11 MARCH 1995, Page 19


William Oddie argues that the Church of England is the ecclesiastical equivalent of Barings: out of control and financially paralysed

WHEN, ABOUT three and half years ago, George Austin, the archdeacon of York, suggested a seemly internal division of the Church of England (into those who believed in the Bible and those who did not) he was generally treated with amused contempt by the smooth operators who make up the C of E's ruling caste. His archbishop, Dr John Habgood, amiably likened this attractively substantial cleric to the Fat Boy in Pickwick who slithers up to timid old women saying, 'I wants to make your flesh creep.' The archdeacon, he loftily declared, was overreacting `to a few anecdotes he has heard'.

That was in September 1991, and it is the archdeacon, not the archbishop, who now looks like the true prophet. George Austin's case then was that since his Church was 'divided so deeply and funda- mentally that there is no hope of compro- mise', that this division should 'be recognised formally, and . . . the clergy and the parishes' should be given 'the means to identify themselves with one out- look or the other'. Only in this way, he said, could 'years of bitter argument on the one hand or open schism on the other' be avoided.

The years since have seen much bitter argument: as for schism, many of those previously most dedicated to lofty dis- missals of the remotest possibility of any- thing so melodramatic are quite suddenly facing its imminent reality in earnest. To quote a recent leading article in — of all places — that ancestral voice of C of E loyalism, the Church Times (tellingly head- lined 'When the Anglican glue begins to lose its grip'), 'Schism is in the air.' The evidence is everywhere to be seen. A few weeks ago, five Norfolk parishes repudiated the authority of their bishop (who last week unsuccessfully attempted to reassert it) and declared UDI after their vicar had been fired for divorcing twice and attempting to marry for a third time. The following week, Reform, a campaign- ing group of conservative evangelicals, drew up plans for what they called a `Church within a Church' (an expression which has become familiar over the last year or two). The occasion for the erection of this one would be the ordination of sex- ually active and out-of-the-closet gays: for the struggle within the C of E over 'gay rights' will, during the run-up to the next synodical elections this autumn (in which the Christian Lesbian and Gay Movement is to declare a list of gay candidates), be joined in a big way. This week's announce- ment by the Rt Rev. Derek Rawcliffe, the former Bishop of Glasgow – that Anglican priests should be allowed homosexual relationships, and that he would be pre- pared to 'bless' such unions – is only the start. All the bishops' traditional genius for ambiguity and soft focus will avail them nothing here; this is one of those divisions which cannot be bandaged over by compromise and smooth words. The same is true of the deepest division of all: yet another group, Forward in Faith (which claims the support of 3,000 clergy), has declared itself out of communion with any bishop who ordains women. The point to note is that all these groups are divided fundamentally, not only from `Due to government cutbacks, we are going to have to share Henry the school hamster with St Swithin's' the centre but from each other. Briefly, the seceding Norfolk parishes tend towards `liberalism', Reform is staunchly Protes- tant, and Forward in Faith has a generally Catholic complexion (many former mem- bers have already become Roman Catholics). These three tendencies have always existed; but they were held together in the past by the power of the state (effec- tively removed in 1970, with the invention of the General Synod), by a common litur- gy — some variant of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer — and by a well-funded central organisation which interfered with them as little as possible.

Now, all that has been swept far out to sea. There is another crisis, too: a desper- ate shortage of clergy. Ironically, for the first time this is not caused by a shortfall in personnel (something like 1,000 woman- priests have been ordained since last March): the grim truth is that the vicars there are cannot be paid for, and that many clergy in training face the prospect of per- manent unemployment.

For as everyone now knows, on top of all the Church's other crises, there is a desper- ate financial crisis, too. The most conve- nient available scapegoats for this are the Church Commissioners — the Church of England's money men — who presently occupy a similar place in Anglican demonology to that of Mr Nick Leeson at Barings Bank. By fantastically inept deal- ings in the property market, they have managed to reduce the Church's assets from £3 billion to £2.2 billion.

The roots of the present financial crisis of the Church of England, however, go deeper, far, far, deeper, than the ineptitude of the Church Commissioners can explain by itself. Losing nearly a third of its capital did not help of course. But there was already a financial crisis. Two and a half years ago, the Commissioners issued a clar- ion call for Anglicans in the pew to increase their giving to the Church by 20 per cent from the astonishingly mean weekly average of £1.50 a head — they asked, in other words, for another 30p.

What they got in the end was less than 5p: a resounding vote of no confidence in the Church's central authorities. As a chur- chwarden in one of the better-heeled Lon- don parishes put it at the time, money for the organ or repairs to the church roof would be available 'at the drop of a hat. But this strikes us as being a bit of a bot- tomless pit.' This, we might call the Only In My Back Yard or Oimby principle, and it lies at the heart of the Church of England's present problems.

