Christopher Smith marvels at the way things that seem unimaginable one year so often become law the next
I don’t know when you’ll be reading this, but I’m writing it on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which is an event in history which perhaps had receded a bit from the national consciousness and needed a good anniversary to bring it back. I marked it the other day by going to Apsley House, which Wellington bought from his brother in 1817, having retired from sorting out the French and needing a London pad so that he could go into politics.
I wonder whether I might start a campaign to get Wellington back on the five pound note. He was there for most of my early life, post-decimalization, when fivers were bigger and bluer. Now we have Elizabeth Fry, who is in the current Church of England calendar if you’re looking for something to do on 12 October. She was a prison reformer, but is about to be ousted from her banknote next year, and replaced by Churchill. Perhaps Wellington could go onto the tenner. But again, there is a waiting list, for Charles Dickens is about to be replaced there by Jane Austen.
It seems that someone has been campaigning before me: a young lady called Caroline Criado Perez. Whilst doing her MA in Gender Studies at LSE, she became irritated by the fact that the proposal to replace Fry with Churchill meant that no English banknote would have a woman on it (apart, of course, from the ones with the picture of the Queen, which as far as I can tell is all of them, but somehow that side of the banknote doesn’t count for these purposes). And she has got both her way and an OBE. Now, I must be careful not to let you think I have a low opinion of Jane Austen – on the contrary – but notable Britons come and go on the reverse of banknotes, and the sex of those Britons is (one might hope) less important than their contribution to the life of our nation. And quite how such a campaign adds up to an OBE is anybody’s guess.
But it is remarkable how these campaigns seem to come from nowhere, and end up with a remarkable degree of success. Who would have thought only a few years ago that we would now been living in a country where you can’t smoke in the pub, but you can marry someone of your own sex.
So we might do well to keep our eye on another recent campaign which seems to have come out of nowhere, to do with the language we are allowed to use about God. Apparently, now we have female bishops, there is ‘growing support’ for a re-writing of liturgical texts to refer to God in the feminine. According to that great feminist organ the Daily Telegraph, ‘Support is growing’ for a ‘full overhaul of liturgy to recognise the equal status of women’. Always bear in mind that what seems faintly comical one day has a horrible habit of becoming compulsory the next, so don’t even smirk when Hilary Cotton, who chairs the organization known as Watch, says, ‘Until we shift considerably towards a more gender-full expression in our worship about God then we are failing God and we are missing something’. Apparently, you see, ‘having women bishops makes it particularly obvious that to continue to refer to God purely as male is just unhelpful to many people now.’ And let’s face it, the most recent CofE liturgical revision has taken the ‘him’ out of ‘It is right to give him thanks and praise’, and stripped the Holy Spirit of his personal pronouns.
It is all very well 85% of readers of the Telegraph website saying that the Church should leave well alone: one day soon they will turn up at Evensong and hear the words ‘God our Mother’ trilled from the Precentor’s stall. Even now ‘the shift away from the traditional language of the Book of Common Prayer is at an advanced stage in some quarters’. This latest push has issued forth from something called the ‘Transformations Steering Group’. Now they have got women in the episcopate, they are wondering what to concentrate on next, and getting your vicar to pray to our Mother who art in heaven is coming up on the agenda. Indeed, the agenda is perfectly public, and accessible through the Church of England website. On the list is a desire to ‘Engage institutional levers in Ministry Division and Synod to change the dominant male pattern and culture of ordained ministry’, and ‘Invite the Faith and Order Commission to work on a prophetic theology of gender’. Quite what a ‘prophetic theology of gender’ might be, I don’t know, but I daren’t laugh, as I have a terrible feeling I may wake up one day to find that I am required to have one too.
Corrigendum: Whilst I was not strictly speaking wrong to say last month that there are only five bishoprics in the Diocese of Leeds (known for short as the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales), readers will be relieved to learn that the Dioceses Commission has recently approved a sixth. Mercifully, according to the diocese’s website, ‘the process for this appointment will be expedited, with a view to the person appointed starting in the summer or autumn’. What a relief to know that when there are no parochial clergy left, and indeed perhaps no laity, the diocese will at least have six bishops and a personnel department.