Anthony Howard writes about the spitting image of the Church of England

This summer some five hundred bishops of the Anglican Communion will converge on Canterbury. They will have come to attend the 12th Lambeth Conference – as these gatherings are still called, though they have long since ceased to meet at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London Palace on the south side of the river. This year’s Lambeth Conference, like the one in 1978, will take place on the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent – with the bishops sleeping on cork mattresses in student bedrooms and enduring cafeteria self-service at every meal except dinner.

It all represents a far cry from the days when even missionary bishops – who, a previous Archbishop of Canterbury once warned, tended to be ‘men of eccentric mode of proceeding’ – would find themselves at ten-yearly intervals firmly clasped in an Establishment embrace. Fifty or sixty years ago there would be a Lord Mayor’s banquet at the Guildhall, a reception given by the Speaker of the House of Commons, grand dinners in great houses, even a Royal Garden Party.

Of course, nowadays the home church hosts – the poor, buffeted, derided C of E – would have difficulty in laying on that kind of red carpet treatment, even if they wanted to. The phrase about ‘eccentric mode of proceeding’ has come home to roost with a vengeance, and it is today the C of E itself whose reliability has begun to be called into question – not least by those very same social and political forces that used to underpin its position.

The erosion in the Church’s national status (visible now only at Coronations and Royal weddings) long preceded all the trials and tribulations of the past few months, though these have certainly not helped. Even before the bizarre episode of the Crockford Preface, it was unfortunate for the Church that its two major preoccupations should have appeared to be both concerned with sex – with the appropriateness, or otherwise, of women as priests and with the acceptability, or otherwise, of homosexuals as candidates for ordination. If, even a few years ago, any TV commedy scriptwriters had made those the twin dominant themes in the story-line of All Gas and Gaiters they would surely have been thought to be going too far. No longer: indeed, their problem today would be the rather different one of somehow finding a way in which satire appeared to outpace reality.

Naturally, all this could be said to be the fault of the media rather than the Church. ‘Pulpit poofs can stay,’ ‘The Arch-Wimp of Canterbury’, ‘What went on beneath the cassocks’ – it has been open season on the C of E for some time now, at least in the tabloid press. The significance, in retrospect, of the tragic ending to the affair of Dr Gareth Bennett, his introductory essay to the latest edition of Crockford’s Clerical Directory and his subsequent suicide, was that it provided the excuse for the up-market papers to join in: there was even a morning last December when the Archbishop of Canterbury’s resignation was simultaneously demanded by two right-wing newspapers (the Mail and the Telegraph).

Here again, though, nature totally outstripped art. Could any mere novelist – Anthony Trollope, Hugh Walpole, even Ernest Raymond – conceivably have come up with a plot in which a highly-regarded, if disappointed, Oxford don first mixes an explosive cocktail to be drunk by his own Church, on being taxed with it denies all responsibility for his action, then in fear of exposure takes his own life, and finally, as the Archbishop of Canterbury is translated into a St Sebastian, is rewarded by a full Requiem Mass (in defiant Latin) presided over by the three leading Anglo-Catholic bishops in the total breach of the Church’s own teaching on suicide? Whatever Dr Bennett’s other failures and disappointments, he can at least be said posthumously to have vindicated his argument of a Church hardly living at peace with itself, still less being ‘godly and quietly governed’.

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