To be fair, Anglicans traditionally have always thought of 'the Church' as being not the 'Universal' or 'Catholic' Church, but as the local church they go to or stay away from. When things were quiet, this did not matter very much. But the Church of Eng- land today is very far from quiet; one crisis gives way to another, brought about either by the incompetence or by the deliberate intention of those at the centre. Faithless and politically radical bishops, women priests, ugly new liturgies, gay liberation, the list is all too familiar now. The point is not that everyone is necessarily against such developments, but that they are all, each in its own way, acutely destabilising in themselves. That would not necessarily mean they could not be coped with, taken singly: the final crisis of the Church of England is now upon it because there are too many of them at the same time to be handled by the old Establishment ways. The point comes when even the most solid of institutions founders if events over- whelm it. When the Church Times, that smooth purveyor of Establishment unflap- pability, can begin a leader with the words `Schism is in the air', we have to conclude that we have now entered a new phase. Quite suddenly, everyone has begun to fear that things have gone beyond the point of no return: the old crate is still in the air, but the tanks are holed and there will be no landfall.

The Church of England today retains all the signer exterieures of the powerful national institution it once was. The Arch- bishop of Canterbury takes precedence over all other subjects. Thirty bishops have seats in the House of Lords. The great cathedrals, together with what (despite the Church Commissioners) is still huge wealth, both inherited from the Catholic middle ages, are still firmly in Anglican hands. Every village has its ancient parish church. But the whole impressive structure has suddenly become dangerously unsta- ble.

As the millennium approaches, the Church of England bears, in several important respects, an uncanny resem- blance to the Soviet Union on the eve of its dissolution. It seems, though manifestly unsuccessful, to be nevertheless unshak- able. Nobody can believe it might break up into its constituent parts; despite its many crises, it all looks too familiar, too much part of the way things always have been and always will be. But there are two crises, each of which taken separately might be survived but which taken togeth- er must foreshadow disintegration rather than the genteel decline which everyone has been prognosticating.

The first, as in the Soviet Union, is impending economic collapse. The second is even more serious, and is the ultimate cause of the first: there has been a general and almost certainly irreversible collapse of any commonly accepted system of belief. Just as in Gorbachev's Russia lip service was paid to the teachings of Lenin, though few still believed in him, so in the Church of England, though the Creeds are still recited every Sundays, there is no sin- gle article of them (including the very exis- tence of God) that is now definitive for Anglicans. The clergy can be atheists if they like, and quite a few of them are: they even have their own annual conference.

This is a determinative and fatal change. It is not true to say that Anglicanism was always a 'broad church', in any sense that you could simply make up your own per- sonalised quasi-Christianity. Consider this, for instance, by Bishop Charles Gore, the first principal of Pusey House, Oxford. Pusey is generally claimed as a precursor of modern Anglican 'liberal Catholicism'; he would not have been amused by his intellectual progeny: We must be very gentle with scrupulous and anxious consciences ... but when a man has once arrived at the steady conviction that he cannot honestly affirm a particular and unambiguous article of the Creed, in the sense that the Church of which he is a member undoubtedly gives to it, the public mind of the Church must tell him that he has a right to the freedom of his opinion, but that he can no longer, consistently with public honour, hold the office of the min- istry.

Any such notion of 'public honour' has long since departed from official Anglican- ism, and it is hard to envisage that it could ever return.

If the money were still there to pay for it, none of this would necessarily mean that the C of E could not continue muddling through as a kind of general national provider of rites of passage (as well as being, even now, in Eliot's words, 'a place where prayer has been valid'). But the inherited money is dwindling and the man and woman in the pew have not enough faith left in the Established Church to make up the deficit. What will replace it is uncertain: probably, as with the Soviet Union, it will break up into its constituent parts, some of which will remain under some kind of loose umbrella organisation — a kind of Commonwealth of Indepen- dent Churches.

Let us not be sentimental about this. It is all going to be a sad and traumatic business for many; but no worse than the C of E has already lived through, many times over, during the last 25 years. The worst part is probably over now: all that is necessary is for the Church's ruling caste to cease to regard institutional survival as its main pri- ority, and to think, instead, principally of the future of the Christian cause in Eng- land.

For, if this cause is not to suffer even greater reverses than it has in the past, there has to be soon (that is, over the next decade) what two years ago Cardinal Basil Hume prophetically called a 'realignment of English Christianity'. The realignment will take place anyway. But if it is to hap- pen with a minimum of further trauma the Established Church, like Barings Bank, has to face the music: things are now beyond desperate, last-minute rescue operations. There are plenty of spiritual assets left, but they need to be in the hands of other man- agements, some of which are well estab- lished, others which are only beginning to emerge. It would be better if they were transferred soon, before disasters as yet unforeseen further erode their value.