The unholy mess

The camp liturgical dance, which has led the Anglican church through a decade of conflict, scandal and humiliation, finally appears to be over. Andrew Brown gives two cheers for the arrival of George Carey's "Jesus plc"
January 20, 1996

When people no longer believe in God, this makes difficulties for the churches. But these are small compared to the difficulties which arise when no one believes in the church. Once upon a time there was no special need to believe in the Church of England, any more than it is necessary to believe in the English language: the Church of England was the natural and reasonable form of Christianity, just as English was the natural and reasonable language.

This cultural theory had a theological counterpart in the belief that the Church of England alone held to the uncorrupted doctrines which had once been shared by all Christendom before the schism between Rome and Constantinople. It embodied what CS Lewis called "Mere Christianity." Against this proposition, generations of Roman Catholics have laboured mightily: at first by doubting the Christianity; later by stressing the mereness of the Church of England. The sheer weight of contempt piled on the Church of England has now reached a point where, when an archbishop announces that marriage is superior to cohabitation, his thoughts become front page news.

External factors alone cannot account for this sad condition. As Christian denominations go, the Church of England is no worse off than most. Roman Catholicism has lost nearly as many members, and stands to lose many more. But those that remain are loyal. You have to know a Catholic well before he will criticise the Pope. Anglicans, on the other hand, almost define themselves by their brand of hostility; and you will no more meet a member of the Church of England without a grumble about it than you will meet an Englishman without an accent.

Along with this disloyalty goes a pervasive quality of camp. It is not primarily sexual. Homosexuality and hypocrisy about homosexuality form an important compounding factor but the bad faith and humbug goes wider than that. The gap between institutional pretension and privately acknowledged reality cannot be bridged.

There is the problem of numbers: most measurements suggest that about 2.1 per cent of the population regularly attend the services of the Church of England; a slightly larger number are practising Roman Catholics. Some overwhelming majority of the population-between 70 and 90 per cent depending on who is measuring-claims to believe in God, but whether this means anything more than that they read their horoscopes is open to doubt.

There is the problem of titles, and the pretensions implicit in them. The lay assistant to the Archbishop of York, a man of considerable intelligence, has just spent three minutes on the telephone instructing me how to address an envelope to the Most Honourable and Rt. Rev Lord Habgood. Lord Habgood is one of the most estimable men in public life, yet the conversation gave me the sense that I was dealing with a Habsburg flunkey.

There is, above all, the problem of government. The church's general synod remains the only body outside parliament which can make English law. Its lay members are elected by a curiously indirect scheme which might have been designed to weed out anyone with other interests in life. The synod was invented in 1970 so that the church could conduct its own affairs: specifically so that it could change its own liturgy to suit the needs of believers, rather than those of the large penumbra of agnostics who demanded splendid language to disbelieve. There is some evidence that the synod's founders conceived of its sittings as a kind of endless liturgical dance.

The dance, once embarked on, led in strange directions. If the synod could change the Book of Common Prayer, which had regulated the doctrine and worship of the Church of England since 1662, might it not change other things? Might it not make women priests, for example? According to the Catholic self-understanding, it could not. The Anglo-Catholics held about a third of the synod seats: enough, they believed, to block any decisive moves against their beliefs. They were one of the three great parties of the Church of England, the others being the evangelicals-once self-consciously protestant, now standing for a rugby-playing empiricism-and the middling moderates.

The Anglo-Catholics stem from the great Victorian religious revival. Most of them saw the Church of England as the third great branch of sacramental Christianity, alongside Rome and the Orthodox. It was a church, they believed, which had preserved the essential characteristics of Catholic Christianity and the Catholic priesthood through the reformation, while discarding only inessentials. Internally, it was a perfectly consistent interpretation of history and doctrine; the fact that it was rejected by most of the Church of England, all of the orthodox churches and the Church of Rome did not unduly disturb the Anglo-Catholics. But, as became dreadfully clear, the rest of the Church of England regarded the Catholic self-understanding as something that was all right between consenting adults in private but not binding on anyone else. The Church of England to which the Anglo-Catholics thought they belonged did not exist outside their own imaginations. They had no interest in the church that actually existed. This condition of schizophrenic disloyalty actually ran through all the parties of the church in the 1980s, but it was clearest among opponents of women priests.


