Jonathan Petre: Church faces new dilemmas

King Canute would have appreciated the dilemma. He famously ordered the sea to halt at his feet in order to demonstrate to sycophantic courtiers that even a monarch was powerless before the forces of nature.

The Churches are now faced with a tide of secularism that seems equally irresistible. In fact, their defences are being over run so fast that they are sometimes at a loss to know how to respond.

Should they be trying to hold back the seemingly inevitable, as some demand, or should they accept the limitations of their powers and beat a strategic retreat, ready to fight another day?

The Government’s decision to abolish the blasphemy laws, despite the deep reservations of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, is just the latest wave to crash over them, part of a tsunami of change that is shifting the ground beneath their feet.

The dilemma has been further sharpened by the departure from Downing Street of Tony Blair and the arrival of Gordon Brown.
Blair, the most overtly Christian Prime Minister since Gladstone, was always willing to tailor his reforms to recognize the historic role of the Churches in society – at least until his power waned at the end of his premiership.

Brown, though a son of the manse whose values are shot through with a Calvinist sense of justice and duty, has no brief with what he sees as anachronistic privilege.

During the Blair era, the changes were creeping and incremental, and Church leaders always knew they had an open door at Number 10 to argue their case for special treatment, to the fury of the secular lobby.
Nevertheless, the Blair regime forced through a raft of gay equality regulations that blunted the moral authority of the Churches and eroded the Judeo-Christian assumptions that underlie the political consensus.
In the short time since Brown’s arrival, the Churches have hardly been given time to draw breath before the next chill wave has struck. Within days, there came the unilateral announcement that the Prime Minister was relinquishing his right to choose between candidates for bishoprics, symbolically weakening the historic ties between Church and State.
Church authorities, forced onto the back foot, acquiesced with alarming speed after the Government agreed to emphasise the implausible claim that the Church’s Establishment status would be unaffected by the reform.
In fact, the Church’s genuine position had been stated a few weeks earlier in an official report by a group set up to review senior ecclesiastical appointments; that had concluded that such a reform would be deeply unsettling as it would hasten the unraveling of the subtle web that entangles the Church, monarchy and Parliament.
Apparently, Church advisors, who had been expecting the usual period of consultation before any changes were announced, concluded that Brown was not open to negotiation and that strategic retreat was the best option.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, then announced a new law to ban the stirring-up of hatred against gays, which is currently being debated in the House of Lords as part of the Criminal Justice Bill. Both the Roman Catholic and Church of England bishops have resisted this more strongly, arguing in a joint statement that a homophobic hatred law could restrict the freedom of Christians to say that homosexual behaviour is sinful.

But the Government has so far shown no inclination to accept a Church-backed amendment to the homophobic hatred law that would ensure that preachers who voice such “politically incorrect” views did not face up to seven years behind bars.

Finally, the Church was last week uncomfortably bounced into accepting the demise of the nation’s ancient blasphemy laws. Having signalled that it would not stand in the way of the abolition of laws that are widely regarded as unfit for purpose, they were again wrong-footed by the speed with which the Government moved to introduce an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to do just that.

Again the Church has put up a token resistance, with the Archbishops arguing that such a development will leave the Churches even more vulnerable to secularist assaults. But there is little evidence that anyone in the Government is seriously listening these days.

So the omens are hardly propitious for key battles that lie ahead, from the status of the bishops in a reformed House of Lords – a key disestablishment issue – to the role of faith schools in an increasingly secular society. The bishops should have a case that will resonate with the public; the electorate, unsettled by rapid changes in society, is sympathetic to many of the traditional values that the Church encapsulates.

But the bishops themselves are divided not only over social and political issues but also over the more fundamental question of what they actually believe. Their splits are painfully public. Until they can achieve a greater unity within their own ranks, they will always be giving ground.

–Mr Jonathan Petre is Religion Correspondent at the Daily Telegraph; this article appeared in the March 8, 2009, edition of the Church of England Newspaper, page 24

Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * Culture-Watch, * International News & Commentary, Anglican Provinces, Church of England (CoE), England / UK, Law & Legal Issues, Religion & Culture

13 comments on “Jonathan Petre: Church faces new dilemmas

  1. TLDillon says:

    [blockquote]But the bishops themselves are divided not only over social and political issues but also over the more fundamental question of what they actually believe. Their splits are painfully public. Until they can achieve a greater unity within their own ranks, they will always be giving ground.[/blockquote]

    No truer words ever spoken!

  2. Catholic Mom says:

    Someone once said “the Church is like a Persian carpet — it is most beautful when trod underfoot.”

    There is NOTHING the State can do to hurt the Church. It’s being in bed with the State that will destroy the Church — as it almost did 500 years ago.

