines and a group of Turkish infantrymen. As the Russian army rolled towards them it became abundantly clear that there was nowhere to hide and, more alarmingly, no hope of survival.
In my minds eye those Highlanders became Anglo-Catholics as the liberal agenda rolls out towards us. As the threat of women bishops moves closer, there is seemingly nowhere to hide and, following that Synod in July 2008, our hopes for survival look bleak…
Back to the battlefield on 25 October 1854. In unity with the SSC motto of no desertion, no surrender1., Sir Colin Campbell, leader of the Highland regiment, told his men, ‘there is no retreat from here. You must die where you stand!’ Sir Colin’s aide replied, Aye, Sir Colin. If needs be, we’ll do that.’ The regiment, like the Catholic Movement, was famed for being close, almost family-like – each man deeply committed to the others, their strength in unity.
Disregarding received wisdom, and in contempt at the Russian threat, Campbell assembled his men in a simple line, two deep (convention suggested four deep and the formation of a square). There he prepared to meet the assault head on. Thus this paltry line of brave soldiers, guarding their dishevelled camp, would go down in military history as the ‘thin red line’.
Had the men fired early the battle would have been lost. Campbell, a steely veteran, knew this and commanded his men to hold their nerve. As the superior troops roared towards them, firing away, those gallant men just stood, awaiting command, not knowing their future… and did nothing. How frightening it must have been. I am willing to bet my stipend that many of them wobbled. I can almost smell their fear from the comfort of my study. Fingers trembling on triggers, sweat cascading down shivering spines.
Since Synod 2008 many of us have started to wobble too. For, with the prospect of losing our flying bishops and with every request ignored and turned down, we are starting to fear the worst. Is thisthe last battle in the conflict for the soul of our church? Do orthodox Catholics face annihilation at the mercy of those who would cripple us under a code? And so we tremble, tempted to flee, tempted to give up, waiting like those vulnerable Jocks for whatever fate may fling at us. The Highlanders held their ground stoically until they could see the whites of their enemy’s eyes. It was this bravery which won them the day.
The Russian advance suffered huge casualties. Refusing to accept this straggly line as an act of sheer bravery, the Russian commanders assumed it was a trap and that larger troops lay waiting. The advancing army therefore retreated and the Highlanders survived. (Incredibly some of them even charged after the enemy as they fled, but Campbell was heard to shout, ’93rd regiment, damn your eagerness!’)
Communal holding of nerve
Those conscientiously opposed to the ordination and consecration of women currently find ourselves in a strange ‘in between time’; between the dawn of women priests and the advent of women bishops. We do not yet know what the future holds. We do not yet know what the legislative body will prepare for us, nor, more importantly, what God has planned.
Whilst the future is so uncertain, and whilst the threat to our identity is so real, it can feel as if we are Highlanders, with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. So let us learn from them and hold our nerve. Let us do nothing drastic for a while, lest we fire too soon. Now is not the time for desertion or surrender. Now is not the time for action, personal or corporate. Now, as never before, is the time to watch and wait as the enemy breathes down our neck.
Perhaps the greatest moment for the Catholic Societies lies around the corner? Perhaps the night really is darkest just before the dawn? Perhaps we have a future within the Church of England, perhaps apart? None of us can know. But what I do know is that unity is needed in this moment of wobble and wait, a communal holding of nerve. Let us therefore stand together, for one another, as the future unfolds before us.