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Not prime mates


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CURIOUSLY ENOUGH, it was an article attempting to support Rowan Williams which showed the real damage the schism is doing him here. It is destroying, among people who would be his natural supporters, the belief that we should care about what he says.

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Colin Slee, may not be famous as a defender of the Archbishop. In the Jeffrey John fiasco, he was the chief mouthpiece of the rejected Canon. But he articulated then a sense of betrayal which both he and Canon (now Dean) John felt. He speaks, I think, for a constituency that wants to defend the Archbishop, and that hoped passionately for great things from him when he was elected.

So his piece in The Guardian on Tuesday seems to me a definitive obituary of liberalism in the Church of England, though it is not meant that way.

He starts with a story about the Archbishop: "Shortly after his enthronement, I attended two events at which he preached. Emerging from St Paul's Cathedral, I was accosted by ermine-clad City burghers, who said they had not understood a word. I replied that we should not expect to understand the archbishop, we should expect to be stretched, to be taken places we never knew existed and rest content to glimpse vaguely his vision."

With friends like that, you murmur. Incomprehensible uplift should not be the business of an archbishop or any other preacher. I suppose you can make a defence for the mystic, whose words are puzzling, but whose simple and dramatic actions make the meaning clear. But expecting clear and decisive action from a meeting of the Anglican leadership is like expecting to see Botticelli's Venus rising from a bowl of breakfast porridge.

Slee's praise gets more damning still: "The archbishop is capable of thinking in polarities. He can understand the extreme end of an argument (he can understand an African archbishop's abhorrence of any idea of accommodation towards homosexual people), and at the same time he can understand the other side of the argument (the cry for justice, the faithfulness of longstanding same-sex relationships, the fact that there have been gay priests and bishops throughout the church's history); and he can hold them in tension, respect their 'integrity'. That's why he is so brilliant a theologian."

I doubt this is brilliance even in a theologian; and in anyone else it is feeble-mindedness. A breadth of sympathy is not a breadth of understanding. There are some beliefs that it is impossible for a well-ordered mind to understand. If Christianity means anything (which, on the evidence of the Anglican Communion, it does not), then it should be impossible for a Christian, acquainted with the facts of slavery, to understand a slave-owner's belief that what he does is justifiable and hold this in tension with the slave's belief that it is not.

CONTRAST SLEE with the attitude of the illiberals. They know exactly what they want, and they have no qualms whatever about being clearly understood. They don't regard incomprehensibility as proof of profundity. They don't pretend to empathy with their victims. No wonder they win every game.

All these qualities were on full display in Newry, unlike Bishop Bob Duncan, one of the leaders of the American South, who lurked around the hotel, claiming to be on holiday and ducking out of sight every time he saw Ruth Gledhill from The Times. It was the same as the last Lambeth Conference: the real press was outnumbered by lobbyists, axe-grinders, and self-employed windbags.

It is a favourite trope of the American conservatives that liberals are cultural imperialists, insensitive and arrogant when they come to Africa. But what is one to make of the comments of the conservative blogger David Virtue, who travelled to Newry, in Virtue-speak, "the land of leprechauns, four leaf clovers, Guinness stout and out-and-out blarney".

Similar powers of observation came up in his description of Stephen Bates of The Guardian: "very leftist pro-gay advocate"; and his brilliant diagnosis of the ills of Christianity in Ulster: the churches are empty because there's too much liberal Protestantism. Then there was his glorious apology for a story claiming that the Americans were about to be thrown out of the Communion immediately: "I must, however, admit that there were some minor errors in my exclusive story which were not my fault but were the result in the careful use of my sources and my inability to interpret the voice of a certain Primate on the telephone."

But why pick on Virtue for imperfectly accurate statements? We have here a "Communion" where the members won't take communion together; and where, in token of unity, everyone solemnly agrees at the end of their meeting that "the victimisation or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered towards people of the same sex is anathema to us."

Anathema! The word here means precisely nothing. You cannot come over all cuddly (in a manly way) with Peter Akinola, and then claim that the maltreatment or even misunderstanding of homosexuals is anathema to his Church. Well, you can't if you suppose that Christianity entails an obligation to speak the truth. This is not a mistake a professional observer will make.

It used to be the fact that the liberals went ahead and ignored conservative pieties. Now the conservatives put liberal pieties in their communiqués, in the quite justified confidence we'll understand that the words mean nothing. All that matters are the deeds.

Since it will take another three years before the schism is made final and formal, there will be three more years in which every official statement on the subject will further hollow out the liberal pieties.

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