Tim Hames tackles what has become a proper chestnut: what to do about the Church of England.
There is a story about William Whitelaw which, in a touching if faintly damning way, sums up the plight of the Church of England. It involves the moment when the Conservative politician was told that, somewhat unexpectedly. Robert Runcie was to be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Whitelaw, who had admired Runcie’s military record during the Second World War, was delighted. “Splendid news,” he said. “Fine man, Runcie. I knew him in the Army; very brave, very brave.” He then concluded: “Quite religious too, you know.”
“Quite religious” is an awkward place to be stranded between the more robust stations of militant secularism and theological fanaticism. “Quite religious” is also an accurate description of our contemporary Easter. On Friday, Gerard Baker wrote in these pages that in Japan, where there are not many Christians and an element of confusion is perhaps understandable, it is possible to purchase a Father Christmas nailed to a Cross. Coming soon, a chocolate egg nestling in a Nativity manger?
Anglicans are desperately close to the worst of all worlds. They are perceived as both irrelevant and bitterly divided, especially over homosexuality, which threatens to rip the Church apart at the Lambeth conference next year. It is a moment when leadership at the top — charismatic, intellectual and spiritual — is especially important. Yet leadership is not so much missing as mislocated. Rowan Williams at Canterbury and John Sentamu at York are well qualified to occupy the two most senior portfolios in the Church of England. Unfortunately, they are most well qualified for each other’s positions.
Dr Williams is probably the most intelligent man to sit in St Augustine’s chair for centuries. He is kindly and thoughtful and almost painfully reasonable. His anguish over how to simultaneously hold his Church together and his conscience intact is manifest. He is the personification of the thesis that a liberal is a man so broadminded that he would not take his own side in an argument.
At a deep level, I identify strongly with Rowan Williams. I like him and, to use an Appleyardism, I find him consoling.
He is everything that is good about religion. The sad thing is that he is presiding over the decline of everything that is good about religion, and by being good, he is in a way helping to accelerate this decline.