Geoffrey Kirk on the problems for the triumphant liberal majority as they change from victim to victor
he years after 1992 were surprisingly good years for the traditionalist constituency in the Church of England. The PEV system was worked up into something like a regular pattern of episcopal care. The National Assembly of Forward in Faith grew rapidly into a democratic forum which expressed our concerns, hopes and fears. Parish life continued with renewed vigour and relations between C parishes and their dioceses and diocesan bishops settled down, for the most part, to a regimen of benign mutual tolerance. From the point of view both of the majority and the minority, the years after 1992/3 were very largely ‘business as usual’.
The seismic events of the defeat of the Ripon and Leeds amendment and the fall of the Canterbury and York amendments in the last two York Synods have put an end to all that. The PEVs are on notice to quit; the absence of meaningful provision for dissent is bound to worsen relations between parishes and dioceses. The degree of amiable co-operation (including financial) will now be called into question. The scorched-earth liberals – those for whom the inclusion of women in all three orders of the Church is the litmus test of Christian orthodoxy – have had a great victory. But it is one which brings with it problems they may not have anticipated.
Their first problem will be a radical change of identity: how to make the transition from victim to victor? The women’s movement in the Church of England has flourished on a self-perpetuating victim culture which has sustained and nourished it. Stories of the oppression of women clergy by wicked traditionalists – hissing and spitting, slighting and demeaning – have created an aura of self-righteous heroism.
The fabrication of the so-called ‘Doctrine of Taint’ (with its delicious suggestion of menstrual taboos and primitive animism) has bolstered their sense of cutting-edge modernity.
We were the savages lost in the dark fastnesses of primeval jungle, they the Claude Levi-Strauss interpreting this primitive behaviour from the sunlit uplands of enlightenment.
But with the systematic elimination of opposition (and make no mistake, it will be both systematic and ruthless) all that will come to an end. Can the sisterhood survive success? How will it adapt to running a Church, when for decades it has denounced it as a comprehensive patriarchalist conspiracy to deny women their dignity and their rights? The change of role will not be easy, especially for the first women bishops. I suspect that, as with the accession of a new Ottoman Emperor, a number of heads will have to roll before they feel secure in their positions. But then, what of the future? What does a girl do when the glass ceiling lies shattered beneath her feet and there are no more mountains to climb?
What remains, I suspect, is the wider liberal agenda, which has been soft-pedalled during the years of struggle. Mrs Schori is here the ideal role model, as she circles the Anglican Communion in search of allies in the struggle for radical inclusion. ‘What will happen to God?’ asked Mary Daly back in the dungaree-clad Seventies. She gave her own answer, which was as strident and radical as she herself. But it has not proved to be like that. ‘Inclusive language’ has not been the success which the founding mothers expected it to be.
Young feminists have got bored with the tedium of policing pronouns. But the big picture remains: the aim of changing Christianity from a God-centred religion of self-restraint and radical obedience to a person-centred religion of radical tolerance and unlimited self-fulfilment. God the Father has not been toppled from his pedestal, like a Communist-era dictator: instead he is being rendered impotent and irrelevant in a Church where institution and process are all.
The second problem will be that some of those who campaigned for women in the episcopate will not find it easy to accommodate themselves to the new religion which they will unwittingly have brought about. Mrs Schori is not everyone’s cup of tea.
But a guilty nostalgia for the patriarchalist past will not endear them to the new regime. With the passage of time the more strident claims of the campaign will be shown up for the lies and fabrications that they were. Women priests and bishops in the first four centuries will quietly cease to be a favourite topic for doctoral dissertations. But there will be the ever-present danger that the old Christianity will re-assert itself, especially among the young.
The policy which will probably be adopted will be one of determined erastianism and ecumenical belligerency. The Church will more and more need the authority of the state and of Parliament to uphold its politically correct doctrines (so, paradoxically, though by then disestablished, it will have a greater dependency on government than at any time since the Tudors); and it will need to define itself increasingly stridently against the Roman Catholic Church, whose magisterium will be the last surviving bastion of the Old Religion.
Sadly those seasoned campaigners for women’s ordination who still hanker after the Christianity of their parents will become the vulnerable minority – a new rump of ‘traditionalists’ – negotiating an uncertain existence in a church which claims to be radically inclusive. They will be told – as we are now being told – how generous and open-hearted the majority is. But like us they will not believe a word of it. ND