Singing from the wrong hymnsheet

02 November 2006

THERE WERE two huge stories last week, and, naturally, it was the silly one that got most coverage. None the less, the Reform ordinations in Southwark mark what is surely the beginning of the final disintegration of the Church of England.

To see how far we have come in the past 20 years, think about Broken Arrow. This was a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a church in dispute with its bishop invited Dr Graham Leonard, then Bishop of London, to come to confirm in 1988. Every kind of outrage broke out all over the place, and that was just in London. If the reverse manoeuvre had been attempted, and a schismatic American had arrived here to confirm in a London parish church, that would surely have been front-page news.

But when, last week, a South African bishop, not in communion with the Church of England, arrived in a south-London parish to ordain three deacons - as clear an indication of schism as you can possibly get - it was lost on page 12 or thereabouts of the newspapers that managed to mention it.

For years it has been obvious - not least because Reform keeps saying so - that it wants to be a Church within a Church, with its own money, hierarchy, buildings, and so on, sharing nothing but a pension plan with the Church of England. But now it is a Church outside a Church. The alien has burst from the stomach of the decaying spaceman.

The Telegraph gave the story a lot of space on page 12, but its version was full of the news of Gene Robinson's meeting with Dr Williams, at a safe house in an undisclosed location.

The Guardian had fairly detailed coverage, but used Bishop Robinson as the lead. The Times carried a story suggesting that the Revd Richard Coekin, the Reform minister who arranged the whole thing, might become a martyr to counterbalance the Very Revd Jeffrey John. But there were no leaders or think-pieces anywhere marking the event. They were reserved for Dr Williams's reaction to the crisis, buried in his speech in Cairo.

AND WHAT was the Archbishop's reaction? To find one of the three things that anyone outside the Church of England has ever liked or understood, Hymns Ancient and Modern, and apologise for it. I should say here that Hymns A & M owns the Church Times, but many people love it for other reasons, and Dr Williams has upset them all.

He came into office more loved and admired than almost any clergyman I have known, but as an Archbishop he has had a hard time explaining his principles, and a hard time standing up for them. And if it is thought that he won't stand up for the things he believes, then the effort to discover them seems rather a waste of time.

Until now, the tabloids have held off him, from a lingering suspicion that he must know something we don't. But the gaffe in Cairo told them he was not a serious figure at all, but a type familiar from any school: Johnny head-in-the-air, the swot who can be bullied. What is even worse, and will ensure that he never recovers from this, is that he has managed to arouse the suspicion once articulated by George Orwell that all intellectuals are really traitors who hate Britain.

This came out very clearly when the Daily Mail took two chunks out of him, first with nearly a full page of news: "A vote on the most popular hymns carried out by the BBC's Songs of Praise last month counted 15 from Hymns Ancient and Modern among the top 20. But despite its huge popularity, Dr Williams said it was a mistake to introduce the hymns to foreigners."

The second bite came in an op-ed by Mary Kenny, defending missionaries, hymns, and imperialism against Dr Williams. It finished: "Those who do not defend their culture perish under the onslaught of other cultures; and deserve to perish. So, for God's sake, Your Grace, show a bit of character and defend the traditions on which your heritage is built."

THE TIMING of this is doubly unfortunate, because the early Christmas story this year is about Christmas itself, and the unpatriotic way in which it is "under attack". For the Daily Express it has been a story almost as important as the death of Diana (who had, last month, three front pages at least). A whole front page was given over to the decision by the Cheddar Caves Museum in Somerset to label its exhibits "BP" for "Before Present" instead of "BC".

Then there was Lambeth Council's decision to rename its Christmas decorations "Winter Lights"; and an attempt to stop Christmas boxes from being collected at an Inland Revenue office in Newcastle, in case it offended people who didn't believe in Christmas.

The fact that these stories were carried so prominently in a paper owned by a Jew who made his first fortune in pornography may delight ironists. But it is also a sign that Christianity is becoming once more an expression of English, or British, nationalism. Perhaps that is what Dr Williams was trying to regret.


The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read up to twelve articles for free. (You will need to register.)