Best of times and worst of times, eh? With such a Dickensian title, this article needs to make an obligatory (read: clichéd) reference to Charles’ great novel. The worst of times are obvious: a Church of England with a declining and aging faithful, a looming financial crisis for many a diocese, and a perpetual division over matters of sexuality (amongst a wondrous spectrum of other incompatible grievances). The best of times is admittedly difficult to see. But on top of all this, General Synod will be making important decisions, which effectively can be considered as an Existential Choice for the Church of England. It will choose between two increasingly incompatible privileges: to be a wife or a mother. Wife to the State through Establishment; Mother to the Anglican Communion.
Like the ideal of Christian marriage, the Church of England has been a wife far longer than a mother. Let us tell this tale: the Church of England has had the privilege of being married to the English State since the beginning. And what a happy tale of love it was! Other than the old youthful bicker over who does what in the English nation – and what married couple doesn’t have those? – the State loved its wife and the Church loved its husband. Indeed, when the English State fell out with its mother-in-law, the Church of Rome, the Church of England remained the faithful wife. Yes, there was a brief unhappy separation in the 17th Century, but that was more than made-up for in the 18th Century second-honeymoon phase. The State delighted in bringing out his wife for great events – look how beautiful she looked! The Church in turn would endlessly praise her husband (ignoring his occasional indiscretion or immoral action). Tensions first began to emerge in the 19th Century midlife crisis for both Church and State. The Irish Church Temporalities Bill of 1833 indicated the direction of the State: it began increasingly to flirt with another younger woman, Liberal Secularism. This caused the Church to have a growing existential crisis – was it first and foremost wife of the State? Or was it closer to its mother, Rome? The occasional letter was made back home over the next two centuries, hoping for a maternal reconciliation. The Church became more volatile, more confused over who she was, more critical of her husband. Nevertheless, in general, she remained a faithful wife.
But increasingly, the State found itself infatuated with its new mistress. The occasional compliment and gift to Liberal Secularism soon turns to something more: the secret lovers’ tryst becomes an invitation to stay in the family home. Of course, the State keeps up the pretence: it is still married to the Church, but it has fallen in love with its mistress. In the eyes of the State, the Church is an old and haggard wife of which it is increasingly embarrassed. It brings her out on great occasions with all her finery, and all the world says, ‘What a wonderful couple they are!’. Each time a Royal dies or is married, the State publicly praises the Church, and inwardly the Church pines,
‘Maybe this time he will love me, maybe this time he will change his attitude towards me’.
But once the festivities are over and they reach home, the State delights in putting the Church down.
‘Stay out of my life!’ he says when he does something immoral and she objects. ‘You’re supposed to remain in the spiritual kitchen, not out working in the political sphere!’ he says to her, forgetting that they are married. He makes fun of her in front of his friends; he is spiteful when she is critical. The State sneers when he sees her in his house; he keeps threatening that he will kick her out.
‘Why don’t you just divorce her?’ asks his younger Secular mistress. ‘Then we can be married!’
But the State knows it will be a long and bitter divorce; they had been married too long.
‘At least kick her out of the House of Lords!’ she says.
The State quietly nods his head.
Meanwhile, the Church tries her best to remain attractive to the State, trying to show that she can change. She even tries to make herself look like her Secular rival on occasion to draw the kind of loving glance he once gave her in their youth. But these make him despise her all the more, for it makes it clear how much more he desires his Secular mistress. Each time she tries to deny her past she feels guilt, as if she has forgotten her principles: she can’t stop being her Mother’s child.
‘If you don’t change, I’ll divorce you’, he says.
She is caught in a trap: every time she changes to please him, the State despises her; if she doesn’t change, she risks being thrown out into the street. It’s not that she wants a divorce – it’s her husband who is pushing the separation.
What a sorry state for this wife. Her once beloved husband has become an arrogant and near abusive partner. Yet not all is bad for the Church of England. For she has a family of children: the Anglican Communion. Yes, these are the joint child of the English Church and State, the legacy of Empire; but in the main, they have tended to disown their often obnoxious and overbearing father (a few have remained in occasional contact); what is more, even though they have serious disagreements with their mother, they still love her. Now, the couple have had two groups of children: the older ones they are proud of (the Churches in the white, Western world); and the younger ones of which they are slightly embarrassed (the Churches in the non-white majority world). It is inexplicable why they are proud of their older children: in the main, they have done poorly in the important things of life. Divorce, decline, and demoralisation are the pattern here. Whether those who live far away, such as North America, South Africa, and Oceania, or those closer to home in Scotland and Wales, their lives are hardly exemplary. Yes, they have the wealth and education prized by mother and father, but there is no vibrancy to their life. They will likely not survive long, certainly not into the next century. Although not married, they have tended to imitate their mother’s crouching attitude to their partners by caving into their demands. Yet mother Church tends to look to their examples!