This state of affairs did not emerge quietly, but through a succession of scandals. We might start with the Crockford affair, in many ways the central scandal of the modern Church of England, not least because it introduced on to the public stage two new parties in church affairs, the "liberals" and the "traditionalists." The theological differences between the two sides would take some explanation, but there is a simple way to tell them apart in person: liberals are thin; traditionalists are not. Don Cupitt, the atheist theologian, is hardly visible from the side at all. Traditionalists gain girth as their opinions develop. (Two of their leaders, the Rev William Oddie and Canon Brian Brindley, finally grew so fat that they had to became Roman Catholics.)

In the autumn of 1987, Church House Publishing produced its biennial Crockford directory of the serving clergy, complete with an anonymous preface surveying the ecclesiastical scene. Within four days of publication, the author had killed himself; reading what he wrote it is possible to understand why. The central paragraphs of the preface-the hinge on which the whole argument turned-contained a lucid, bitterly cruel portrait of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, as a scheming vacillator who would destroy the Church of England not from malice so much as from a profound aversion to its founding principles. The mechanism of this destruction would be the introduction of women priests.

The story was front page news for days. In the general excitement of mischievous delight the author could not remain concealed. His style, lapidary and savage like an obsidian knife, was immediately recognisable. Runcie had recognised the arguments of the preface too, because they stemmed from a friend of his, Gary Bennett, an Oxford historian and synodical politician who had just been elevated to the Crown Appointments Commission (which chooses candidates for bishoprics). Within 24 hours of the preface appearing, Bennett had denied he was the author to at least half a dozen journalists and worked himself into a very difficult position.

His difficulties were compounded by one unmentionable fact. He was gay. It had already been an autumn to excite the conspiratorial and persecuted Anglican gays; the synod had just passed an evangelical resolution condemning "homosexual genital activity" by a huge majority with only 13 votes against. In the run-up to the debate there had been a tabloid campaign of exposure, some suicides; an arson attack; and all over the country could be heard a faint, familiar rustling noise: the liberals scuttling for cover. At least two liberal diocesan bishops, to my certain knowledge, made a practice of ordaining gays (when they were satisfied the men were in stable sexual relationships). Both voted for the anti-gay resolution. They felt no loyalty to the synod.

In this climate Bennett spent the earlier part of the weekend on a visit to Cambridge denying to friends that he had written the preface; he then returned to the house where he lived alone, found that his cat Tiddles had died, and gassed himself in the garage. He seems to have had no close friends; but his allies, as soon as they had got over their shock, proclaimed him a martyr at the hand of ruthless liberals. It is difficult now to remember the hysteria of the Thatcher years, when a pig-breeding former history don such as Runcie, who had won a Military Cross, might be represented as a subversive determined to destroy the established church.

The difficulty for the "traditionalist" party was that their central cause, resistance to the ordination of women, was unpopular within the church and almost incomprehensible outside it. The only way to make it palatable was to accuse their opponents of every other form of wrongdoing as well. The chief victim of this new mode of argument was the Archbishop of York, John Habgood, a rather stiff Etonian, who had denounced the preface as the work of a bitter and disappointed man. What made this remark unforgivable was its palpable truth. Because it was made while Bennett was still alive and anonymous but remembered after he was exposed and dead, it seemed vicious and petty. It probably finished Habgood's chances of becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. By a fine irony, he was responsible for negotiating the settlement which convinced many Anglo-Catholics to stay in the Church of England, under which they get their own bishops and need not recognise women priests as anything more than a legal fiction.

Derek Pattinson, who had commissioned the preface and refused to cut it, fended off enquiries by reference to the convention that the anonymity of the preface writer must be absolute. He had the civil servant's gift of shrouding administrative decisions in a fog of immemorial convention. He had been secretary general of the synod for nearly 20 years and called it at times, with proprietary pride, "my synod." In those days, he dressed like Neville Chamberlain, but once took a woman friend of mine to a seedy drinking club.

At its first meeting after Bennett's suicide, the standing committee of the synod passed a motion entirely exonerating him. Another motion was proposed expressing support for Archbishop Runcie. Canon Brian Brindley, the Anglo-Catholic, argued successfully against it on the grounds that to pass such a motion would be a tacit admission that there had been criticism of Runcie.

Brindley's own fall, however, was not attributable to such subtlety. About a year later he was introduced to a young journalist. He took the young man to supper at the Athenaeum and made a series of clumsy, sentimental passes at him. The young man had come forearmed, with a concealed microphone; he passed the tapes to the News of the World, which gave Brindley the full treatment; "We name the Kinky Canon: Runcie's pervert pal exposed." Brindley refused to resign. He had spent 20 years turning his church into a Gothic treasure trove with a congregation gathered from miles around; and his bishop, the liberal Richard Harries, was prepared to take his expostulations at face value. So the two evangelical members of the synod's standing committee, the Rev David Holloway and Jill Dann, a former lady mayor of Cheltenham, sent all 400 members of the synod photocopies of the News of the World article and Brindley finally resigned. He retired to Brighton, became a Roman Catholic layman, and now contributes articles to the Catholic Herald.

Partly in consequence of this, David Holloway lost his seat at the next synod elections. He founded a group called "Reform," which became an evangelical mirror image of Anglo-Catholic disloyalty. The group was also opposed to women priests, as a breach of the Church of England's title deeds, although it believed these deeds were to be found in the Bible rather than in the Church's rules. "Reform" frightened many people by proposing that parishes should withhold their diocesan quotas, which provide one third of the Church's income. It now downplays the idea, but this evangelical revolt frightened Carey more than the Anglo-Catholics had ever done.


Derek Pattinson, meanwhile, made it safely into retirement. He was knighted, and accepted for ordination. When his mother died, he started drinking heavily and at the same time began sharing his flat with a synod member named Barnaby Miln. Miln, who had been the youngest JP in England, had destroyed his career in the 1987 synod debate on homosexuality, when he announced that he was homosexual himself, despite having a wife and two children.

Pattinson celebrated his retirement with a fact-finding trip round southern Africa, paid for by the oldest Anglican society in England, SPCK (which had been propagandising for the Church of England since 1697, as a book publisher and as a missionary society). He was accompanied throughout by Barnaby Miln; SPCK picked up part of Miln's tab, although Pattinson claimed he later repaid it. The society had been run, for almost as long as Pattinson had been running the synod, by a gay freemason, Patrick Gilbert. Gilbert was the adopted child of prosperous parents who had made it to the very heart of the establishment: he was chairman of a private dining club for friends of the Archbishop of Canterbury. SPCK paid Gilbert's business expenses totalling over ?50,000 a year, which included his golf club fees. He was eventually convicted on charges resulting from an affair with a 15-year-old boy whom he had taken abroad at SPCK's expense. He received 18 months, suspended for two years.

Meanwhile, Barnaby Miln had conceived a passion for the chauffeur he shared with Pattinson. The chauffeur introduced Miln to cocaine-which proved fatal for the chauffeur: he died after an altercation with a drug dealer at King's Cross from whom he was buying Miln a present. Full of despair and unfocused malice, Miln shopped Pattinson and Gilbert to a journalist. Later he went to jail for six months for defrauding the old people's home he had run while a member of the synod. Pattinson suffered a collapse, was dried out, and after a decent interval resumed duties as an assistant curate in Pimlico.

