More Christian love
part two of the Lambeth Conference
The fight over homosexuality was the natural, perhaps inevitable, consequence of the earlier struggle over women priests. That had dominated the 1988 conference, which took place while the Church of England was in the throes of a long agony over women’s ordination, which could not force its way through the Synod against resistance from the Anglo Catholics (who thought women could not be priests, unless the Pope said so) and the conservative evangelicals block, for whom men could not be priests, either, in the sense that Anglo Catholics understood the word, but who maintained the leaders and teachers of a church did have to be men. Remnants of both positions persist forty years later but in 1988 it was still illegal for a woman to act as a priest in the Church of England or any of its buildings. And between 1992 and 2012 it remained illegal for any woman to be appointed bishop in England, even through they might be priests.
In the USA the struggle over women priests had been just as just as bitter, but the liberals were more ruthless and the belief in progress more central to society. By 1988 the liberal or Northern parts of the US church had ordained several hundred women priests and were clearly going to ordain one as a bishop whatever the Archbishop of Canterbury might think. Although to the outside world the Americans might appear the greatest imperial power of the age, liberal American Anglicans still thought of themselves as brave rebellious ex-colonists leading the rest of the world on its march to emancipation and the promised land.
And so, after the 1988 conference had called for a moratorium on the consecration of women bishops, the Americans went right ahead the following year and consecrated a black woman, Barbara Harris, in Boston. The ceremony was held in a convention centre in Boston; it felt nothing like a church, but at the same time life changing. A couple of days before I was talking with an earnest, worried, decent Episcopalian layman at a party in one of Boston’s more expensive suburbs. He was a man who donated money and time to Amnesty and worried that his son’s immortal soul was endangered by going to Grateful Dead concerts and collecting tapes of their music. He was distressed that the election of Barbara Harris would strain relations with the rest of the Communion, but he also thought that the electors (of whom he had been one) had given proper consideration to the fact that she was a black woman. In passing, he added that of course her being a lesbian was neither here nor there.
Eleven women bishops attended the 1998 conference: Barbara Harris among them. She pushed herself around the campus in a wheelchair: a small black woman with grizzled hair and a heavy cigarette habit. I stooped to ask her what she made of the conference: "If assholes could fly this place would be an airport."
In 1998 I found the opponents of women almost exactly where their enemies had been ten years before: practising their religion on the fringes, in a building just outside the campus boundary. The hard core, who would not recognise Harris as a bishop, nor any woman as a priest, had the use of the Roman Catholic chaplaincy in Canterbury because the chaplain was a former Anglican who had taken the last step from which they shrank and become a Catholic priest in protest against the ordination of women; and there every lunchtime about fifteen people, mostly men, would gather for lunch, gossip, and the spiritual refreshment of a Mass conducted in the a small upstairs chapel with a slatted pine door by a Holy Water stoup about the size of an ashtray.
We are so used to ritual being special or dramatic in some way that it is always shocking to come across the businesslike quality of Anglo-Catholic worship. Their differing accents — Australian, American, English, formed strange chords as they prayed together. They were musical, fluent, and much more comfortable with drama than the rather self-conscious groups who prayed in the open air for women bishops, but not without bathos: "Using form B, let us proclaim the mystery of faith."
For most, this was a ritual they had performed every single day of their adult lives: the axle that carried their lives along. If women, or men who were not real priests, performed this act, the axle would turn to wax and everything would be wrecked. Without the silences upstairs, none of the noisy bonhomie downstairs would be possible.
After the mass, they would lounge on sofas, drink, and conspire into mobile phones. A large, shrewd Australian did Edna Everage imitations perfectly. It was a place to come to talk to grown-ups. Here I could safely say that genocide was far more biblical than buggery, a thought which weighed on me increasingly as the conference continued.