Then there are the younger children, the ones both Church and State are embarrassed of. Why embarrassed? Because they have tended to be obedient to the teachings their mother gave when she was younger (the mother, and older children, are dismissive of this now that they have changed their minds). These younger children are admittedly not wealthy. Nor have they the educational standards of the father, mother, and older children. Sometimes their politics are uncomfortable for their more relaxed mother. But they are vibrant. These younger children are full of life! They are bringing forth multitudes of grandchildren for Mother Church to love too. Undoubtedly, they will live into the next century, and even further afield. Through them this is truly the best of times for the Anglican family. Never before have we seen this family flourish as it does now. Yes, they are angry with their mother for the way she cravenly gives into their father’s demands; indeed, some are beginning to say that they should disown her in the same way they disowned their father. After all, their father was deeply abusive to them. Their father left them impoverished. And even now, their father makes demands of them, telling them to betray what they were taught, in the same way that their father has betrayed that teaching. He says different things, but his attitude towards them has not changed. In his eyes, they are still backward, bigoted, and primitive. Though their mother sometimes patronised them, their mother never treated them like that. In many ways, they are closer to their mother’s family identity than to that bequeathed them by their father.
Some ask their mother, ‘Why do you stay with him? You know what he’s like. You know he wants a divorce. No matter how much you change, he will divorce you eventually. He wants to marry his mistress. Let him. We’ll look after you.’
‘I still love him’ she responds. ‘I can change him.’
They shake their heads in disbelief. Does she really believe that? In reality, their mother is afraid. She has got used to a standard of living and doesn’t want to give it up. She doesn’t want to go back to the old ways before she married their father. How will she pay the bills? Though she doesn’t say it out loud, she doesn’t want to be associated with her younger children; she is embarrassed by what she considers their poverty, politics, and lack of education. She has the privilege of being the mother to a vibrant family of children who love her. But she also has the privilege of being married to a very powerful man, who gives her immense influence, even if her treats her abysmally.
General Synod will be forced to choose between these two privileges. If it chooses innovation, the Church of England will placate its overbearing husband – for now. Yet the consequences will be dreadful: it will be the last straw for the younger children of the Anglican family. They will finally have enough. And when her husband, the State, finally disowns her, she will lose both privileges. Yet if she maintains her traditional stance and maintains her family identity above her marital ones, she knows that her husband will begin the process of either forcing her to change her mind or divorcing her (and then marrying his mistress). Though the older children will be somewhat disappointed, they’ll get over it. It’s an unhappy choice for the Church of England.
Let’s step out of our tale for a moment. Already, MPs from both sides of the house are pressuring the Church of England to change its doctrine of marriage – pressing for disestablishment if no change happens. In the event of a ‘no change’ vote, this will, in all likelihood, increasingly become an avalanche. Yes, disestablishment is legally tricky and will take unnecessary time for parliament; but eventually that time will come. Meanwhile, proposals from the likely next party to govern, Labour, indicate that the House of Lords will have radically bishop-less future. This indicates the gradual piecemeal approach to disestablishment the Church of England faces across the 21st Century. Yet if we do change doctrine, the growing areas of the Anglican Communion are making it clear that they cannot remain in Communion with Canterbury. We will stop becoming the centre of a vibrant, growing communion of (in the main) black and Asian poor, and instead become the centre of a declining communion of (in the main) rich, middle-class white people. In the effort to be more inclusive the ironic result will be a communion far less inclusive; far less like the early church, far more like the spiritual wing of the elite.
So, wife or mother? Such a choice is the worst of times indeed.
Joshua Penduck is the Rector of Newcastle-under-Lyme, St Giles with St Thomas, Butterton, in the Diocese of Lichfield. Prior to ordination he was a composer and has written music for the LSO, BCMG and Orkest de Ereprijs. He is married to Shelley, who is also an Anglican minister in Stoke-on-Trent.