Magazine article The Spectator

Beyond Belief

Magazine article The Spectator

Beyond Belief

Article excerpt

This week the General Synod edged one step closer towards permitting the ordination of female bishops. The final outcome is likely to be some kind of compromise to appease traditionalists similar to that in 1992 when the ordination of female priests was passed. But unlike that occasion, one crucial voice will not be heard nor probably venture an opinion - the Conservative party, which has distanced itself from ecclesiastical affairs over the past 20 years.

This was not the case back in 1992 when a band of Conservative MPs joined Anglican traditionalists in opposing female ordination.

Enoch Powell considered it a 'blasphemous pantomime', Ann Widdecombe spoke of her 'utter grief and anger', while John Gummer judged that it undermined the 'whole basis of the Elizabethan settlement'. In the end, many followed clergy and laity out of the Church of England to Rome.

No such protest is likely to greet a parliamentary measure on female bishops.

The Conservative party, once the defender of Anglican interests, now looks upon the General Synod with bemusement or worse, uninterest. This distancing from the church reflects the party's distancing from its Christian roots and, indeed, its secularisation.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon. It may have been a long time since the church could be called the 'Tory party at prayer' but it was not that long ago - the 1980s in fact - when Conservatives still perceived themselves to be the 'Church party'. These were the days when MPs were elected on to the Synod, parliamentary ecclesiastical debates were well attended, and when Anglicanism and Toryism were considered to be complementary and intertwining allegiances.

In the 19th century, the party had acted as protector of the established church. In the late 20th century, Conservatives saw their role slightly differently, protecting the church against itself: defending the 'ordinary man in the pew' against the ecclesiastical leadership and its concessions to secular humanism, permissiveness and left-wing politics.

During the 1980s, Conservative Anglicans in Parliament worked with traditionalists in the Synod to reject church measures on revisions of the 1662 Prayer Book, the appointment of bishops and the ordination of divorced clergy. Unsurprisingly, the bishops did not welcome this intrusion into church affairs, although many in the pews did. The church was in the throes of a civil war between its liberal leadership and its more traditional laity: 'Guardian readers preaching to Telegraph readers', as one vicar put it. Meanwhile, the Conservatives played up their moral credentials. The party that passed Clause 28 positioned itself favourably against the 'permissive members' on the Labour benches and the 'woolly liberal' leaders of the church.

It was the church's acceptance of female priests that proved a step too far for many Anglicans. Much like their 19th-century forebears in the Oxford Movement, they too turned to the Tiber, and so the historic strand of Anglican Toryism died with them. Conversion was not an easy decision. It involved a complete revision of their historical and political consciousness. 'I feel rather like a man standing among packing cases and looking, for the last time, at the bare boards of his old home, ' lamented Charles Moore.

In the divorce between Conservatism and Anglicanism, the blame was put on the church. …

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