Like women bishops, traditionalists tend to smoke heavily; a mainstream white male bishop would no more smoke than he would christen his daughter Kayleigh. Their best politician, John Broadhurst, the bishop of Fulham, has a pipe going everywhere it is not actively forbidden. Blue-eyed, large-jawed, handsome, he has an unusual talent for obscene invective. Women are either charmed by him or repelled. They do not take him neutrally. I like him a great deal, not just for his clear-eyed genial contempt for the people who run the Church of England but for the deep disillusionment this springs from.
The "Anglo-Catholic" opponents of women priests believed that Anglicanism, in its sense of a minimal, sensible Christianity, was not really different from Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy, just more English. It made no impression on them that the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics thought they were ridiculous. From an Anglo-Catholic perspective, this refusal was just an eccentricity of one or two billion Christians.
The ordination of women shattered that world. Some of the Anglo-Catholics believed that women could never be priests, largely because Jesus was a man; others only that it was wrong and divisive to make the priests against the wishes of the Pope and the Orthodox. When successive Anglican churches decided they could and should make women priests, and that the Pope should learn from their example, both these central Anglo-Catholic beliefs about the church they were members of were shown to be false. It was a moment like a divorce: something that changes the past as much as the future.
Of course, the Anglo-Catholics had never really considered themselves married to the Church of England. They knew all along that their heart was with Rome, so after the Church of England voted to ordain women, they decided to annul their earlier belonging, and set up house with the Scarlet woman of Rome. But it turned out that Rome did not want them either. They were welcome to convert as individuals, and some might even be reordained as Catholic priests. But they would not be admitted as a group.
The dispute here was ostensibly over whether they were sacramental priests in the Roman Catholic sense: whether, when they celebrated the Eucharist, they really were making flesh and reality out of Christ’s promises of salvation. In 1896, Pope Leo XII had solemnly pronounced that Anglican claims to be priests in that sense were "utterly null and void" but Anglo-Catholics showed an almost Roman Catholic ability to ignore those papal pronouncements they found inconvenient. It seemed under more recent popes anyway that there would be no real obstacle to recognising the Anglicans who wanted to be Romans as having been priests all along. Indeed there wasn’t. The obstacle turned out to be quit different, and insurmountable: the Roman Catholic authorities were not prepared to accept these priests as leaders of their congregations. It was not their spiritual status that was unacceptable, but their political existence, as an organisation of self-conscious, bolshy priests to whom their congregation owed allegiance personally.
While he was still just an Anglican priest, but the most able politician of his faction, Broadhurst had bargained and intrigued with Cardinal Hume for nearly two years trying to find a way around the resistance of the Catholic bishops to accepting him and his men as leaders with their own followers and loyalties. Finally he despaired and accepted the post of Anglican bishop of Fulham, officially just an assistant to the bishop of London. The Cardinal was apparently furious; but as Bishop of Fulham, Broadhurst has finally got what his followers wanted all along: a church of their own, loosely affiliated to the rest of the Church of England. He appoints the priests in those 50 or 60 London parishes that do not accept women. Though other bishops opposed to the ordination of women are more senior, he is the only one who does not even have to pretend to take into consideration those who disagree with him.
"I don’t mind you describing me as critical" he said to me one evening at the pub which Forward in Faith had colonised. "But I don’t want to appear destructive."
"But, John," I said, "You _are_ trying to destroy the whole thing."
No, he replied: "If I ask you for bread because my wife and children are starving, and you tell me I can’t have any, and I ask you again, and you repeat your refusal; does that mean I want to break to your house and steal it, even if that’s what I end up doing? All I want is a loaf of bread for my starving children."
There didn’t seem any answer to this. For all he was saying was that he would only be destructive if he felt compelled to it. But then it’s all a divorcing party can honestly say.
