"WHY is the Church of
England like the Turl? Because it runs from the Broad to the High,
bypassing Jesus." A witticism of almost total obscurity to anyone
outside Oxford, and of very little comic value even to those who
live here, this is one of the great in-jokes of all time.
To understand it, you have
to know something about the geography and peculiar slang of Oxford;
to know that between two main thoroughfares - High Street and Broad
Street - runs the smaller Turl Street, on which Jesus College is
situated. Even more, you have to know something about the Church of
England, and the parties - Broad Church, High Church, Evangelical -
that are believed to contend for its control.
Jokes about church politics
go back almost as far as the Church itself, with Calvinists in the
17th century, for example, poking fun at their theological
opponents: "What do the Arminians hold? All the best bishoprics and
The modern idea of church
parties, just like the joke about Turl Street, is, however, a
product of the 19th century. It was in the Victorian era that
modern secular political parties were created, and it was then,
too, that people came to understand ecclesiastical groupings as
An essay published a full
decade before the foundation of the Church Times did most
to propagate this idea. Written by the brilliant but rebarbative
parson William John Conybeare, "Church Parties" appeared in the
Edinburgh Review of 1853. It was an instant sensation for
its expert dissection of the prevailing tendencies within
Conybeare was quietly
encouraging about Evangelicals. "Such pastors may not perhaps be
men of the most comprehensive understanding; not the fittest
teachers for inquiring minds." He went on to say, however, that
"upon the middle and lower ranks of their parishioners, they often
have a stronger influence than their more intellectual
HE TOOK a similar line with
the High Church party. There were some absurdities, he
acknowledged, especially among "young and silly partisans, who have
joined their standard more for the sake of amusement and notoriety
than any other reason". But he did acknowledge the important work
that High Church priests did with the poor, and could see the value
of their vision of a revived and renewed Catholic Church.
Above all, Conybeare
extolled the virtues of the liberal - or, as he christened it, the
Broad Church - party. "Its watchwords", he said, "are 'charity' and
'toleration'." It was the party of the intelligent, the committed,
the concerned. It was, he claimed, the party best able to convince
thinking people that membership of the Church was compatible with
thought; the party that would defend religion against the great
Victorian crisis of faith.
But this admiration for the
Broad Church did not lead Conybeare to conclude that everyone
should become a liberal. No: he argued - just as secular
politicians argued at the same time - that parties served a
purpose. "Instead of murmuring, we should rejoice when we see the
same character of Christian holiness manifested under diverse
opinions,'" he wrote.
"For Christianity, embraced
under one form, might have been rejected under another. All cannot
see through the same telescope, but different eyes require the tube
to be variously adjusted."
CONYBEARE followed the great
constitutional thinkers of the age in maintaining that competition
between parties was desirable in itself. This was, after all, the
argument that Edmund Burke had made in the 18th century, when he
defended the existence of political parties in Parliament.
Argument, contestation, and
the battle between different groups united around differing
principles: these, Burke claimed, were fundamental to freedom.
Truth was the product of conflict. Party strife was the engine of
Conybeare argued in exactly
the same terms. The greatest danger, as he saw it, was not the
existence of parties, but the lack of them; because, without
clearly defined opposing parties, the Church risked a sort of
ecclesiasti-cal entropy as it degenerated into disorder.
"The object of every wise
Churchman", he concluded, "should be to keep each of the main
schools of opinion from extravagance on the one hand, and from
stagnation on the other; and the existence of counteracting parties
is a check providentially operating to that end."
It is clear that Conybeare
was preaching to the converted. Even as he wrote, the partisans for
each tendency within the Church were mobilising themselves as never
before, helped by the unreformed nature of English church
patronage. The fact that lay patrons, Oxford and Cambridge
colleges, and private trusts could control the appointment of
parish clergy enabled church parties to plant their supporters
across the country.
