By Archdeacon Armitage-Shanks

‘It has long been recognised in the Anglican Communion that polygamy in parts of Africa has features of both faithfulness and righteousness.’ from ‘Called to full Humanity: a Report for the Lambeth Conference, Section I’, Chair, the Most Revd Njongonkulu Ndungane, Vice -Chair, the Rt. Revd Kenneth Fernando.
‘TWO’S COMPANY, THREE’S ALLOWED.’ Headline, The Sunday Times, May 3

I KNOW the sort of thing you crypto-fundamentalists out there are asking, and so I’ll get to the point straight away.

We in the People’s Church do not expect the Archbishop of Cape Town’s paper for Lambeth ’98 advocating the acceptance of polygamy to have immediate legislative consequences in the Church of England. Eileen is against it for a start; so it won’t get far with the AbC.

However Mary Tanner, David Tustin and a few of the real intellectuals have been brainstorming about the spin we will need to put on it, as soon as the first province of the Communion actually does the deed. For convenience we are calling the paper they have produced WTTR – which, of course, is Lambeth code for What To Tell Ratzinger.

The game plan is this: first we should get our new friends in the Porvoo Communion firmly behind us. That, as a matter of fact, will not be difficult. With their record on sex, it will be a walk over. There will need to be extensive consultations – preferably in five star hotels, in sunnier climes, and at our expense.

Then a paper by Canon John Halliburton (he will reassure the Catholics) will explain (at not too great length, I hope!) Luther’s very positive attitude to the bigamy of Philip, Landgrave of Hesse (1540). That will probably clinch the deal. A Danish woman priest could then, no doubt, be encouraged to come up with a feminist defence of both polygamy and polyandry. The Danes might even be persuaded to offer to join the Communion on the grounds that both were about to be adopted. With any luck we could get away with describing it as a great leap forward in the establishment of a dynamic Christian identity in the new and converging Europe!

The next stage would have to be careful negotiation with Canon Jeffrey John and his lot. We can’t, quite frankly, be expected to fight on more than two fronts simultaneously. The gay lobby has got to be persuaded to stick to pleas for sanctified same-sex monogamy. If Affirming Catholicism came out in favour of gay menages a trois, all hell and Richard Holloway would probably break loose. And we don’t want polyandry to take on an entirely new meaning yet!

Then we will need an Archbishop’s Commission, which will ensure that, in theory at least, safeguards are in place throughout the Communion for those who cannot accept the new doctrine. Mary seems to think that the way forward is to seek to establish worship-centres for practising monogamists in every polygamous diocese. Archiepiscopal polygamists would, as a matter of course, appoint monogamist suffragans to minister to parishes and individual families who had made the necessary declarations. But there would need, we are all agreed, to be an emphasis on our undergirding baptismal unity (possibly Prebendary Paul Avis could be persuaded to contribute a paper on this) so that the children of monogamous families would not feel trapped in the retrospective attitudes of their parental communities.

We have also given a certain amount of thought to what Bill Beaver will need to say on the subject. As an American, of course, Dr. B. will have had extensive experience of serial monogamy; so we are confident that he will deal with the subject of polygamy sensitively. A panel of bishops (vowed to absolute and unwavering collegiality) is being drawn up. Dr. B. will be able to marshal them to deal with James Naughtie and the like, who may well prove nasty.

We are agreed that it is already possible to anticipate various stages in the ‘period of reception’ of the new doctrine which may well attract press coverage.

From the media point of view the first polygamous marriage to be conducted in the Church of England will elicit enormous attention. And that will inevitably be followed up at similar events in Wales, Ireland and Scotland, when those provinces have been given an opportunity to exercise their autonomy. Then there will be a media lull; followed by intense interest in the appointment of the first woman priest who is part of a polygamous family.

In our view it would be helpful if the first polygamous bishop (or polyandrous bishop, if that seems appropriate) were a conservative. S/he should profess belief in either the bodily resurrection or the virginal conception (or preferably both). A note to that effect has been sent, by the committee, to Tony Sadler. By the time we get to the appointment of the first woman bishop with three husbands, the case, of course, will have been won, and such assurances will no longer be required.

