Christopher Smith


It recently made me smile to learn that Harold Macmillan had confided to his diary that he dreaded meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury (Fisher) because ‘I try to talk to him about religion. He seems to be quite uninterested and reverts all the time to politics’. All very amusing, but gosh, those bishops still love talking about politics, and things that are, perhaps, ‘small-p political’. I found myself at the Lambeth Conference garden party in early August, and small-p politics was very much in the air.

Now, before you get the impression that I have, like Monsignor Quixote, been promoted by mistake, I was only there because I am a Church Commissioner, and we were invited to the garden party, then uninvited, then invited again. The Commissioners are stumping up a few quid for the conference, so I suppose dry chicken with a smear of Thai curry sauce and a soft drink in Lambeth Palace garden constitutes some kind of thank you for that.

But, of course, it had all the fun of the fair, and the tables of ten were made up of bishops and their spouses, mixing some from England with some from other parts of the Communion. The bishops had spent most of their time in the giant tennis arena at the University of Kent at Canterbury, so a trip to London will have been fun for them, particularly in the hot weather we were having at the time. They had done quite a lot of Bible study, on 1 Peter, but I wasn’t sure they’d had much theology. They were treated to plenary sessions on broad-brush issues like ‘mission and evangelism’ and ‘hospitality and generosity’, and three keynote addresses by the Archbishop of Canterbury. And, instead of having to debate any motions and vote on resolutions, they had ‘Lambeth Call discussion sessions, where bishops [were] able to share their thinking and experience’.

It was all, of course, designed as a way of minimising the prospect of a great falling-out over any of the things they fundamentally disagree about. And, to be fair, they managed to get through it without any of the blunders of old, like the attempt in 1998 by a Nigerian bishop to exorcise Richard Kirker of his gay demons. In fact, no Nigerians came at all this time. It was all pretty tightly managed. Andrew Brown, a journalist who is worth reading even when one disagrees with him, said on his blog that ‘the press were excluded from the debates and the debates were, so far as possible, designed not to produce any newsworthy outcomes’.

There was a statement on the conference website that ‘through prayer, Bible study, fellowship and discussion, the conference community will explore what it means for the Anglican Communion to be responsive to the needs of our 21st-Century world’. And, not for the first time, I find myself frustrated by the apparently desperate desire to be ‘relevant’ to the modern world. Look up ‘Preachers n’ Sneakers’ and be horrified by an evangelical preacher in the USA presiding at some form of worship wearing Lanvin trainers that retail in this country for over £900, and another in a Louis Vuitton suede ‘denim’ jacket that would set you back £3,400. They think they’re being responsive. They think they’re appealing to the youth, whom they believe attach relevance to such ostentation. I find it repellent.

And I have a slight sense of being pushed away by the theme of the Lambeth garden party day. Latching onto the last of the ‘Five Marks of Mission’, the bishops landed in the small-p political world of ‘safeguarding the integrity of creation’. That, inevitably, is seen through the lens of climate change, which, over lunch, became not merely the ‘climate emergency’ but the ‘climate catastrophe’. They think it makes them relevant to the world outside their bubble, but, frankly, they were lucky to have a warm day: last year it barely got above 20°C on that date.

Now is not the time to delve too deeply into the matter of the climate, but it is very easy to drop out of the theological and into the political. I recently went to pay homage to the copy of the Leonardo Last Supper by one of his pupils which was loaned to the chapel of Magdalen College Oxford for many years and is now back in the Royal Academy. Perhaps they wish they’d left it in Oxford, as some anti-oil protestors glued themselves to its frame a couple of months ago. Needless to say, everyone in the gallery started photographing them rather than pulling them off, but that’s another story. In Italy, when a group of youngsters tried it with Botticelli’s Primavera in the Uffizi, the security guard dragged them away, presumably leaving some skin behind on the glass.

The Italian group called themselves Ultima Generazione, the Last Generation, a self-image which has clearly left them thinking of themselves in the same way as the Omegas in P.D. James’s novel, The Children of Men. They too believed that they were the last, and therefore most important, generation on the planet, and it made them ‘individualistic, … cruel, arrogant and violent’. At least bishops are not gluing themselves to great works of art. Not yet, anyway. I just wish they’d do a bit more theology and a bit less political posturing.