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