George Austin on a sermon turned upside down

On my study wall are two cartoons. One shows Archbishop Habgood in cope and mitre, paint brush in hand, having just graffiti’d on a wall, ‘George Austin is Fat’. The other, from the Yorkshire Post, is of Alice in Wonderland holding an animal with two heads, one George Carey’s and the other mine.

They were based on the measured archiepiscopal responses to a sermon I had preached in 1991 in York Minster on the future of the Church of England. Habgood had compared me to the Fat Boy in Pickwick Papers, wanting to ‘make your flesh creep’ (to be fair, it was half-humorous – he would often tease me about my size); while Carey claimed I was like Humpty Dumpty in an Alice-in-Wonderland world where words mean what you want them to mean.

I am not objecting. In the long term, an abusive response to an argument is often sufficient proof that the argument is unanswerable.

My sin was to have prophesied a bleak future for the Church of England as the liberal agenda progressed in the coming years, and that the only way to avoid constant and fruitless debate was, eventually and sadly, to have an orthodox ‘church within a church’.

It was on Sunday 8 September 1991 that I was on the rota to preach what proved (for some unknown reason) to be my last annual sermon in York Minster. I had for some years made frequent visits to the United States and had observed the steady and inexorable course of self-destruction, now almost completed, that our sister church there had embarked upon and I had come to believe that this would happen here too.

It was the only time I have ever actively sought media attention, sending the text out to journalists on the religion circuit. Attention it certainly received, with major articles in the broadsheets and interviews on such programmes as Newsnight and Today. Apart from the put-downs from archbishops, the only major church figure to respond was Bishop Graham Leonard of London who sent out a press release giving his fullest support to what I had said.

It is only very recently that I have discovered the reason for the strange silence of other bishops. From a highly placed source I have been told that they were instructed by God’s spin-doctors at Church House and in York that they were not to make any statement whatsoever and of course they obeyed their masters.

Instead, an archdeacon – with some media experience – was given authority to make comments, with the idea that his obscurity would be more effective in putting me in my place. He was a busy little bee – on radio, and in numerous letters to newspapers – so much so that he was, as a result of his frenetic activity, just about as effective as Dean Colin Slee was in intervening in the Jeffrey John affair. I was deeply grateful to him.

As for the orthodox constituency, fellow members were (as usual) silent, for which the most charitable interpretation is that they thought Austin had finally lost his marbles.

So what caused a furore that brought me nearly a thousand letters, mostly in full support of what I had said? The Dean of York complained that it was a misuse of the pulpit for political purposes even though at least a quarter of it was directly about God – a fair percentage by comparison with some sermons endured by long-suffering churchgoers. The fundamentally feminist Jean Mayland – wife of a Minster canon and so powerful there that other canons often spoke of ‘the Jean and Chapter’ – described the sermon ‘the tirade of a hurt little boy’.

I declared in some detail my firm belief in primary doctrines like the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the incarnation; in the truth that Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins, that God offers that salvation to all, and that Jesus is the unique revelation of God. Apparently dangerous theology in the CofE. And all of that, I suggested, was under threat from aspects of the liberal agenda.

Now that we have learnt from the Christian Research poll results twelve years later that of clergy who accept the ordination of women only 65% believe that Jesus died to take way our sins, only 54% in his physical resurrection, 40% in the virgin birth, and a mere 39% in the uniqueness of Christ as the way to salvation, I was surely not far from the mark.

Am I now saying, with self-satisfaction, ‘I told you so’? Maybe I am – and with justification – but with no satisfaction at what this has done to the Church that I love. Is it any wonder that we saw church attendance plummet in that ‘decade of evangelism’?

Let me say then that on one issue I thought I was wrong, if only for the moment. I declared my belief in the statement in the 39 Articles (remember them?) that God is ‘without parts and passions’. ‘We worship him’, I went on the say, ‘as Father and Almighty Lord because that is how he is revealed in scripture.’ To introduce female names for God (as even then in an official New Zealand prayer book, with a Lord’s Prayer that begins ‘Loving Father and Mother’) would be fall into gross heresy, since it makes God in our image, with a sexual differentiation he does not need.

