The Anglican vision after Lambeth

Theo Hobson
4 August 2008

The latest once-a-decade gathering of Anglican bishops known as the Lambeth conference was held at the University of Kent in Canterbury, eastern England, on 16 July - 3 August 2008. Two main questions arise from its deliberations:

* how, if at all, has it affected the course of global Anglicanism?

* how is Anglicanism's endless crisis affecting the role of religion in Britain?

Theo Hobson is a theologian and writer. Among his books are Against Establishment: An Anglican Polemic (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004) and Anarchy, Church and Utopia: Rowan Williams on the Church (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005). Theo Hobson's next book is Milton's Vision: The Birth of Christian Liberty (Continuum, October 2008)

Also by Theo Hobson in openDemocracy:

"Rowan Williams: sharia furore, Anglican future" (13 February 2008)

Despite the fact that almost a quarter of bishops boycotted the conference (leaving 670 to attend), it was a sort of success. The boycott was on the grounds that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is too soft on the gay-friendly American and Canadian churches. For such bishops, an absolutely clear line on sexuality is needed. They protest that Anglican orthodoxy is on their side, and they are technically right. So why isn't the leadership enforcing this official line more toughly? Why is Rowan Williams trying to get Anglicanism back on the fence?

Williams's position is that the dissenting provinces should not be thrown out of the club, but kept at arm's length. In other words, he wants a two-speed communion. It is a good thing that the core members are seeking ever-closer union, and it is also a good thing that other members want to dissent from the core orthodoxy, yet retain membership. For these fringe members might have insights that ought in time to migrate to the centre. The archbishop himself is known to sympathise with the liberal fringe on the issue of homosexuality.

By repeatedly restating this line at the conference, Williams has managed to identify his vision with mainstream Anglicanism. He has declared that his delicate balancing-act is not peculiar to him, but is representative of Anglicanism in general. It has an official line on sexuality, yet refrains from enforcing it too rigidly; it wants to keep a reformist door ajar.

This makes Anglicanism an incredibly difficult thing to characterise. It is officially traditionalist on sexuality, yet it does not pretend to be at ease about this official traditionalism - in fact, it wants to be seen to be uncomfortable about it. This was the main declaration of the Lambeth conference: "This abiding uncertainty is so painful!" There is a strong contrast with Roman Catholicism, which denies that there is any issue to discuss here.

There is certainly something admirable about this honesty, embodied by Williams. But it will hardly get the average British agnostic back into the pew, or improve Christianity's cultural image. Which brings us to the second question, about the changing of image of religion in Britain.

The new fissures

Also in openDemocracy on religious identity in Britain:

Callum Brown, "'Best not to take it too far': how the British cut religion down to size" (8 March 2006)

Tina Beattie, "Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)

Tina Beattie, "Rowan Williams and sharia law" (12 February 2008)

Fred Halliday, "Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

Sami Zubaida, "Sharia: practice of faith, politics of modernity" (22 February 2008)

Simon Barrow, "When Jerusalem turns to Little England" (23 June 2008) The split over homosexuality has changed the relationship between the Church of England and the surrounding culture. It has forced the British to notice this established church in their midst, to wonder what they think of it. Throughout the 20th century, the Church of England was like a person's own nose - too close to look at. It reflected the culture at large, in its mixing of conservatism and liberalism, in its implicit monarchism on one hand, and its social radicalism on the other. Until quite recently, the gay issue didn't change this. The church was largely conservative (like the nation at large) and also tolerant of innovation (like the nation at large).

But in 2003 this changed. Anglican traditionalism was galvanised by the election of a gay American bishop, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was forced to shelve his liberalism on the issue. Anglicanism became decisively anti-liberal on the issue, at least in its official policy.

Unlike any other issue, homosexuality forces liberalism to a crisis, a decision: you're either for or against tolerance. The British state had of course gradually decided to be for tolerance - though culture is slower than the law. And now the Church of England found itself unable to follow.

While the church roughly reflected the wider culture, there was no problem. And for decades it seemed to be moving, in fits and starts, to a liberal position. But for the last five years there has been a clear divergence. Anglicanism has opted to move in an anti-liberal direction, to dissent from the cultural consensus.

An established church is not really allowed to dissent from the cultural consensus. It can drag its feet a bit, as it has over the ordination of women, but it can't start off in the other direction.

So the gay issue has driven a wedge between the established church and its culture. And at the same time another wedge has been pretty busy: the rise of Islam, and the resulting suspicion of all religion. An increasing number of commentators have asserted the need for a secular state. Maybe the Liberal Democrats will wake up to the existence of an electoral opportunity here, and realise it's finally time to (in Jonathan Freedland's phrase) "bring home the revolution" from across the Atlantic.

A revived vision

So the real significance of Anglicanism's crisis, at least from a domestic perspective, is that it is contributing to the final collapse of established religion. The bishops have lost their old aura of authority, their claim to represent the traditional-yet-liberal English soul. For now they can be convincingly portrayed as agents of discrimination, apologists for homophobia.

A larger question emerges: can Christian institutions modernise? This question never quite needed to be asked during the 20th century: for it was obvious that the Church of England was busily pursuing modernisation, that it was fully involved in the liberal advances of the wider culture. But now this famously liberal church has discovered a reverse-gear. Where does that leave the attempt to reconcile Christianity and liberalism? Will the crisis spark a new, post-institutional form of Christian culture that rejects the ecclesiastical addiction to illiberalism? If so, 2008 offers a fortuitous centenary - for it is 400 years since the birth of John Milton, who tried to prise the English away from clericalism, and offered a vision of Christianity within a secular state.

This vision was instrumental in the American idea, but the English themselves have always been reluctant to grasp it. Maybe England is finally ready for its own big idea, 350 years late.

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