THE papers on Saturday were illuminating on the state of the
Church of England, and most illuminating where they appeared to
have nothing to do with it. Matthew Parris, in The Times,
had a lament for the Conservative Party. He started in Shrewsbury,
where a friend of his was shocked to find that the local
Association had only 30 members. Parris writes:
"They are about as relevant to the future of their region or
nation as the Shrewsbury Golf Club. Or perhaps less so, as the club
has an impressive website, a well-staffed office, about 830 active
members paying considerably more than Tory members do, excellent
catering facilities and a convivial bar.
"How many metaphors, how many sagging graphs and tumbling
bar-charts will it take until Tories stop whistling and looking
away, and get to grips with the reality of the approaching death of
the 20th-century model of a national party?
"A once-great national club, various in the ages, types and
opinions of its members, mildly political but united by little more
than a broadly conservative outlook, a fitful interest in current
affairs and the pleasures of fellowship, was already in its
twilight when, in 1978, as their new parliamentary candidate, I
encountered the West Derbyshire Conservative Association: all 40
branches and 2000 members - can you believe?
"We had fun together but even then I could see the writing on
the wall. Today the association - splendid people, the same people,
just thirty years older - remains stronger than many.
"The national party is evaporating away, and what's left is a
miscellany of types: the very old, the very loyal, the absolute
bricks, the rather lonely, the slightly embarrassed guest and . . .
yes, it has to be said, a goodly clutch of ideological
It was impossible not to remember this when I went up to York to
look at the General Synod meeting on Monday. Of course, the Church
of England is in much better shape than the Conservative Party, but
the disease is the same. The reports of the Archbishop of
Canterbury's speech on Saturday had held out the promise of
something fairly new - as had the text of it.
Admittedly, the text distributed before his speech was even
stronger. It contained an explicit reference to "the winds of
change", a phrase whose meaning could not have been mistaken by any
African. But the text actually delivered had lost that, although
most of the press reports referred to the phrase.
"Welby calls for Church to join the sexual 'revolution'," said
the Telegraph's rather over-enthusiastic headline,
although the lead was entirely accurate. "In his most widely
anticipated address since taking over the leadership of the Church,
the Most Rev Justin Welby insisted that it was now 'absurd and
impossible' to ignore an 'overwhelming' change in social
"In a deliberate echo of Harold MacMillan's 1950 speech which
attacked apartheid in South Africa, the Archbishop warned church
leaders that they needed to reassess their own attitudes to gay
people - even if they do not 'like it'."
The Times, the Mail, and The Guardian
all followed this line. There really was no other in the speech.
Anyone who had paid any attention to popular attitudes, and even to
the way the debate over gay marriage had gone, would know that the
Archbishop had been pointing out merely the bleeding
Imagine, then, my delighted surprise when the women-bishops
debate was opened on Monday with a point of order from Andrea
Williams, of Christian Concern, who wanted the whole thing put off
for a day, so that the bishops could travel back up to London and
object to gay marriage in the House of Lords.
But this was not, on reflection, the strangest part of the
morning's debate. That came in the remarks that the Synod seemed to
find perfectly normal. People said things such as: "As we struggle
with the adventure of opening the episcopate to the ministry of
women" (Whatever next? A woman prime minister appointing bishops?);
or, from a woman: "Some of you will be bored of hearing me saying
that I have a number of friends in the Anglican Church of Canada"
(perish the thought!) and that terrible things are happening
"Ordinands who have doubts about women bishops being
deliberately placed with women priests to put a strain on their
consciences - a priest I know who was a member of SSC being forced
to accept a woman curate - all these things have happened," she
concluded in a tone that suggested that these outrages really put
the sufferings of Syrian Christians in perspective.
And, at the end of the debate, there was still a blocking
minority vote in the House of Laity. No wonder the papers gave up,
and wrote about sex tests instead.