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’.

Why, though, did Dr Bennett’s initial intervention – a literary exercise written according to an essentially old-fashioned formula – cause such offence? In one sense, he was certainly the victim of Mammon and the casualty of market forces. In the days when the Church still held an entrenched place in the fabric of British society, the responsibility for publishing its own biennial Who’s Who was one that rested proudly with the nation’s premier academic publishing-house, the Oxford University Press. Gradually, however, this ecclesiastical privilege became an economic burden – and by the end of the Seventies the OUP had served notice that it could undertake it no longer (the 1980-82 Crockford was the last to come out under its imprint). Crockford’s publication then became an obligation resting on the Church itself, the responsibility being divided between the revenue arm of the Church Commissioners and C of E’s new Parliament, the General Synod.

Undoubtedly, both bodies were remiss in not realising that this change in provenance would have repercussions in terms of the product. It is one thing, after all, for an independent secular publisher to commission an outside commentary on the life and thought of the Church: it is quite another for the Church authorities themselves – in total secrecy (Dr Bennett’s identity was apparently initially known to only two leading laymen) – to arrange for what would inevitably be seen as an attack from within, if not a stab in the back. The best that can be said on behalf of Mr Derek Pattinson, the Secretary-General of the Synod, and Mr James Shelley, the Secretary to the Church Commissioners, who passed Dr Bennett’s essay for publication, is that they may have been lulled into a sense of false security by the nature of the notably anodyne Preface contributed by Dr David Edwards, the present Provost of Southwark, to the 1983-85 Crockford, the first to appear under the new dispensation.

How it was that they failed to spot any danger signals when Dr Bennett’s manuscript came in remains, however, a mystery. For Dr Bennett’s essay was not merely a manifesto for Church conservatives: it also amounted to a straight allegation of a liberal conspiracy – a conspiracy, moreover, touching directly on the responsibilities of one of the commissioning editors (Mr Derek Pattinson). For the central point of Dr Bennett’s argument – predictably almost totally disregarded by the press – was that the whole experiment in synodical government, in which the Church has been involved ever since 1970, was nothing but a sham, a fraud and a hoax (or, to borrow Dick Crossman’s phrase about Cabinet Government, ‘a gaily painted hoarding behind which lie hidden the real secrets of power’).

In the light of the resources and energy the Church over the past two decades has thrown into adapting itself to an elected system of government, it is difficult to conceive of a more damaging charge – especially since it was linked to the somewhat improbable vision of Dr Robert Runcie, as a spider at the centre of a web of intrigue, still manipulating everything his own way. But the question, of course, is not whether what Dr Bennett wrote was wounding or damaging: it is whether or not it is true. Has the Church, in fact, in professedly yielding its allegiance to representative institutions, simply been indulging in a charade?

There are, no doubt, many church conservatives who would like to think that that was so – but not all of them, by any means, would share Dr Bennett’s conviction even about the General Synod being a ‘virtually powerless and consistently ineffective’ body. Indeed, the more normal assault from the conventionally-minded is that the General Synod itself has been responsible for most of the Church’s recent self-inflicted wounds – from the virtual abandonment of the 1662 Prayer Book, through the interminable controversy over the ordination of women, to the less than clearcut resolution on homosexuals and the ministry passed at the end of last year.

Such criticisms will, of course, always depend on the ideological viewpoint of those who make them – but there remains perhaps one point on which most could agree. In trying to make itself ‘responsive’ and ‘accountable’, the Church of England has, inevitably, changed its character. It has ceased to look like ‘a tight ship’ run by a Captain Queeg as Archbishop of Canterbury, and instead has come to resemble a flotilla of vessels, many of which are apparently in mutiny.

That is reflected in the way the new disposition towards democracy has thrown up an entirely new breed of ecclesiastical ‘activists’ – figures, alas, just about as unrepresentative of rank-and-file feeling as their equivalent in the political parties. It is they today who capture the headlines and – as they scurry in from Jesmond, Bushey Heath or Reading – who dominate television studios, much as Mr Derek Hatton contrived to do in his glory days in Liverpool. The analogy may, indeed, not be all that far-fetched. In recent years the Church of England has gone through much the same evolution as the Labour Party. Up there and out in front stand the enthusiasts (both lay and clerical) of the Church’s own militant tendency; back there in the pews (as in the polling booths) stand, slightly bewildered and bemused, the broad, passive array of the faithful.

The most striking omission in Dr Bennett’s comprehensive critique of the contemporary C of E lay in the way in which he chose to disregard this development. True, it would not have fitted his thesis of an episcopal ‘liberal ascendancy’ still manipulating everything to its own advantage. But the casual manner in which he dismissed the possibility of ‘policy being made at the grassroots’ (with all that that word implies in the Bennite vocabulary) remains the most serious lacuna in his whole analysis. His attitude would certainly not have been shared by bishops otherwise as far apart as Mervyn Stockwood (formerly of Southwark) and Victor Whitsey (late of Chester): both of them, from very different standpoints, firmly opposed the whole concept of synodical government on the understandable ground that it would inevitably represent an infringement of their own prerogatives as ‘Fathers in God’.

