The Pope's gift to Rowan Williams

Let the Anglo-Catholics go. Time for C of E liberals to assert themselves

The Pope's "helpful" offer to Anglo-Catholics to leave the Church of England and form a special Anglican province under Rome provoked some interesting responses over the weekend. Writing in the Independent on Sunday Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald, asked if after 500 years the Pope had finally "outfoxed" Canterbury's archbishop, while in the Sunday Times the historian David Starkey implicitly answered "yes" to that question.

Both look back to that half-millennial landmark, the accession to the throne of Henry VIII - the monarch without whose marital difficulties there would have been no Church of England. And it is that fact, that decidedly shaky and non-theological reason for the C of E's foundation, that leads to the sense among some Catholics that it should never have really existed in the first place. Time for those great Gothic cathedrals to come home, to echo once more to the sung Latin Mass. The Pope's crafty move could be the first step.

But perhaps there's an opportunity here for Anglicans, too. What exactly do they stand for? And has it really been that useful having to accommodate all those Anglo-Catholics within their broad church? A few have converted along the way in any case, notably the former Telegraph editor Charles Moore and the paper's former proprietor Conrad Black. Another writer from the Telegraph stable, Mary Wakefield, wrote thoughtfully about her own conversion in the Indy on Saturday.

The strand that seems to me to be most attractive, and most distinctively Anglican, is the liberal tradition. It has, unfortunately, long appeared also to be the most apologetic strand in the church. Caught between the twin certainties of conservative evangelicals (no gays) and Anglo-Catholics (no women), it has failed to articulate itself; in fact, it has too often seemed embarrassed to assert itself in the face of accusations that it is merely "woolly". Its virtuous uncertainty was easily turned against it, most memorably in an episode of Yes, Prime Minister from 1986 when the PM, Jim Hacker, was presented with a choice of two candidates for a vacant Anglican bishopric. When the cabinet secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, mentions the first, Hacker expresses outrage. "But he doesn't even believe in God!" he says. "Yes, Prime Minister," replies Sir Humphrey smoothly, "but he doesn't have anything against him."

I laughed at the time. As someone brought up in a more obviously rule-based church - you must go to Mass on Sundays, you must go to confession etc - I was puzzled by this faith that seemed to make so few formal requirements of its members. Yet in the years since I've come to appreciate and admire that sense of questing, searching, rather than hastening to firm rulings, that prelates like Robert Runcie, David Jenkins and Rowan Williams exemplify. And I think with Archbishop Williams at its head the C of E is in a much stronger position to form and assert that identity than it was in the days of George Carey, a man so devoid of charisma and authority that AN Wilson's caricature of him as "Mr Blobby" seemed devastatingly apt. (That may seem cruel. But it is also true that Carey always came across as far lesser a figure than Cardinal Hume: quite a humiliation for an Archbishop of Canterbury to be overshadowed by a cardinal in his own land.)

Rowan Williams, on the other hand, has that unmistakable air of piety and humility that gives him dignitas. His careful statements (such as about sharia law, for instance) will always be too careful for some. He should shrug those oversimplified criticisms off, just as he should let the Anglo-Catholics go.

He reminds me of that wonderful last verse in the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind:

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

An Anglican church that stopped bending over backwards to compromise with those who are unwilling to do so might be a much smaller body. If it cleared away much of the noisy argument, however, maybe its true strengths would be more apparent. That "still, small voice of calm" is a deeply valuable part of our national life.

 

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser