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
Getty
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution