A good few years ago I was driving through France and listening to Radio 4 on long wave, which was broadcasting the debate in Church House on the ordination of women.
For hours on end and one after another, each of the reverend gentlemen and their lay brethren of all grades and ranks addressed the assembly and stated that he had prayed long and hard for spiritual guidance, as a result of which he would be voting in favour of – or conversely against – the ordination of women. This was the first time that the Church of England held its gender plebiscite and, as the Irish with the Lisbon Treaty and probably the Scots with independence, it came out with the wrong answer at the first attempt.
Never deterred, the Church had another crack at it some while later and the rest is, if not quite history yet, then at least history in the making when the current period of schism, bad grace and muddle comes to a close.
What would the new arrival from an alien world have made of it? He’d be forced to the conclusion that maybe these guys’ Heavenly Father was a bit of a joker. Indeed if he could relate to such things from his planet, he could be forgiven for thinking God was having a giraffe, telling one bunch one thing and the other lot the absolute opposite.
Or possibly the power of prayer from below and the lines of communication from above were so wonky that nobody could tell if the Ayes or the Noes or either group were correctly expressing divine intention.
If the first round indeed produced the revealed truth – and why wouldn’t it? – then God must indeed be extraordinarily capricious to reveal an entirely different truth within the space of a heartbeat, measured against the yardstick of eternity. Or had He made a dreadful mistake (which is generally thought to be unusual in a deity) and did He instigate the second vote to correct it? Whichever way you look at it, from the planet Zog, God and the Anglican high-ups look dodgier than whomever Ed Miliband wants to criticise next.
Let that pass, since we’re taught to be charitable. There aren’t any other doctrinal issues dividing the Anglican Communion, are there? The Church is quite at ease with itself on, say, homosexuality, and easily reconciles itself to gay bishops in the US while African bishops in whose countries homosexuality attracts more than mere censure continue to condemn all forms of adultery.
Unable to do anything beyond glossing over its own contradictions and confusion, the Church of England prefers to operate now on what for it is the safer terrain of politics, which is crowded territory even before the arrival of the men in mitres.
The latest political excursion by the bishops, is the recent and well-publicised 52 page letter, which says in terms parabolical: don’t look at the beam in our ecclesiastical eye, look at the mote in the eye of the political class, and if you pay attention you may notice that the mote is not so much in its clear left eye as in the murky right eye. Wow! What a mote! Just look at that whopping mote! No, not our beam, the mote!
The bishop’s letter, long enough and tedious enough to be an election manifesto, leans so strongly to the Left that it will alienate a decentish chunk of the few people who still occupy space on the pews of a Sunday and has been followed by revelations on the Guido Fawkes site this week, that Archbishop Welby’s aides have close ties to the Labour party and that one, Jack Palmer, has described a senior Conservative Cabinet member not as a mote but as a “truly terrifying human being”.
If the main political parties are growing ever more like one another, the Church of England is becoming more and more like a political force whose stance on core doctrinal issues bends according to prevailing local preferences. Its purlieu is now purely temporal because the interpretation of matters spiritual has become too challenging and too divergent for consensus among its bishops to be possible.
Having abnegated the role of constant moral guide and comforter – though it still remarkably holds against the tide here and there at parish level – the Church of England and the leaders of this dwindling band have fatally lost sight of what is due to Caesar and what to God.