Dec 182012
Incoming archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

On the face of it, this autumn has seen two resounding defeats for the liberals in the church of England, over female bishops and gay marriage. But it may be just as true that these have been two really pyrrhic victories for the traditionalists.

On female bishops it looks already clear that the best the traditionalists can hope for is an orderly retreat. I don’t think they had any idea how angry their opponents would be, nor how numerous. It really has been something like a revolution, in that the old power structures are quite inadequate to contain the real power of the laity. You can see that from the way that the supposed representatives of the laity in the General Synod, the house of laity, were the people who most diverged from sentiment in the pews.

Even in the house of laity the opponents were a minority, but they were a significant minority. That significance may now be over.

The new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is obviously determined to sort out the female bishop mess before the synod elections in 2015. Those will almost certainly see the annihilation of the traditionalist blocking minority in the house of laity. But that prospect weakens their position right now, before the elections. Any deal they can get is by definition the best they can get.

One sign of this was the announcement at the weekend that Philip North, the traditionalist opponent of female clergy who had been earmarked as bishop of Whitby, has withdrawn because “he cannot be the focus of unity in his diocese”. Connoisseurs of irony will remember that this inability to focus unity was the problem that did for Jeffrey John’s appointment as a celibate gay man to be bishop of Reading right at the start of Rowan Williams’ period in office. The pendulum has swung back with a vengeance and it’s now moving very fast.

Support for female bishops, and the opposition to special legal status for their opponents, is far more widespread now, and deeper, than was the opposition to John 10 years ago. It’s perfectly possible that no traditionalist now can function as “a focus of unity” in his diocese.

So the opponents of female bishops are now hard to place in any job where they will have to minister to people who disagree with them. Given the spread of female clergy, that means everywhere in the Church of England.

Worse for them, their refuge as “flying bishops” is also under threat. Flying bishops, by definition, don’t have to deal with female clergy. So their constituency must be opposed to female bishops. They weren’t set up by act of parliament, but by a scheme hastily cobbled together when female priests were introduced, and the “flying bishop” schemes can be abolished with only 50% majorities in the General Synod. There are diocesan synod motions to abolish them just waiting for the next synod meeting, and on the voting figures from November, these should go through without great problems. Where will the opponents then find their jobs?

That has always been the question underlying this argument. Now it is impossible to duck.

Where gay marriage is concerned the position is not nearly so stark. Fear of a wider evangelical backlash (for all I know, quite justified) led the bishops into their “quadruple lock” jail where now a liberal Anglican who wants to marry a gay couple is breaking the law in the way that no other minister of religion would be. It seems to me inevitable that some vicar nearing retirement will carry out a gay wedding in his church once these are legal and then wait for martyrdom. The resulting kerfuffle will only dramatise the difference between legal establishment, where the church’s bureaucracy is bound into the state, and what one might call emotional or effective establishment, where the church is a natural theatre of society’s self-understanding – a way to think about who we are, both as individuals and as a country. That’s not a distinction to which a wise archbishop would want to draw attention, but it’s going to be hard to avoid.

Andrew Brown