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Decline of a once-great club

12 July 2013

"Approaching death"? Matthew Parris inThe Timeson Saturday

"Approaching death"? Matthew Parris inThe Timeson Saturday

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 obsessives." 

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 attitudes.

"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 obvious. 

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 there:

"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.

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