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Andrew Brown: Conservatives gear up for US-style schism

28 July 2017


Warnings: the former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali, who was one of the signatories to the letter to The Daily Telegraph 

Warnings: the former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali, who was one of the signatories to the letter to The Daily Telegraph 

YOU cannot trust Google with large numbers, but it reckons that there are 337,000 refer­ences to “Church of England split sexuality” on the web.

Number 337,001 might actually be a real story. It is also an illustration of what the Telegraph lost when its former religious and social affairs editor, John Bingham, left for Church House, since the education editor, Camilla Turner, managed to get three mis­takes into a one-sentence lead: “The Queen’s former chaplain is leading a vicar rebellion over gay marriage as he threatens to break away from the Church of England.”

From the back, Dr Gavin Ashenden has already left the Church of England’s ministry, as he an­­nounced earlier this year: he cannot threaten to do it again with any greater credibility; he is not the leader of the proposed schism; and, of course, he is “the Queen’s former chaplain” rather in the sense that I am a fellow of Birk­beck College — the post was honorary, and we are legion.

None the less, the letter to the paper which this news story glosses seems significant in two ways. First, the list of signatories has more Anglicans, however notional, than the pre­ceding letter on Anglican Mainstream, which was heavy with bishops from the Free Church of England. This time, they have only one of those, and have added a former Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, and the chief executive of Christian Concern, Andrea Minichiello Williams, as well as the usual ragtag and bobtail collection of men with important-sounding titles.

They have, though, lost the signature of Lorna Ashworth, who sits on the Archbishops’ Council and who signed the Anglican Mainstream letter. That leads to the second point: the last sentence of the Telegraph letter reads: “We note the results of this same conflict in North America, even as we look for and pray for a similar renewal of orthodox Anglicanism and of Anglican structures in these islands.”

The italics are mine, but the intent and words are theirs. Since they are “looking and praying” for a schism similar to the one that produced the Anglican Church in North America in the United States, it would really be rather difficult for a serving member of the Archbishops’ Council to announce that she was working against everyone else round that table in this way. So her absence — in letter, if not in spirit — seems another marker that this time they are trying to be serious.

It may be that the people who booed Ms Williams at the synod were actually, in a small way, making history. It is absolutely central to the conservative self-image on this question that they are morally superior people to their opponents. Liberals are, of course, every bit as conceited, but we tend to be differently smug — more interestingly smug, now I come to think of it: in fact, really, the sort of smugness that everyone ought to aspire to. Did I men­tion that I work for The Guardian?

In any case, the booing of Ms Williams was a sign that the Synod did not take her at her own valuation at all. This must have been a disagreeable shock, a wound that outrage could not soothe. It is really quite hard to belong to an organisation, or even a Synod, that thinks that you are morally deficient. It is probably especially hard for the people who will buttonhole you for hours to talk about how we are all sinners. So maybe that, rather than the decisions that were taken, was the actual trigger for this latest attempt at a schism.

The question is whether anyone except the signatories of this kind of letter cares. Lay people mostly don’t. The Ordinariate ended up with five lay people leaving for every priest. The ratio might be less extreme this time round: for some congregations, the movement will be imperceptible, since they have been told for years how rotten and corrupt the rest of the Church is. Even so, I don’t expect a big bang — more of a very large whimper.


ON A more serious story, there was some cov­erage of the Government’s retreat from an­­other of its manifesto ideas: this time, to allow oversubscribed state schools to select children on the basis of their faith.The chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, told The Sunday Times that “Admission 100% on faith leads to increased levels of segregation within com­munities. . . I am uncomfortable with anything that leads to increased segregation.”

The story is interesting because it is all shadow boxing. The cap does not affect what people are really worried about, which is segregated Muslim schools operating within the state system. Demographics and parental choice ensure their perpetuation, and I would be astonished if many were oversubscribed.


THERE are some stories that can go only downhill after the first paragraph — or, in tabloids, the first sentence. The Mirror had a glorious example: “A vicar grabbed her two dogs and a trombone and rushed out of her house after a lightning strike blew a hole in the roof.”

I really don’t want to know any more, ex­­cept, perhaps, the names of the dogs. They were two terriers, “Barley Ginger and Mister Johan Sebastian Elijah Holmes”. Nothing in reality could improve on what your imagina­tion might make of this story; so I’ll leave it there.

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