ONE thing emerges with complete clarity from the reports of last week’s Primates’ meeting: if ever the Archbishop of Canterbury were to look for a change in life, he could make a good living playing “Find the Lady” on Oxford Street. His press conference at the end was a masterpiece of misdirection.
Whatever it was the Primates had decided (and I, for one, still don’t know what that was), he ensured that the next day’s headlines were all about two things that the Church of England cannot possibly decide or act on.
The Daily Telegraph splashed on the news that the date of Easter “Will be fixed within five or ten years” — rather to the astonishment of John Bingham, who wrote the story, and knows perfectly well that this is not going to happen.
The Times, too, reported that “Christian leaders are in talks to fix the date of Easter to help schools and families to arrange terms and holidays. Anglican, Catholic, Coptic and Eastern Orthodox churches are seriously considering the move, the Archbishop of Canterbury revealed. He said that it could happen ‘within five to ten years’.”
The story is even more extraordinary in retrospect, when you consider that the origin was the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros, who has much more pressing concerns for his persecuted flock. Was the date of Easter really all that the Primates could agree on?
Then there was the Archbishop’s moving solidarity with persecuted LGBT people, which almost all the papers picked up. As Reuters had it: “The Most Rev Justin Welby said it was a ‘constant source of deep sadness’ that people were persecuted because of their sexuality as he spoke after a meeting of Anglican leaders.”
Could this really be the same man who, only three days before, had boasted to his fellow Primates that: “We are exempted from the same-sex marriage Act, showing that our voice is still heard against the prevailing wind of our society.” Clearly, that is not a matter that the Archbishop could decide. But his talk still got as much coverage as whatever it was the Primates had decided.
The distinction between “sanctions” and “consequences” did not wash with the press. For the Times leader-writer, “On gay marriage, Justin Welby misreads history, morality and his job description . . . Archbishop Justin Welby may feel that he had no choice but to join the move against the North American bishops. If so, he is mistaken.
“It was within his power as the church’s leading voice to bring celebration to pews across the Atlantic and indeed in pockets of Africa where gay Anglicans live in fear of bigotry. Instead he has sided with his most conservative bishops against the liberal wing of the Anglican communion for the sake of solidarity.”
For the Guardian’s leader-writer, “the language of ‘consequences’ rather than ‘sanctions’ goes to the heart of the power relations here. ‘Consequences’ suggests the outworkings of an impersonal law, rather than the result of a political struggle. To talk of ‘consequences’ is a way to blame the victim, an attempt to clothe brute power in a robe of justice.”
Canon Giles Fraser, in the same paper, was ruder: “Those who have been celebrating the love that gay people can share in faithful relationships have been punished. And those who prefer to send homosexual people to prison have been rewarded by the exclusion of the American church. . .
“For how can a national church maintain the various privileges of its institutional position when it is set at such a distance from the default moral perspective of the majority of the population in general. In a country where cabinet ministers can come out as gay with nothing but applause and respect, and where gay marriage is rapidly becoming normalised, the Church of England is shrinking into a sectarian corner.”
What is extraordinary is that I could find nothing in any of the English papers which suggested sympathy for the Welby position.
The Sunday Times carried an advance note of Linda Woodhead’s British Academy lecture on the rise of non-religion in Britain: “A post-Christian era has dawned in Britain, with most white Britons now saying they have no religion, according to a new survey.
“The increase is most pronounced among those aged under 40 and comes amid claims that they feel alienated from the church’s conservative social values.
“The poll, conducted by YouGov last month with a sample of 1,500 across the whole population, including recent immigrants, found almost half (46%) have no religion, up from 42% in February 2015 and from 37% in January 2013.”
This might be seen as another approach to the same story.