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What price is too high to keep conservatives in the Church of England?

What price is too high to keep conservatives in the Church of England?

By Theo Hobson
11 May, 2024

Future historians of the Church of England might look back at this weekend as the beginning of the end. A selection of bishops and members of the General Synod are meeting at a hotel in Leicester to seek a solution to the impasse over homosexuality. They hope to make a plan to take to July's Synod: a deal that keeps conservatives in the Church. That's got to be a good thing, hasn't it? It depends.

The story so far is that the Church decided in favour of same-sex blessings last year, and also in favour of new 'pastoral guidance' that is expected to allow gay clergy to marry, therefore officially condoning them for the first time. Conservatives, the large majority of whom are evangelicals, see this as false teaching, and are demanding their own structures. They don't just want the right to dissent, parish by parish. That would mean being a tolerated minority, at odds with the official Church. They want their dissenting network to constitute a second version of the Church of England, which is seen as no less authentically 'the C of E'.

Well obviously the majority will tell them to get lost, you might think. For why should an institution agree to such bifurcation?

One answer is that Anglicans have sort of gaslighted themselves into a funny approach to unity. If this bifurcation keeps the conservatives 'in the Church', then it's seen a good thing, a virtuous attempt to live with diversity, to preserve a sort of unity.

Another answer is that there's a precedent that is hard to resist. Thirty years ago, opponents of women's ordination were allowed their own structures, with their own bishops. They were promised that their viewpoint was equally valid and would be protected for evermore. Why should a much larger minority (maybe about a quarter of the Church) not get the same arrangement?

The problem is that, because this minority is larger (and rich and bullish), it is a rival to the main Anglican identity in a way that the anti-women's ordination grouping is not. If it gets its way, then no one will any longer have any clear sense of what the Church of England stands for. Yes, there has always been variety, but there has also always been one official line on things, upheld by all the bishops (well, until the women's ordination division).

Can the liberal mainstream resist the drift to disintegration? Can it prioritise unity -- actual institutional unity? It would take quite a turn-around. A movement would have to arise -- fast -- which said, 'The unity of this Church matters'. It would say that the Church made a terrible, near-suicidal, error when it allowed traditionalists their own bishops thirty years ago, and so Synod must reverse it soon so as not repeat the error on a larger scale. It would say that the Church of England must not be allowed to disintegrate.

Theo Hobson is the author of seven books, including God Created Humanism: the Christian Basis of Secular Values

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