Meanwhile we are offering Dr. B. (who, after all, will have to take most of the flak) a few tentative guidelines.

1. Polygamy is very biblical – just consider Solomon! And in any case, look at the way people in our society behave. It’s what they want – in one form or other. Christians have to see polygamy as a godly way of containing promiscuity (which, as a matter of fact, is how the Prayer Book describes monogamy!)

2. The Anglican Communion has established a theological consultation which is addressing the implications of polygamy for the doctrine of the Church as the Bride of Christ. We are grateful that John Hick, Professor of Theology in the University of Birmingham, has kindly agreed to convene this group.

3. In the as yet undisclosed papers of the great Roman Catholic feminist Joan Morris, references have been discovered to frescoes in Roman catacombs which reveal images of multiple Christian marriages in the second century. An inscription in San Clemente in Rome (later defaced by bigoted monogamists) seems to indicate that Pope Paschal II had two mothers.

4. Every informed reader of The Tablet knows that polygamy will be the official policy of the next Pope, but one.

5. George and Eileen will not be around for ever.

Sophisticated intellectual weapons of this kind will, no one can doubt, deal with the Today Programme. But we sometimes forget that that is not our only problem.

Poor Dr. B. will have to deal with ordinary, simple Church of England folk who thought all along that monogamy was what God required of them. To them we will need to say: your sacrifice was heroic, we are grateful for the stand you took; but, tragically, we were wrong. You can’t expect a religion to be ‘right’ all the time. In fact, you can’t expect it to be ‘right’ at all, in the sad, narrow, pinched sense in which so many of you people out there use that term.

Things evolve, and nowadays the Church has so much to do! – so many centuries of ignorance to unravel! For those who are daring enough to ask searching, demanding questions, life is just one long excitement! We in the People’s Church are working to give you the right to make up the rules as you go along! That’s the Good News! That’s what Anglicanism is all about – the natural and inevitable transition from provincial autonomy to personal autonomy! Trust Lambeth ’98! Trust us!

(Dear me! I hope that cri de coeur was not too impassioned. But we do see this as something of a crisis!)

Of course, it would not be so bad, in managerial terms, were it not for the simultaneous move to bless unmarried unions. Frankly people here are of the opinion that Graham (‘the-church-has-always-got-to-relate-realistically-to-where-society-is-at’) Dow [Sunday Times, May 3] should just stick to pentecostal experiences and things that go bump in the night.

The very least he could do is consult Headquarters before sounding off. And he should never do it (sound off, I mean) in one of those awful suits. Dr. B. has style consultants who can deal with image problems like that. But, alas, the damage has been done. Poor Bill!

Now Michael Hare-Duke (no surprise!) has drawn up a turgid bit of quasi-liturgical prose linking almost anybody, rather loosely, to almost anybody. (Considering its size, if you ask me, the Scottish Episcopal Church has a lot to answer for). And the Modern Churchpeople’s Union, of course, is peddling the whole idea like condoms in a comprehensive.

Before long David Stancliffe will be chairing a committee to give the language of the new service what he fondly supposes to be a Cranmerian flavour. (He was always one for what he would no doubt call ‘tone’). And Michael Perham, or somebody like that, will be cobbling together a dramatic presentation, with dimmed lights and computer graphics, for the General Synod.

Heigh-ho! It was ever thus! Still, what with Spong and all that, the AbC is really loosing sleep at the moment. Eileen, a cup of cocoa and a couple of panadol are no longer enough. But, as I keep trying to persuade him, we all have to move with the times. Everything will be fine as long as we can take it one thing at once.

Co-habitation, after all, is what everybody wants. So why not bless it? And Mark Santer assures us that polygamy will have no lasting effect on ARCIC. That feels better already…doesn’t it?

Andrew Armitage-Shanks is Archdeacon-at-Lambeth. His views are idiosyncratically his own.