As we sat in the pub that afternoon he pulled from his briefcase a copy of the Lambeth Pravda, a glossy colour-printed newsletter whose official title was the Lambeth Daily. It was the sort of corporate communication which is supposed to reassure shareholders that they are getting value for money. At Lambeth, it was put together to reassure the liberal North of the American church, which paid most of the £2.2m it all costs, so it was full of pictures of women bishops
Broadhurst poked at it with broad pipe-yellowed fingers. He found a delicate language of contempt and assertion concealed in all the lace and scarlet of the bishop’s dresses. He and his allies would not dress for the group photographs in their full liturgical gowns and scarves. They wore cassocks instead, because "cassocks are clothes"; and to have turned up for the official conference photographs in the sacred vestments proper to a bishop would have implied that everyone else there was a real bishop. It used to be the case that you could tell a traditionalist by the way they crossed themselves: now their most important liturgical gesture is to cross their fingers.
The women in all these official photographs were of course dressed in rochet, chimere, and everything else that might suggest they were properly ordained. Broadhurst was convinced that this was the result of prearrangement with the conference authorities and pointed out every single photograph of a woman bishop he could find in the copy of the Pravda and suddenly cheered up: "There’s only one real question. Is there any one of these you wouldn‘t kick out of bed?"
Broadhurst’s loathing of gays is complicated by the fact that so many of his followers themselves fall in love with men more easily than women. The diocese of London has been a sanctuary for gay clergy, almost all of them Anglo-Catholic, for the last thirty years at least; and the diocese of Southwark, which is London south of the river, is very similar. It was in Southwark Cathedral that the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement was able to celebrate its twentieth anniversary — an event which led several Southwark parishes to approach Broadhurst to be their bishop. It’s hard to get figures if you are not part of that subculture yourself, but a member of the staff of the last bishop of London suggested to me once that about 200 of the 900 priests in the diocese were known to the bishop as actively gay. The great majority would be opponents of women priests, which is one reason for the Cardinal’s caution.
This fact — widely known but completely inadmissible, like so much else about the Church of England — lent a peculiar bitterness to the arguments over women priests, for it meant that both sides privately, but with unusual sincerity, accused their opponents of being driven by homosexual neuroses. So when Brian Masters, the bishop of Edmonton died, who had been the most implacable opponent of women priests on the bench of bishops, the last paragraph of his sympathetic obituary in the _Times_ read simply: "He remained celibate" since none of his opponents would have believed this. The charge against the traditionalists was obvious, that they didn’t want women wearing their dresses; but Broadhurst dismisses the programme of the "Affirming Catholics", who believe in Catholic ritual and women priests, as "Girls at the altar and boys in the bed."
One of the leader of the Affirming Catholics, Richard Holloway, the bishop of Edinburgh, was an object of peculiar hatred for having described the opponents of women as "mean-minded sods —miserable buggers." This is so exactly what many of them are that it was unforgivable. The Forward in Faith newsletter devoted considerable ingenuity to working into as many articles as possible the phrase "Dick, head of the church of Scotland".
Such subtlety was quite beyond the Americans who occupied the basement of the Catholic chaplaincy. This was where the Southern attack on liberalism was run from. There were endless overlapping groups: The Association for Apostolic Ministry, The Episcopal Synod of America, The American Anglican Council, the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Episcopalians United: there were nearly as many varieties of orthodoxy as of Trotskyism. But they were based around Texan money. The English traditionalists regarded them as pompous barbarians. "Have we shown you the bunker?" I was asked when they showed me the American headquarters and when I asked what they were doing in this galere, Stephen Parkinson, the director of Forward in Faith, replied "the money, dear boy, the money."
They had organisation as well as money. The central Anglican organisation was unable even to produce a comprehensive list of names and addresses of the bishops attending the conference. The Southerners produced and published a glossy directory with details and where possible photographs of every single bishop. They had prepared for Lambeth by organising two preliminary conferences in the immediately preceding years for Third world bishops, one in Kuala Lumpur, and one in Dallas. For some of the attendees, this was the first time they had ever been out of Africa. They certainly did not adopt homophobic opinions to please the Southerners who were bankrolling these meetings: their detestation of homosexuality and liberalism was absolutely sincere. But the conferences allowed for the preparation of agreed statements, or manifestos denouncing homosexuality and other Northern vices, which were introduced into all four sections of the Lambeth conference, not just the one that was meant to be dealing with the topic.