The avowedly Evangelical
Simeon Trust was the first to be founded, in 1817. It set a pattern
for the parties - and, by the 20th century, more than 1000
benefices were in the hands of expressly sectarian groups. Those
High Churchmen who could not stomach lay patronage could always
give their advowsons to Keble College, Oxford - a newly minted
Anglo-Catholic redoubt that ended up patron of nearly 70 parishes
as a result.
THE ad hoc way in which
parsons were prepared for parish life offered similar opportunities
for parties to promote their own interests. Before the 19th
century, there was no training at all. But the Victorian Church
proved unable to establish anything like a systematic scheme for
producing professional clergy; so different groups were able to
establish theological colleges along party lines.
Just as important, Victorian
church parties also established their own periodicals. Not for
nothing were the Tractarians so called; but they were certainly not
the only advocates of a distinctive theology to publish tracts and
The Calvinist Evangelicals
were so devoted to their severely Puritanical journal The
Record that Conybeare called them "Recordites". The Church
Times itself was also, of course, a product of this
inter-party competition, established to promote
Much seems the same, 150
years later. The Evangelical Church Society (established in 1865)
still retains the patronage of 117 parishes, while the High Church
Society for the Maintenance of the Faith (founded in 1874) has 80.
Those undiscrimating few who do not like the Church Times
can always read the more self-consciously Evangelical Church of
England Newspaper (first printed in 1894). Ordinands are still
able to choose the seminary that most suits their personal and
Yet - especially as
Anglicanism has gone global, broadcasting these affiliations across
the world - it is hard not to feel that something has changed.
There is now an international dimension, as money and manpower
cross borders with ease, and as words and images travel at high
speed over the internet. Arguments that begin in the United States
are taken up in Africa and Australia.
Add to this a collapse of
faith in the secular political parties, and there is little wonder
that many now reject what Conybeare once so enthusiastically
advocated. Instead of seeing church parties as inevitable, even
desirable - much less as providential - they stand condemned as
pernicious. "Talk about life, not church politics," wrote Canon
Giles Fraser in these pages only a year or so ago. It is clear that
he spoke for many.
ATTRACTIVE though such a
call may seem, it is, none the less, misconceived. Divisions over
theology have always happened, and will always happen. Think of
England in the 17th century. Think of the Roman Empire 1200 years
before that. Politics happens because things matter, and when
people stop disagreeing it is often because they no longer care.
The moment that Christians stop arguing is the moment that the
Church dies - not in the heat of battle, but killed by neglect.
More important, although
church politics may be perennial, church parties do not need to be.
It is worth remembering that even Conybeare acknowledged that his
analysis was an over-simplification. Developments since 1853 have
rendered it redundant.
There has, in reality, been
a remarkable convergence of the different strains that he
identified. Evangelicals have become more High Church. In the
mid-19th century, they regarded the display of a cross as
tantamount to heresy; now, they argue that it is a fundamental
Christian right. In the same way, High Churchmen have become more
Evangelical. Everyone has become more liberal.
Indeed, the Victorian
assumption that the interaction of church parties best explains
church politics no longer holds. The merger of parishes, and the
growing importance of episcopal patronage make the private trusts
less and less important. The recent ructions at Wycliffe Hall,
Oxford (where senior staf left, amid accusations of bullying),
suggest that even the seminaries cannot be transformed into the
tools of a single faction.
The Church Times
has long since ceased to be the mouthpiece for a distinct
theological position, and other, more parti pris
periodicals cater to an ever-dwindling band of readers.
As current debates within
the Church make clear, what we are witnessing is a shifting
coalition of views - just as in secular politics, there is now no
party loyalty, and - with a few loud but extremist exceptions - it
has become increasingly impossible to predict what each individual
will ultimately argue.
The issue for the Church is
no longer party strife, but precisely the sort of individualism
that Conybeare argued against. The stumbling-block, for those who
seek to understand what is going on, is our rigid adherence to an
outmoded analysis. Our problem is not church parties, but our
perception that they matter - because, in reality, they don't.
The Revd Dr William
Whyte is Tutorial Fellow in Modern History at St John's College,
Oxford, and Assistant Curate of Kidlington