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Angela Tilby: If one side wins, we will all lose  

28 July 2023

Sam Atkins/Church Times

The chamber during the meeting of the General Synod in York, earlier this month

The chamber during the meeting of the General Synod in York, earlier this month

ARCHBISHOP Michael Ramsey was reputed to have begun each day by announcing three times, “I hate the Church of England.” His press officer, Michael De-la-Noy, heard him doing this even when abroad in hotel rooms around the world.

The story raises a smile. I can’t quite imagine our current Archbishops expressing themselves so candidly, even in private. Their problem is more that they take the C of E too seriously, and believe that it can be reformed to fit their view of what the gospel demands. Ramsey did not have such ambitions. He realised that the C of E was flawed and untidy as a result of its history. Factions form, dissolve, and reform around irreconcilable theological differences.

The frustration expressed at the recent meeting of the General Synod was a reflection of expectations that are simply unrealisable. It all began badly, with the Archbishop of York’s sincere but naïve plea for unity. And then there were the endless presentations. Perhaps in trying to stop a bomb from going off, those who manage the Synod’s business unwittingly laid a whole series of landmines.

The fact is that, historically, the Church of England is an unstable structure. The only workable unity it has is around boring things such as an agreed scriptural and sacramental liturgy, and the threefold order of ministry — the very things that are being undermined by mission imperatives today.

In generating its current strategies, the Church has dug up some very angry ghosts. When I follow the debates in the Synod and elsewhere, it often seems to me that it is 17th-century Puritans, Laudians, Independents, and Latitudinarians who are really slugging it out through their present-day successors. Evangelicals go on about scripture, while Ritualists disappear into esoterica, and both are shouted at on social media by members of WATCH and supporters of Pride.

Abuse survivors continue to generate pity and guilt in everyone while they wait for something that might never happen. Then there are both sides of the sexuality debate, aggressive and sulky by turns, each totally convinced of their superior moral insight.

The Church of England is infuriating. But a study of its history might suggest that, if any side wins in its endless argument with itself, everyone, in fact, loses. Sadly, our two Archbishops, most of our bishops, and the Archbishops’ Council still believe that the C of E can be brought to heel by firm government and a clear goal. History suggests otherwise.

When I was on the Liturgical Commission, and discussions over the texts of Common Worship came near to overheating, Bishop David Stancliffe, who was chairing it, would rock back on his chair, join his hands together behind his head, and say, “Well, now, isn’t that interesting.” Immediate deflation of noisy egos and back to the more modest task of liturgical revision.

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