church of england compromised via media
Church of England

The Church of England is a compromised and compromising church – thank God!

As we await the appointment of the next Bishop of London, some are limbering up for the next round of culture wars within the Church of England.

In a ‘warning‘ issued in advance of the name being announced, the Rev’d William Taylor, Rector of St Helen’s Bishopsgate in the City of London, announced that if the next Bishop of London were not of his view on matters of marriage and sexuality, he might leave the Church of England.

Some have already indicated that they would bear his departure with as much fortitude as they could muster, but this is not a trivial thing: our Lord expressed the wish that his faithful followers should share his bread and cup together, and our current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has reminded us before that schism is itself an evil. Given the issue upon which the Rev’d William Taylor chooses to make his stand, it is perhaps apposite to say that schism, like marriage, is “not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly”.

Schism has a long history, and not an uplifting one. From the earliest days it was conducted with somewhat greater muscularity than we see now. In the early Councils of the Church, proponents of the rival factions would bring along their supporting militia; physical fights broke out on a regular basis in the early days, often over issues of Christology – the precise understanding of whether/how Jesus was/is fully God and/or fully human. Jesus had asked, “Who do you say I am?” but had provided no recorded definitive answer that satisfied the protagonists.

Thus it was that when the Church gathered to resolve that question in AD 449, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Flavian, died of wounds inflicted upon him in a punch-up at the Council of Ephesus. It was so scandalous that even the winning faction was sufficiently shocked that the Council was subsequently expunged from the historic record; it was called at that time ‘latrocinium’ – the gangster Synod.

Heated controversies are accordingly nothing new, and if you would like to understand them better, then Philip Jenkins’ book Jesus Wars is a fascinating account of those times and offers an effective riposte to anyone seeking to hold up the Early Church as an example of Christian rectitude and charity.

In those days the three factions were loosely divided between schools of thought from Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople: today in the Church of England we have the Catholic, Liberal, and Evangelical schools of thought. I don’t know if there is an Early Church equivalent in the Greek for ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, but the proposition needs to enter into this discussion somewhere.

The controversies always ultimately revolve around the answers we give to the same four questions. How do we describe the character of Jesus? What is the nature of the Church? By what authority do we say this? By what authority do we act?

Unfortunately, the historic record suggests that most attempts to promote our respective views on these subjects did not end well. The killing did not end at Ephesus, and was often accompanied by indiscriminate violence which was by no means limited to the protagonists. The little people always got hurt. Jesus may have been robust towards the stiff-necked and the proud, but he was invariably gentle toward the little people.

We would all do well to remember this before we march our men to the top of the hill, from which lofty height we then declare our intention to fight to the death.

In contrast, for all its faults, the Church of England developed into a noble experiment in tolerance. Its beginnings may have seemed unpromising: Henry VIII wanted a child-bearing wife who would give him a son. Ordinary human weaknesses aside, he was partly driven by a deep desire to preserve the Tudor dynasty and spare his country another period of rivalry and war.

Like many a Tudor edifice, the original conception has been modified, demolished, rebuilt and sometimes sympathetically restored. Two features survived; the liturgy of Thomas Cranmer and an inclination to avoid extremism which was woven into the fabric by Elizabeth I. She knew what it was to live in fear of persecution for one’s deeply-held convictions, and, unusually for a monarch of the time, had empathy for others in that position.

She famously pronounced: “I would not open a window onto men’s souls”, and with that statement she embedded a principle of Anglicanism which has endured. A degree of permitted plurality arose within the State religion which led us to where we are now. We may not have our current theological diversity had it not been for her.

If I were to take a handful of bread rolls and cast them randomly around the chamber of General Synod, who would catch them? Here, one who sees the Bible as the literal word of God; over there, someone who reads the inspired word of God. This bishop here sees praying for the dead as a Christian duty, whilst a priest (or is he a minister?) over there thinks this to be a futile exercise. Others could urge upon us the efficacy of praying through the Virgin Mary, petitioning through the Saints and venerating icons. The lady sitting next to me might see this as strangely unacceptable, if not borderline idolatry. Then there are the women bishops and priests – or not.

The Church of England is “Episcopally led but Synodically governed”. No compromise is implied there – obviously.

Contemplating these differences, which are all currently held in tension, surely tells us that we are, and have been for a very long time, a compromised and a compromising church. Such institutional tolerance of difference is surely one of our unique selling points within the marketplace of religious ideas.

Our very plurality, tolerance and widespread distaste for extravagantly-expressed doctrinal exclusivity surely coheres with the idea of a national church for all: perhaps we have taken to heart the passage in Luke where the self-consciously righteous man prays:  ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.’

The English seemed to like their church leaders to follow the advice of the book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Be not righteous overmuch.’

The inclination to schism has two additional curiosities. Why is homosexuality the Rubicon?

One knows it was a major obsession of John Smyth, the charismatic leader at the Iwerne camps of which the Rev’d William Taylor is an alumnus, but why is this the trigger, rather than (say) the issue of the remarriage of divorced people in church? Surely that was a far greater step in ‘the wrong direction’? Surely that was the Rubicon. Jesus was explicit on the subject: ‘I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’

And then there is the issue of contraception, which severed the link between sex and procreation. Why was that not the Rubicon? Is anyone choking on a gnat having swallowed a theological camel or two?

It is also somewhat odd to rattle the sabre at this precise time.

Because of its multifaceted character, the Church of England has devised a careful structure for choosing its bishops. We balance the composition of the Crown Nominations Commission between the interests of the national and the local: there are archbishops, bishops, clergy and laity involved. The representatives of the national interests are selected by single transferable vote, which delivers a wider range of opinion and churchmanship than do other methods of election. The Vacancy-in-See Committee is similarly broad-based.

One might hope that such a system would deliver a good cross section of the broad church and that the Holy Spirit will guide the deliberations of those given the responsibility of finding the right person for the Diocese of London.

There is historic precedent to be hopeful.

Saint Ambrose went as the representative of the secular power to the convocation gathered to elect a replacement Bishop of Milan. He was charged with stopping another outbreak of violence, only to have his integrity recognised, which propelled him to the position against his will. He was only baptised after being elected bishop, but went on to become one of the great saints of the Early Church.

More strikingly, the disciples chose Mathias to join their number by the casting of lots.

One has to wonder, if the Church of England has been guided through the hazards of the dice and the vagaries of the factional mob, why the Rev’d William Taylor has been so presumptuous as to assume that the Holy Spirit will not have been at work in the CNC? One is tempted to offer the gentle admonishment: ‘O ye of little faith!’