I went on to suggest that it was likely that ‘within the next five years such descriptions of God will be introduced into official prayer books of the Church of England.’ I have been told that the Liturgical Commission set its heart against any pressure to do so. Even so, it has to be said that references to God the Father as ‘He’ have been expunged, so far as I can see, from the text of Common Worship. At least that is a start for the revisionists.

What I had not realized until I read a recent book review by Brother Martin SSF was that in Common Worship – Daily Prayer there is in fact a canticle by Julian of Norwich with the heretical opening verse, ‘God chose to be our mother in all things.’ So even there I was right in my warning after all, even if ‘within five years’ was too pessimistic.

As for the 39 Articles, the recent General Convention of ECUSA rejected, by no less than 84 episcopal votes to 60, a motion in the House of Bishops to affirm Articles 6, 20 and 21 and the Lambeth/Chicago Quadrilateral. Would it get through the English House of Bishops? Or the Synod? Especially when the Porvoo Agreement effectively demolished the concept of the historic episcopate?

The final part of my sermon was a plea that, if orthodox clergy and parishes were prepared to respect the position of liberal revisionists, then the same liberals must accept that there was a price they must pay.

‘There must,’ I said, ‘be no bar on the acceptance of candidates for ordination who hold orthodox beliefs’ – and there is evidence now that this has not always been the case.

‘Bishops would be expected to appoint traditional believers to their senior staffs as suffragan bishops and archdeacons, as well as allowing some to hold key posts as directors of mission or training’ – how often has this happened in those 12 years?

‘Any liberal plans to deal with orthodox clergy by legislation to dispense with conscientious safeguards or to remove the parson’s freehold would have to be abandoned’ – ask GRAS and WATCH about the safeguards and look at the lists of appointments in Church papers to see how few now have the freehold, yet are still without the legal rights that would be have to be given by secular employers.

I went on to say that ‘if the price for that is a church within a church, then that price must be paid.’ There are hints from no less a figure than the Archbishop of Canterbury that this may soon become a reality.

In 1995, I again dived in at the deep end and in a fantasy epilogue to my book Affairs of State – Leadership, Religion and Society, I pictured Anglicanism in the twenty years to the year 2015. After the first ordinations of women, I suggested that 500 priests would take the compensation offered ‘until the General Synod closed this loophole with its infamous Financial Provisions (Amendment) Measure.’ By its terms the compensation provision would be removed and all clergy would be required to make on every Maundy Thursday a declaration that they recognized all orders, male and female. That is yet to happen, but who dare now suggest it is beyond possibility?

I prophesied – wrongly by two years as it turned out – that by the year 2000 ‘the Convocation regulations forbidding the remarriage in Church of anyone with a former partner still alive [would have been] rescinded, and [that] safeguards restricting such remarriage [would be] quickly abandoned in favour of a free-for-all.’

I was wrong too in suggesting that by 2000 the strength of the gay lobby would have ensured that the Synod would have passed ‘motions supporting the rights of homosexual men and women not only to be ordained but also to have permanent relations blessed in a form of marriage.’ But by 2005?

But I was right to claim that clergy numbers would decline drastically, though had I suggested a figure for the fall in regular worshippers it would certainly not have been as great as reality proved it to be.

Will I be correct in my prophesy that in 2015 the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Cissy H Shearmend (an anagram, by the way, for crossword enthusiasts to work out – three words), would have to call in the Official Receiver to a bankrupt Church of England? Or will it happen before then?

I recently heard an address by a senior theologian in the Church which he began with the words, ‘Five years ago I would have given the Church of England fifty years before it disappeared. Now I give it ten.’

According to the US publication Christian Challenge, the newly elected gay bishop Gene Robinson conceded to reporters that his confirmation was contrary to historic church teaching on homosexuality, but then is alleged to have asserted that ‘Just simply to say that it goes against tradition and the teaching of the church and scripture does not necessarily make it wrong [sic]’, noting that the church had already departed from historic teaching on the matters of marriage and women’s ordination.

With all that there is surely no need for any more of my bizarre far-fetched prophecies. Humpty Dumpty has already fallen off the wall and can’t be put together again.

George Austin has been gazing into a crystal ball for many years