Such, then, was the establishment that George Carey inherited when he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1991. Almost immediately afterwards it emerged that the Church Commissioners had lost ?800m, a third of their assets, in property speculation. The income from all their remaining assets was already committed to paying pensions. The salaries of the clergy would from now on have to be paid by living church members, not by dead ones. Two thirds of the salary bill is already raised from congregations but both the Anglo-Catholic and the evangelical opponents of women priests are quietly encouraging their congregations to withdraw any contributions from central funds; and there is also a strong element of financial discontent in the farcical revolt of five Norfolk parishes which have declared UDI because the bishop forbade their vicar to regularise his liaison with the former television presenter who became his third wife.


Carey's response to these crises has been energetic and consistent. He wants to turn the church into a modern organisation. It is an understandable response to the shambles delineated above. If only the church were a streamlined body, dedicated to the delivery of the gospel, faithful to its mission statement-the language of modern business seems made for Christianity. The Church of England has traditionally drawn its strength and ideology from its closeness to the rest of the establishment; and the outside world is now run by managers. It has also been about 20 or 30 years behind the rest of the establishment. So Carey approaches the Church of England with the brusque confidence that Edward Heath (once news editor on the Church Times) brought to the problems of Britain in the 1970s. Carey is 60; he has ten years to stamp himself on the church.

A series of committees, either appointed or encouraged by the Archbishop of Canterbury, have recommended radical changes to the appointment system and government of the church. The synod, already greatly professionalised by Derek Pattinson's successor, Philip Mawer, is to be decapitated and at its head will be placed a "national council," with wide-ranging executive powers and a majority of members appointed by the archbishops. Clergy are to have their performance assessed regularly; performance, it would appear, means bums on pews and the hope that hearts and minds will follow.

The freehold system, which guarantees about 60 per cent of the parish clergy jobs from which they cannot be shifted without their consent, is to be abolished. The awkward system of cathedral government is to be reformed so that the bishop becomes master in his own house. Outsiders have always been puzzled by the distinction between the church's legislature, the general synod, and its executive-it hasn't really got one. If the recommendations of the Turnbull commission, the latest committee to report, are approved, then the distinction will be abolished and the church will gain a very visible executive, run by the archbishops.

This is not just Carey's programme, but the dream of much of the evangelical party in the church. Since the collapse of the Anglo-Catholic faction after the ordination of women, no well organised resistance to the evangelicals' programme has arisen. Most of the vigour and imagination in the church is theirs-and so are most of the powerful jobs. The change may be measured by the reactions to an evangelical scandal: the very public collapse of the "Nine O'Clock Service" in Sheffield. This had the potential to be extremely damaging, because the Sheffield group had high-powered connections. Chris Brain, the founder, had contributed to the Archbishop's book on youth ministry and he started his career in the church of Canon Robert Warren, now the church's national officer for evangelism.

Yet the programme has not been discredited. The latest synod meeting has made it clear how disorganised resistance to the programme is. The Turnbull commission's report was presented almost as a whole, which must be accepted or rejected without further negotiations. To a majority of newly-elected members, Carey's programme looks like enlightened common sense: a simple adjustment to the facts. But there is no such thing, least of all in a church. If the old myths are being dumped, they must be replaced by new ones. The myth that seems to come naturally to Carey is the idea of the church as learning from the secular world and concentrating on its core business: a flexible and synergistic Jesus plc.

I prefer the reality. While writing this article, I visited two priests in the north of England. He is Canadian; she Belgian. They met and married in Switzerland. Neither have freehold. She does not even have a salary, and her congregation has had its church demolished; it meets in the old church hall. Both of them are educated, civilised people and good priests. Their churches serve poor, ageing populations, where nobody wants to go. They will not be helped by being turned into salesmen on commission for Jesus plc. Yet their loyalty, and the loyalty of many like them to the Church of England as it actually exists, does not merely enrich the church and their congregations: it does something to make the great unbelieving world outside a little more civilised; it is the reason why all the shenanigans of the synod matter.