  3. carl says:

    [blockquote]The Churches are now faced with a tide of secularism that seems equally irresistible. In fact, their defences are being over run so fast that they are sometimes at a loss to know how to respond.[/blockquote]
    The fate of Sennacherib comes to mind. Men should beware the pride of the “irresistable tide.” But let’s assume Mr Petre is correct – that secularism is an irresistable tide which will sweep away all vestiges of Judeo-Christian thought from law and society. Secularism is an inherently unstable and parasitic world view. It requires a host to give moral vision to its blind secular eyes, and yet it kills the host it infects. Mr Petre should fear the onrush of secularism much as the Israelites feared the onrushing Assyrians – and for the same reason. It is a pitiless ruler; a cruel and harsh mistress. For there is no end to this conquest except hedomnism, nihilism, and despair. Many are they who wait for an opportunity to fill the empty void which will result. They are not Christian; nor do they share Christian presuppositions. Too late will Mr Petre and his ken comprehend what they have despised.


  4. Undergroundpewster says:

    Sounds like more “Slouching Towards Gomorrah.”
    I am still thinking about #2 and the Persian carpet, does that mean you have to keep one foot on the thing to keep it from flying away whenever or wherever the wind blows, or does the carpet have an natural gift of flight?

  5. Phil says:

    I agree with Catholic Mom. The Church teaches what it teaches. It shouldn’t give way before secularism, and if that means disestablishment, scorn, or worse, so be it. Such a fate is more authentically Christian, at least if we go by Jesus’ words.

  6. Philip Snyder says:

    I agree with Phil. The Church should teach what it teaches and not worry about currying “favor” with society. It seemed to Diocletian that the strenght of the Empire would be irresistable to the “athiest” (the Romans’ charge against the Church). When the Church IS the Church, neither the Gates of Hell nor the powers of Government can prevail against it. As Paul said, God’s power is made perfect in weakness. The Church is closer to victory when she is perceived to be almost dead. Witness the reformations in history. Before each, the Church was almost dead or coopted by society. It was seen as corrupt and power hungry and a bunch of hypocrits. Then along comes an Anthony, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, Radbertus, Anselm, Dominic, Francis, Thomas, Luther, Cramner, Latimer, Ridley, John Wesley, Pusey, and a host of others who all called the Church to be the Church and led the Church from a secular death into a regained appreciation of the New Life offered in Jesus Christ.

    I will paraphrase Bishop Terwilliger: I am not threatening to leave the Church (as she decends further into apostacy and error). I am threatening to [b]BE[/b] the Church and to help lead her back to her Lord!

    Jesus is King, not Caesar, not Brown, not Bush, not Obama or Hillary or McCain! Let the Church proclaim and live that message!

    Phil Snyder

  7. Catholic Mom says:

    #4 — it means that the Church shows its true virtue when it is persecuted (“blessed are you when men revile you”) not when it is held up by the State as an idol. Just as a Persian carpet is considered to become more beautiful over time with wear — not when it is hung up on the wall to be admired but to be useless as a carpet. But numerous posters above have said this much better than me.

  8. Br. Michael says:

    Agree with all the above, particularly carl.

  9. New Reformation Advocate says:

    I welcome the comments above and agree wholeheartedly that the long historic marriage between Church and State in England (as throughout the rest of Europe) has been much more to the advantage of the State than the Church. I have repeatedly called for a “High Commitment, Post-Christendom style Anglicanism.”

    This is, of course, the same Jonathan Petre who got so many of the facts wrong about the Communion Partners Plan recently when he rushed that story into print, and Bp. Howe had to set the record straight. So you have to take his reports with a grain of salt. But this seems more like an editorial, an opinion piece of a mild sort.

    And I think the analogy to the famous story about King Canute and his inability to stop the waves from crashing on the shore is worth pondering. My worry is that all too many Anglican leaders do indeed implicitly adopt an assumption that the tides of secular culture are too strong to resist. Well, for a Christendom type church they sometimes are. And that’s the key to understanding the radical nature of the problem we are facing in western Anglicanism.

    Ever since the 1960s, western Anglicans, especially in the U.S., have acted on the basis of the implicit policy: “Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” It was true in the realm of divorce and remarriage, more blatantly obvious and reprehensible in the area of abortion on demand, and now it’s abundantly clear in the realm of homosexual behavior. In all three cases, since the so-called “Sexual Revolution” of the Sixties, we have acted AS IF we were as powerless to get our people to behave morally as King Canute was powerless to resist the tides. And that has all too often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    But it was not always so. In particular, during the pre-Constantinian era, when the Church of Jesus Christ was indeed “in the world, but not of the world.”

    One of the biblical texts that haunts me most is the famous saying toward the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth” and asks that hard-to-shake question, “But if the salt has lost its savor, how shall its saltiness be restored?” Hmmm. How indeed. That is the big question. Only the Lord himself can do that miracle. But I think we also have a part to play.

    One of the distressing things to me about ++Rowan Williams’ approach to this whole crisis is that he ASSUMES that this is a long-term affair that won’t be sorted out for decades, and maybe generations. And it’s clear what direction the surrounding culture is heading. After all, the UK and Canada have already approved same sex unions. It certainly appears that he, like so many leaders in TEC, simply TAKES IT FOR GRANTED that a sectarian, Christ-against-culture position is out of the question.

