When the doves get militant

Observations on church

The liberals are hitting back. Last week, 400 grass-roots members of the Church of England gathered at St Mary's Church in Putney, where, in 1647, Cromwell's Levellers once argued the case for a radical republic. Their 2003 counterparts have been shocked out of self-confessed complacency following the withdrawal of Jeffrey John from the post of Bishop of Reading. "Liberals are bad campaigners," said one of the organisers. "We're also a bit gutless."

Liberal Anglicans have lived as doves for years, quietly frustrated and drowning their sorrows in gin, as one priest put it. Homosexuality is only one issue that nags. Others include the conservative evangelicals' monopolistic claim to biblical authority, and the Church's continuing indecision over consecration of female bishops. Now, with evangelicals not just in the ascendancy but apparently pulling the levers of power, they fear that the future of their church is under threat.

Church of England liberals do not make natural activists. Their language of peace and reconciliation can sound weak against the hawkish language of judgement and repentance favoured by conservatives. Nor are liberals naturally united. For example, the Catholic wing of the Church of England, from which many liberals come, may be mostly pro-gay but many are still against female priests.

Conservative groups are not all equally illiberal or vociferous, but on homosexuality, the central issue now, they sing from the same hymn sheet. They are stronger in other ways, too. Evangelicals think strategically, and are well organised. And they are well funded. Consider one fairly modest player on the conservative front, the Christian Institute. The number of people it employs in its "campaign for Christian truth" has doubled in recent years. In the three years to 2001, its income more than doubled to nearly half a million pounds. Even the successful Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement cannot match that kind of resourcing.

So can Putney's militant doves mount a counter-offensive? A petition that calls on the Church to act justly, particularly in the appointment of clergy and bishops regardless of gender, race or sexuality, is online at www.inclusivechurch.net. Tens of thousands of names would force the Church's governing body, the General Synod, to listen.

The Putney progressives have history on their side, too. Over the three-day-long Putney Debates in 1647, Cromwell's Levellers argued the case for the sovereignty of the people; for religion to be a matter of conscience; and for full equality before the law. We can settle for nothing less today.