Optimism Misplaced

I HAVE remarked before in these pages on the English belief that they will never do all the funny things Americans do, which persists even when the Church of England does the funny things the Episcopal Church has already done. (This is, by the way, my fiftieth “Letter.”)

In his “Behind the Spin” in the 29 September issue of The Church of England Newspaper, Andrew Carey took this line, in putting down the “hawks” of Reform. I think I have spent more time in England than he has spent in America, and that when he wrote that “While certain members of Reform might like to think that there are comparisons between the situation in the Church of England and the United States they are certainly wrong,” he was certainly wrong.

Carey argued that “evangelical clergy can remain in lively dialogue with their bishop without taking precipitate action,” and claimed that because their bishops have not yet acted on their beliefs, the “hawks” of Reform “are making a victim of the bishop for ‘thought crime’ alone.” This is an argument I think Carey will want to reconsider.

St John and St Paul condemned thought crime (false teaching) and often insisted that Christians flee thought criminals, whether or not they had acted on their thoughts. And of course, to teach is to act, and I would have thought it obvious that a bishop teaching that homosexuality is a good thing is attacking the faith – among other things, he is saying that Scripture is unreliable – and endangering people whether or not he publicly ordains someone living with a lover of the same sex.

This makes untenable the distinction Carey draws between the English and American situations, which is that the Americans have acted on what he seems to accept is the shared theology of the English and American liberals. At any rate, I can’t imagine St Paul submitting to a Peter Selby because the bishop liked a “lively dialogue” and didn’t yet practice what he preached.

The differences

The problem may be that Carey is simply too cheerful. He is unexpectedly wrong about the Episcopal Church, which he describes as “a Church where an avowed non-theist is allowed to remain a bishop with barely a protest from the majority of his colleagues.” This seems to be a very critical judgment but it is really much too optimistic.

The truth is more: “a Church where a near atheist who mocks traditional Christianity and works very hard to destroy it held office and honor as a bishop with no protest whatsoever from the vast majority (over 95%, at least) of his colleagues, and no more than a feeble rhetorical protest from the rest.” And in which not one bishop has criticized the presiding bishop, whose teaching is just as bad, if in a different way.

If Carey’s vision of the Episcopal Church is so rosy (rosy compared with the reality, I mean) his vision of his own Church is likely to be even rosier. What I see from my visits, reading of the English press, and conversations with a range of English clergy, is that the Church of England is on the same road but a few years behind the Episcopal Church, and the differences between them are mostly the differences between a national Church with an established (if shrinking) customer base and a Church that is essentially a triumph of niche marketing.

The first is restricted by law and custom, by friendship, and even by a sense (clearly waning) that all the old customers should still be served even if they don’t like the new product. But it has a new product to which it is committed and a new market that demands it, and many of the executives are increasingly impatient that the supply is limited because the company keeps serving the old customers.

The second can offer the same new product as aggressively as it wishes, because it only cares to serve a small market, defined in part as the people who want the new product. The old customers it expects to conform or go elsewhere.

There is not much difference in the way bishops treat their conservative parishes. In this country, bishops easily turn down a conservative parish’s choice of a new rector (this is illegal) and refuse to ordain their candidates or accept their candidates only on the condition they go to a liberal seminary where they will be “broadened,” which means corrupted. They can do this in public and their peers usually approve.

In your country, the bishops may act with more restraint, but in their assaults on the freehold, their continual suspension of patronage, and the latest churchwardens measure, they are taking the same power as the Episcopal bishops over the local bodies where the Church’s ministry is actually done. “30 Days” has recorded enough examples of the less public attempts to coerce orthodox clergy and parishes.

The problem

As I tried to say last month, it isn’t just the apostasy and the bullying that have lately affected the Evangelicals, ours in the Anglican Mission in America and yours in the “hawks” of Reform. Whatever may be said for accepting Thought Criminals, and for suffering their bullying and yielding to them what one has to, apostasy and centralization make it harder for Evangelicals to do the work they want to do.

In many dioceses in this country, conservative parishes are expected to give vast amounts of money to their dioceses, much of which will be used to support bad causes and to prop up dying liberal parishes. This is a penalty for being successful — and even after paying the penalty they still they find it very difficult and in many cases impossible to get their people ordained in the diocese.

You have a system that refuses to give growing parishes the clergy they need, and even tells them they must give up clergy because the membership of the whole Church is dropping. If an American may say so, the people who make this sort of ruling should be removed from office and given jobs as accountants in green grocers where they can add and subtract beans and bananas without harming human souls. Though much more bureaucratic and indirect than the American style, this is also a penalty for success.

Carey describes Episcopal life as a “nightmare” for the English. I don’t see that on any ground your situation is really very different. You may be behind us now, but you’re catching up fast enough.

* * *

I am thinking of forming a Anti-Defamation League for orthodox Christians, so many passing insults do we receive. Describing Bp John Rodgers, about whom I wrote last month, Pat Ashcroft wrote in The Church Times that she “heard more vitriol on the subject of human sexuality from conservative journalists at the Denver General Convention than I did from Bishop Rodgers.” I am quite sure, knowing John, that she heard nothing from him the least bit vitriolic (that “more” says she did) and having been one of the journalists, I am sure that, with the possible exception of one freelancer, she heard from us nothing vitriolic either.

But words like “vitriolic” in current religious discourse mean: articulating a traditional view, which is by definition caustic because unenlightened, uncaring, unpastoral, rigid, simplistic, divisive, etc.

David Mills is a senior editor of Touchstone: A Magazine of Mere Christianity (www.touchstonemag.com) and is working on a book to be titled The Saints’ Guide to Bad Ideas (Servant).