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
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
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
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.