Almost hidden from view in the middle of a huddle of bishops all laying their hands on him, Gene Robinson emerged as the Bishop of New Hampshire. ”˜’It’s not about me; it’s about so many other people who find themselves at the margins,” he said at the time.
Exactly four years on from the historic day he now stands firmly at the centre of life in the Episcopal Church, but is also the axis around which the Anglican Communion continues to spin out of control. If the whirl of rapture and condemnation that met his consecration may have calmed, slowly but surely the warring factions are sounding the drums.
Reform has indicated that it is preparing to look to overseas bishops for leadership, and the potential election of the communion’s first [partnered] lesbian bishop looms on the horizon. And the battle will be played out in Kent ”” the garden of England ”” at next year’s Lambeth Conference.
As long as everyone shows up that is. The Bishop of Rochester has become the latest bishop to warn that he will boycott the conference and last month the Council of Anglican Primates in Africa called
for it to be postponed.
That won’t happen: the Archbishop said as much in New Orleans, but when it goes ahead and the Americans turn up, there remains one carrot that should tempt the traditionalists along ”” the
Anglican Covenant. All the provinces will have given their responses to the draft document by the
end of the year, and a revised text will be submitted at the conference.
Liberals have responded to this like a wriggling baby strapped in a high-chair, which one would have thought would be enough to convince the traditionalists to stop throwing their toys out of the pram. One prelate who was at last month’s House of Bishops said that the meeting was very tense, with old divisions resurfacing over whether they should be signing up to a draft, and particularly given
that they will not get to see it before it is submitted.
Much of the paper’s language would not be to their liking. It talks about ”˜the positive function of the exercise of discipline,’ and ”˜repentance,’ and ”˜properly authorized schemes of pastoral oversight.’
“The indications now are that many see it as a contract, a means of ensuring a uniform view on human sexuality enforceable by the threat of exclusion from the Communion if one does not conform,” the Most Rev Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales, has said. Crucially, however, the bishops’ paper
also acknowledges that the Covenant’s current proposal for the Primates to offer direction is not just unlikely, but “unlawful” ”” according to the Church of England’s lawyers.
So, in the battle to balance the autonomy of individual provinces and the catholic spirit of the Anglican Church with the need for a more federal style of communion that is armed with powers of discipline, there is no doubt as to which side the scales come down on.
“The original intention of a covenant to affirm the bonds of affection, was good,” said Dr Morgan.
In reality, that is exactly what it will be. To get 38 provinces to sign up to a Covenant that is anything more than a warm, friendly statement of chumminess is as likely as getting the European countries
to agree to a common language for the EU. But, in the meantime, it keeps everyone talking, makes the traditionalists think they’re being listened to and just about keeps the liberals in check with the threat of having to stand on the naughty step if they misbehave again. More importantly, it gives Rowan a little
bit of breathing room, but it’s a chance for him to remind the country why his appointment was initially met with suchenthusiasm.
There have been glimpses of his ability to capture the news agenda: in 2004 he debated religion with Philip Pullman and more recently he has gone on the offensive against atheists such as Richard
Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and led the calls for a reform of abortion law.
But there has been far too little connection with popular culture.
There are signs that the Church is trying and in some areas it is succeeding ””its campaigns to increase the number of church weddings and Back to Church Sunday are two notable examples. And in addressing Halloween it has picked a relevant topic, but sadly it has ended up embarrassingly misguided. The Bishop of Bolton, the Rt Rev David Gillett, has done well in getting supermarkets
to take seriously his concerns about stocking alternatives to horror masks, but to say that it is leading kids to become obsessed with the Occult makes it sound like an alarmist killjoy. And if you’re going to criticise something you need to have something equally as exciting to offer.
But what has the Church come up with? Wholesome “Lite-night” parties, substituting quizzes and sing-songs for horror stories and trick-or-treating, not to forget the bishops handing out apples carrying a sticker inviting people to visit a website and make “Halloween Treat” donations. It doesn’t take a Professor of child psychology to work out what young people are more likely to opt for.
If the Church is to speak to modern culture successfully it needs to find a voice that provides a genuine alternative to the mixture of fun and fear offered outside of its walls.
–Jonathan Wynne-Jones is the Religious Correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph; this article appears in the November 2nd, 2007, edition of the Church of England Newspaper on page 24