We tried, we really did try, to find things for the conference to discuss that were not homosexuality. The best place for this was outside the Gymnasium where the debates were held, around the pond which ten years ago had been a place of full of variegated reflections and tranquillity where chubby little carp jostled under the surface and ducks busied themselves in the margins. This time the pond was suburbanised and almost completely overgrown in bulrushes, so much so that I didn’t see the water at all it at all when first I walked past it. But the oak trees around were still there, and I could still stand beneath them with a theologian and talk. Rowan Williams, the bishop of Monmouth, was then liked by almost everyone in the Church of England, an affection only partially reciprocated: he declined the offer of the diocese of Southwark because he did not want to get drawn into the civil war there.
"Wittgenstein said that the most important thing a philosopher can say to another is ‘give yourself time’. The question is whether we can in some sense bear to keep talking to each other" he said to me as we stood beneath the trees. He cultivates a slightly shamanic look: sweeping black eyebrows sheltering deep eyes that have green glints in them like the marble you find on the island of Iona, and an intermittently exuberant beard. He is one of the few bishops who had an interesting failure at the conference: he gave a keynote talk on making moral decisions. It was a lecture of considerable subtlety and some substance which, for all the effect it had, he might as well have delivered in a motorway food court. The argument demanded concentration even in the temperate quiet of the television room in the press centre. His audience can have made little of it in the sweaty echoing heat of the converted gymnasium where the plenary session was held, especially as English was for many of them a second language.
The dominant temper of the conference was not interested in how people reach moral decisions. The method and mannerisms of an Oxford philosophy lecture were as alien to the bishops of the South as they were to the news agencies. The missionary Christianity that came back from the south no more wanted to know how Northerners reached moral decisions than the missionaries of the last century had wanted to know how the religions of the South worked. Yet without some kind of common understanding of what it is to be fallible any attempt at a global religion is doomed. The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an important and wonderful essay in the 1970s called "What is it like to be a bat?" in which he concluded that as human could never know this; but it is a strange thing for Christians to conclude that it is not worth answering or even asking the question "what is it like to be another Christian".
When he asked me what I made of the conference I said — for I was still fairly optimistic then — than it seemed to be a geological catastrophe. All the ages of Christianity were piled up here like beds of rock pushed into mountains. There were Copts from the fifth century, Romans from the fourteenth, Calvinists from the sixteenth, Latitudinarians, Arminians, Nineteenth Century fundamentalists, Twentieth century liberals, Pentecostalists, Anglo-Catholics of several generations — and all of these people were calling themselves Anglicans.
He liked this. But, he said, it’s important not to think of them all as being the same as they once were: each style of Christianity has changed or weathered since it first appeared in the rock. I thought this made the analogy more biological: that what we had was a family tree, all descending with different modifications from the original stock of Christianity — and now, of course, we get distinct species, and, I rushed on into the analogy, populations that can’t interbreed. He winced, and asked me not to mention breeding. Instead, he talked about an American poet and Benedictine oblate, who had written about rediscovering meaning in traditionally religious language; and about the way in which theology could not be understood as a set of propositions. You had to act on it to understand it, and each fresh act of obedience brought new understandings. We were silent for a moment. He smiled. "But still I wonder sometimes why I don’t just give up and become an Orthodox."
It’s possible that the thing would have been different had it been Dr Carey who lectured them on moral philosophy. But he couldn’t. and in a managerial style, he shouldn’t either. His job is leadership, not metaphysics.
In keeping with this executive style, there was a huge PR operation mounted at the conference. The benign incompetence which usually distinguishes the press operations of the Church of England had been replaced for this occasions by a busy malevolence, mostly directed at other press officers. Dr Carey’s communications team, his personal press secretary Lesley Perry, and the "director of communications" for the Church of England, an American named Bill Beaver, briefed assiduously against the nominal head of the operation, an elderly, self-important American named Jim Rosenthal. "Mostly celibate" was how one of them described him to me.
