by Archdeacon Armitage Shanks

AFTER THE EXHAUSTION of Lambeth – rest! And I have to say looking out over the vineyards and olive groves of Chiantishire, that Lambeth ’98 seems very far away. Bobby and I needed the rest, and our little Tuscan farmhouse is just the ticket.

Like Tony and Cherie we popped over to San Gimignano the other day, and looked into the Cathedral. Quite why Tony wants to become a Roman is frankly a mystery to me (and to the AbC, I might add). After the Yankee Frankie affair, of course, I couldn’t risk staying for the service and being spotted by the paparazzi; but I looked at their list of services and at the sheets at the back of the church. I can’t say I was impressed.

In the first place these people seem to have nothing but endless Communion Services (which, as Bobby remarked, seems needlessly repetitive). And so far as I could see there were no hymns. It made one proud of the dear old C of E, and quite homesick for Mission Praise and a nice Family Service from one of those useful books by the CPAS.

The other thing about religion in this country is the way in which they litter places with uncorrupt corpses and bits of dead bodies. We have so far collected Sta Zita (uncorrupt), Sta Caterina (head and the occasional digit); and Sta Fina (a God-bothered teenager). The whole thing is obsessive and grotesque. It reminds me of the unfortunate pilgrimage to Jerusalem we took three years ago.

It was led by Roy and Anne Williamson, so you would have expected we would have avoided these things. But when Bobby stepped inside that Holy Sepulchre place she started to feel claustrophobic immediately. We had to get out. ‘This can’t be what Jesus would have wanted’, said Bobby; and of course she was right. Later on we found the Garden Tomb, which felt just perfect, and quite made our trip. I met up with a pastor from Illinois who was leading an ecumenical group which included some Episcopalians, and Bobby went off and bought bookmarks decorated with dried flowers and some little hexagonal pots of jam, which she said were quite as good as the National Trust.

Sitting of an evening on the terrace, watching the family from Chelmsford across the valley enjoying their swimming pool, I have been thinking back over the events of the last few months.

Who would have thought that the AbC would make such a killing? He has Turnbull under his belt (the Report, not the bishop); David in his pocket (and to be honest Peter Tatchell was quite a help in that area); and Ruth Gledhill fawning all over him in, of all places, The Catholic Herald. He is generally agreed to have had a good Lambeth Conference, and is soon to be given ‘superman powers’ by the grateful primates. Jack Spong has retired hurt, and will soon be retiring completely. Apart from the fact that Dick Holloway has decided not to go into politics after all, everything in the garden is rosy.

My task, as I see it, will be to remind him how cankered is the rose!

Archbishops, after all, are at their best in a crisis. As long as everyone thinks the Church of England is going to fall apart they have an obvious and necessary role. They must hold it together. It is a role which all reasonable people will recognize and support. And in any case it allows the Archbishop to showcase those traditional Anglican virtues of moderation and compromise. In time, and if he weathers a sufficient number of crises, he is thought to be wise.

All that is relatively plain sailing. The real difficulties come when there is no crisis and the Archbishop is required to act rather than respond.

It is far easier simply to oppose schism than it is to set forward a coherent policy of one’s own. Just as it is far easier to re-organize structures than it is to do something with them when they have been re-organized. Nearly everybody wants unity; but, the C of E being what it is, it is unlikely that more than thirty percent of them will back any concerted policy, however innocuous.

The Evangelicals will want one thing; the Catholics will want another; the Liberal Evangelicals will hold a Conference about it at Swanwick; the women priests will claim that it has a built-in glass ceiling; Forward in Faith will say that it threatens the Act of Synod; and the Affirming Catholics will only support it if they can do it with their life-partners. It is frankly a nightmare; and that is even before you factor Pete Broadbent into the equation.

Only the warm Tuscan sun, and the chilled bottle of Vernaccia di San Gimignano on the table beside me, draw me back from despair. The Essex children in their rather too blue swimming pool, whose noisy enjoyment I can just hear over the murmur of insects, ground me in reality and give me hope.

The Church of England, after all, does not exist for all those religious people who cannot agree with each other. We are the People’s Church: we exist for the whole nation. Soon the first anniversary of the Tragedy will be upon us, and memories of that moving service in the Abbey (and the important part which the AbC naturally played in a great expression of National Solidarity) will kindle in us a renewed sense of purpose. We are in England; we are for England.

Though as a matter of fact all the pilgrimages to Althorp, and the girlhood memorabilia in glass cases, are dangerously close to those Italian corpses that Bobby hates so much, I am confident that we can harness all that emotion for good. We can use it for the beleaguered C of E. The important thing is to get the attendance figures favourable.

In my view it is not an exaggeration to call Bernie Taupin the Graham Kendrick of a great revival in English Spirituality. ‘Candle in the Wind’; ‘England’s Rose’: how telling those phrases are! Religious, and yet secular; full of meaning, and yet suggestively empty. The candle recycles so many religious images from the Catholic past, which happily, our nation has rejected. The rose manages effortlessly to do the same for patriotism (which Uncle Bob courageously kicked in the shins for the last time at the Falklands Service).

In all that is to be found our role and purpose as a Church. The People’s Church exists to put the hopes and aspirations of ordinary English folk into a religious context; to allow them to feel good about what they are and what they do.

In all this the AbC plays an essential role. He speaks for cohesion and continuity; for the essential flexibility of tradition. Which is why he must have no clear aims or objectives. The last thing we want is for some brash evangelistic enterprise to mess the whole thing up.

Well, every good thing comes to an end, and we drive to Pisa tomorrow for the flight home. All in all this has been a most satisfactory holiday. This country (if you keep out of the churches and go easy on the restaurants) has a lot to commend it.

Even the minder Spin-Dr Beaver sent (against the unlikely eventuality that we would be interviewed by L’Osservatore Romano) proved perfectly civilised in the end. He turned out to be a friend of Jumbo Rosenthal and a sidesman at St. Matthew’s Westminster. Though, as Bobby remarked, his choice of leather trousers for his nights off in Florence seemed curious in view of the climate.

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