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The Church is a party animal

08 February 2013

The Church of England has been characterised by competing factions since before the Church Times was launched. This is no bad thing, argues William Whyte


Yes, no, maybe: divisions over theology and ecclesiology have always occurred

Yes, no, maybe: divisions over theology and ecclesiology have always occurred

"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 deaneries."

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 somehow analogous.

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 Anglicanism.

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 brethren."

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 good government.

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 edit magazines.

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 Anglo-Catholicism.

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 theological predilections.

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


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