Once the conference got under way, there turned out to be 50 "communications officers" whose duties were divided between lecturing the bishops that the press were not to be trusted and telling the press that they were here to help us. There were only eight or so full-time professional journalists for them to cope with. On the list of registered press I counted 25 full-time lobbyists for the South registered as journalists, opposed by eight gay activists also there as journalists, including a couple of retired bishops who hung around the press centre looking mangy.
There were press conferences at ten o’clock every morning, held in the lecture theatre of the business school. Beaver had been a reserve officer in the American army, and these, with their atmosphere of fervent unreality bore a resemblance to "five o’clock follies": the daily press conferences that the Americans held in Vietnam. Instead of statistics of hamlets pacified, and VietCong killed, there were announcements that the press department had received 180 or 243 requests for information. These stopped after someone asked how many had resulted in any information emerging.
Beaver would open each day’s proceedings: "Good morning. I am Dr Bill Beaver, working under the supervision of Canon Jim Rosenthal". He stood at a lectern directing proceedings ; Rosenthal sat in the front row, occasionally able to fetch a glass of water for the bishops on the podium. When I wrote about this during the conference, Beaver approached me and said "I really like your column. Really funny. But there’s one thing I don’t understand. Why do you say that the communications team are briefing against each other."
I didn’t quite know what to say. I tried "Bill, have you noticed the things that you and Lesley have been saying about Jimbo?"
He looked at me with bulging eyes. "Oh that", he said, waving one outstretched arm like an agitated triffid. "Oh thaaaaaaat. That’s nothing." He beckoned me over to a corner and came close: "And besides; have you noticed who’s actually running the show here?"
This would be trivial except that it was so completely typical of the conference in its mixture of vanity and dishonesty and in its preference for power over truth; and also in the minute amount of power that he was squabbling over.
The climax of the conference came a couple of days before the end, just after the attempted exorcism of Richard Kirker. The three resolutions that the Conservatives had prepared would finally be debated. They weren’t only about sex. They were about converting the Communion into a coherent body with a constitution — the Bible as evangelicals read it — and the capability to make decisions binding on all its members. This may be what outsiders believe the Communion is, or ought to be. The Guardian’s use of the phrase “the Anglican Church” suggests as much; and journalists, of course, will always play up the interpretation of the story that makes it look most important. But from the very beginning, the Church of England had refused to countenance the idea that any other church could tell it what to do even if the price of this independence was that the Lambeth Conference had no formal powers to compel any church to do or to believe anything.
The two resolutions which might have given it such powers were watered down in passing. It was only the resolution on sex that got through with the force that its authors intended. So the conference determined that “In view of the teaching of Scripture, [conference] upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.” In a series of amendments — which Dr Carey voted for — all of the liberal equivocations were stripped away. Even a reference condemning homophobia was deleted. Instead of "homophobia", the conference condemned "_Unreasonable_ fear of homosexuals". This is the hate that dares not speak its name.
The motion went on to proclaim that the only good gay was one who had been straightened out: “there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God's transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships.” This was exactly the offer that Bishop Chukwama had made to Richard Kirker in the sunlight outside the gymnasium.
Some people refused the offer at once. The day after the debate Richard Holloway walked into the press centre wearing a pale blue windcheater, and slacks. His face glistened with fatigue. He flopped on a chair and talked as if he really wanted to be understood about what it had been like stifling on the floor in the debate: "I can’t forget hearing the hissing and the laughing and the sheer sense of rage. It was a supreme exercise of unbridled, unintelligent male power."
"I felt lynched yesterday," he said. We could hardly believe our luck. By this time there were five or six journalists around him, hardly needing to ask questions, he was so eager to speak. What he really wanted to talk about was not sex but the Bible. He felt he had been mugged by fundamentalists. Earlier in the conference, he had been careful to call them "Biblical literalists" but by this time he had forgotten his manners: "Of course fundamentalism is attractive. But so was fascism.”