    And therein lies the rub. It’s not surprising that the Christendom-based ways of thinking that are all we’ve ever known in the West for 1500 years are habits that are hard to break. What hurts, and what is literally KILLING us, is that so many of our leaders don’t even seem to realize that this is the basic challenge we face in our day. We are confronted with a determinedly secular, unprecedentedly pluralistic, and above all, increasingly hostile de-Christianized society.

    The problem, contrary to Jonathan Petre, is NOT that the C of E is on the way to formal disestablishment and its leaders are basically powerless to stop it. The real problem is that it should be the Church leaders themselves who are pushing for disestablishment, so that the Church can genuinely be the Church and begin confronting the State and the general prevailing culture in the name of Christ.

    This is why I keep using the language of a “New Reformation.” To abandon the old Christendom model of church life and to rediscover the pre-Constantinian model of a highly sectarian, highly disciplined, very high commitment form of Christianity will amount to nothing less than a radical Reformation. I can’t wait to see it happen.

    David Handy+

  10. driver8 says:

    FWIW the Anglican Church, both in England and the US, changed its teaching (or at least its practice) on divorce not in the 1960s but in mid 19th Century. The changes in pastoral practice (followed by changes in teaching) were consequent to alterations in civil legislation. Likewise the changes in teaching on contraception (reflected in the Lambeth resolutions opposing contraception at the beginning of the 20th Century and giving partial permisison in 1930 and wholehearted permission in 1958) can only be seen as responding to changing societal mores and the judgements of US and UK courts.

    Whether these both count as “old Christendom” decisions that will be wholeheartedly opposed in the new sectarian, high commitment Anglicanism, I’ll leave for others to decide.

  11. Martin Reynolds says:

    Yes, 10 that is correct, the change occurred in the 19th century. At that time it was the Evangelical bishops and leaders that pressed for and achieved the change on divorce.

  12. Dr. William Tighe says:

    Re: #10, 11,

    That is because “Evangelicals” or “clear Protestants” within the Church of England always agreed with the views of the continental Reformers and their churches that “divorce” followed by “remarriage” was licit in a number of circumstances — in which view they were following Erasmus, whose views on the subject were novel in Western Christianity. Archbishop Cranmer, acting on his own authority, granted a divorce (not an “annulment”) to William Parr, the Marquess of Northampton in 1547, just after Henry VIII’s death, and Parr subsequently “remarried” in the lifetime of his first wife; and Cranmer included provisions for divorce and remarriage in his proposed revision of Canon Law, the “Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum” which was rejected by Parliament in 1552. (Parr’s first marriage was declared valid by Church Courts in England during Queen Mary’s restoration of Catholicism, and although he resumed cohabiting with his second wife after 1559, Queen Elizabeth on at least one occasion publicly referred to his “bigamous” condition, and after his second wife’s death in 1565 refused to allow him to remarry a third time until his first wife died in January 1571.) At least one Elizabethan bishop (John Thornborough, first of Limerick and later of Worcester, “remarried” after receiving a “separation” from a previous wife by a church court, and got away with it, while another bishop, Marmaduke Middleton, was removed from his bishopric for a similar action. In 1604 the Church of England enacted new canons which ruled out “divorce” (the dissolution of a valid marriage, such that subsequent remarriage was possible), allowing only “annulment” and “separation” — remarriage being possible after the first, but not after the second. “Divorce” in the modern sense only became possible in England in 1855 (it was always available in post-Reformation Scotland), but between 1670 and 1820 on a number of occasions the English Parliament passed bills allowing a particular couple to divorce (or, rather, granting them a “divorce”) and legalizing their remarrying, despite the canons of the Church of England to the contrary, and at the same time exempting any clergyman who might officiate at such a “remarriage” from prosecution for violating the Canon of 1604 on the subject.

  13. New Reformation Advocate says:

    Dr. Tighe (#12),

    Thanks for that history lesson. I stand in awe of your detailed and encyclopedic knowledge of English church history. I did overstate the case in my post #9, but I still think that there was a significant loosening of pastoral policies and practice in TEC after the 1960s, when American culture as a whole accepted the idea of “no fault divorce” and divorce rates skyrocketed. Alas, now we have scandals like the election and confirmation of Bp. Beisner, even though he is on his THIRD try at building a stable, successful marriage. The whole idea of clergy, and especially bishops, setting “a wholesome example” for the flocks entrusted to their care seems to have virtually disappeared in this area.

    But you are quite right, that this problem is of longstanding in “magisterial” or Christendom-style Protestantism. Besides the notorious case of Henry VIII and his many wives (though of course, none were technically “divorced”), there was the German Lutheran scandal of Phillip of Hesse, who received permission from a disgusted and reluctant but “realistic” Martin Luther to go ahead and marry a second wife. The Roman Catholics enjoyed the propaganda value they got out of the open bigamy of that famous Protestant prince.

    David Handy+