Someone asked Holloway what he thought of Dr Carey’s speech at the end of the homosexuality debate, in which he announced his support for the evangelical motion. He ungangled himself from the low armchair and leant forward: "I thought it was _pathetic_. I understand he was trying to add a kind of nice fluffy epilogue but I think it would have been better if he had said nothing."
The next morning the press department handed out xeroxes of his hand-written apology for these remarks to anyone moving at less than a full run.
On the last evening there was a reception of sorts on the ground floor of the business school. Wooden Bowls of crisps were laid out in the television lounge along with white china saucers with salted peanuts with a slightly greasy shine. Several of the communicators manned a table fortified with wine: glasses appeared, bottles of plonk, and cartons of orange juice. At last, completing the scene, the Careys walked in, accompanied only by a chaplain and a press secretary. They had not been expected so early, so, for a while, the Archbishop stood in a corner by himself, radiating confidence quietly while Lesley Perry bustled in front of him.
I had wanted to ask him a question at the morning’s closing press conference about divorce. Two of his children are divorced and remarried. One of these, Andrew, is a journalist who was present throughout the conference, and I had wanted to ask whether, when Andrew announced he was getting divorced, it would have been a bigger shock if he had announced he were gay. The reasoning behind this was scriptural. Jesus condemned divorce unequivocally and never said a word about homosexuality. On a biblical basis it’s not obvious why homosexuals should be cast out and divorcees remarried in church except that many Christians today are divorced and few are gay. But at the last moment, I drew back, and asked something else. Perhaps this was cowardice, but it felt more like disgust. To have returned to the subject of Anglican attitudes to sex would have been like kicking dogshit in bare feet.
So when I approached him in the lounge I wanted to know how it was possible to unite so many different ways of reading the Bible. How could the Christians for whom it all happened yesterday, and might just as well happen tomorrow, ever be taught to talk with the Christians for whom this was a collection of very ancient documents, written for people long dead. He didn’t answer this question at first because he didn’t hear it. In the best traditions of Communications, he has learned to give the answer he wants to hear rather than one which has any relevance to the question. So he told me how balanced the resolution on homosexuality had been, and how it had united the Communion.
I asked again how he could possibly unite the different ways of reading the bible around the world to the point where people could talk to each other about it. This time he heard. I have been thinking a lot about theological education as I travelled around Africa, he said: I see a new generation of Christian leaders rising there. He was calm, benevolent, completely at peace with himself. His pale blue eyes shone at the thought of all those leaders. The party was highly successful: over the next forty five minutes . I watched him work slowly towards the door, talking to thirty or forty people, his eyes fixed on the radiant future.
Afterword: This piece has been pretty thoroughly rewritten from the original, and I can’t really recapture the ignorance with which I wrote it. But I have tried to keep hindsight out of the body of the story. So here is a tiny summary of developments since then.
There was another Lambeth Conference in 2022. This time the press were excluded from the debates and the debates were, so far as possible, designed not to produce any newsworthy outcomes. The bishops of Nigeria, Uganda, and Rwanda stayed away entirely; The conference restated the 1998 resolution on sex, which enraged and disgusted the liberals; it added that a minority of the churches rejected it, so fifty African bishops, led by the Archbishop of South Sudan, refused to take Communion with the others, in protest at this and at the inclusion of married gay bishops.
Richard Holloway left the church and renounced Christianity altogether.
Pope Benedict XVI was persuaded against the advice of the English Catholic bishops to allow the Broadhurst faction to convert in a body, outside the existing English hierarchy. This has not flourished.
Church membership is notoriously hard to measure but using Peter Brierley’s figures, which as as good as any and better than most, the Church of England lost about a third of its Sunday attenders in the 15 years following Lambeth 1998. The trend continues.
George Carey retired in 2002 and now campaigns for assisted dying.
Rowan Williams became Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, in the teeth of opposition from the evangelicals, and spent the next ten years presiding unhappily and ineffectually over a schism in which he managed to leave both sides feeling betrayed. He became Master of Magdalene College Cambridge, and a valued book reviewer for the New Statesman.