The truth is that the whole notion of Authority has lately been severely diluted within the Church of England – and from that fact stem many, though not all, of its current difficulties. The last Archbishop of Canterbury content to play the traditional autocratic role was Geoffrey Fisher, who reigned from 1945-61. An ex-headmaster of Repton, he ruled the Church much as if it was a public school – with its board of governors, fortunately, safely in the sky. No doubt, in some senses he was a relic surviving long after his time: but it was perhaps a misfortune for the Church that the change, when it came, should have been as sudden and savage as it was.

His immediate successor, Michael Ramsey, was a theologian of distinction – but a man with remarkably little appetite for, or interest in, administration: it was characteristic of his regard for scholarship that his very first act on becoming the 100th occupant of the throne of St Augustine should have been to abolish the custom by which diocesan bishops (however academically unqualified) were automatically awarded Lambeth Doctorates of Divinity on being raised to the bench. It was a forgivable, indeed commendable initiative in the new ‘realistic’ climate of the Sixties – but inevitably the abrupt ending of the tradition meant that one little bit of the Church’s establishment masonry had been chipped away. (Much more of it, of course, has gone since: a glance at the roll-call of incumbents in any average parish church soon reveals just how far the C of E in recent years has ceased to be an enclave of graduates, still less of scholars.)

Dr Ramsey was also the first victim of the Church’s new belief in democracy. The principal cause on which he had set his heart was the reunion of the Anglican and Methodist Churches. He laboured hard and long to bring it about – only to see it defeated, not by the Methodist Church, but by its failure to attain the overall 75 per cent majority of the three houses (bishops, clergy and laity) in the General Synod. Not surprisingly, in the wake of that humiliation, Dr Ramsey, though happily still living, soon resigned to make way for his colleague at York, Dr Frederick Coggan.

Dr Coggan’s appointment – made by Harold Wilson – has always been something of a puzzle. He was almost 65 when he got to Canterbury and never really recovered from his initial, ill-prepared decision (in which he was encouraged by some naive press proprietors) to launch a ‘moral purpose’ crusade. Brought up in the Evangelical tradition, he was a Biblical student of some standing and a preacher of reasonable eloquence: but he wholly lacked political antennae – a want amply demonstrated by his decision, while still Archbishop of York, to take a two-month holiday in South Africa. When he announced his resignation in 1979, within a year of presiding over a not wholly successful Lambeth Conference, he inevitably left behind him a Church in some despondency and disarray.

The inheritance into which the present Archbishop, Dr Robert Runcie, entered eight years ago was, therefore, hardly an enviable one. He has, however, undoubtedly had to endure a rougher ride than any of his predecessors (down to, and including, his recent puppet representation in Spitting Image). Comparisons between his performance in office and that of Pope John Paul II have been drawn, invariably to his disadvantage; and at home he has recently suffered the indignity of having the trenchantly traditional Lord Jacobovits, the Chief Rabbi, held up to him as a model he should aspire to follow.

Nearly all this criticism has been unfair, if only because it totally disregards the difficulties under which Dr Runcie is forced to operate. He leads a Church that, though it maintains its title to be ‘national’, is in fact nothing of the kind: in terms of a worshipping community, the Roman Catholics, even on mainland Britain, are almost certainly now numerically stronger than the Anglicans (in fact, leaving aside the ‘rites of passage’ like funerals and weddings, far fewer than one in twenty nowadays attend C of E services even on an occasional basis). But, worse than that, the Ecclesia Anglicana is today itself split asunder – with its own most energetic members owing their allegiance to their own particular brand of churchmanship – whether Anglo-Catholic or Evangelical – rather than the Church as a whole.

Those, for example, who criticise Dr Runcie for the timid and temporising way in which he has handled the issue of women priests (probably now due to come on stream in 1994) do not always take full account of the fact that his concern all along has been to limit and contain the size of the ‘breakaway’ Church that it threatens to bring about. In this respect, Dr Runcie has certainly not been helped by the attitude of his own senior diocesan (and Mrs Thatcher’s own favourite bishop), Dr Graham Leonard of London, who has already nominated himself as the prospective leader of any new Anglican ‘protest’ grouping that may be formed.

Perhaps the one valid criticism of Dr Runcie is that, at least in the public eye, he has chosen to cast himself more as a politician than as a spiritual leader – and a politician, moreover, who in the new Thatcherite era of moral certainties has more often than not seemed to be the ambassador from the kingdom of doubt. Certainly, that is seen as his crime by the Tory Party, which has never forgiven him for his less than triumphalist stance (reflected in his sermon at St Paul’s at the controversial July 1982 service of thanksgiving) over the Falklands War. Although few things in this area are ever overt, it hardly seems likely that his eventual retirement – he is already 66 – will be greeted with anything but relief by the Government.

The pressure, in fact, seems to be very much upon him to hurry that process along. The runners for the succession are already being crudely paraded in the newspapers, complete with bookmakers’ odds; and even a paper like the Times, which stopped short of calling for his instant resignation in the aftermath of the Crockford incident, has tactfully hinted that he will probably wish to call it a day once this year’s Lambeth Conference is safely behind him.

There would seem, however, to be little reason why Dr Runcie should put himself out of office simply to oblige his critics. For one thing, he takes seriously – perhaps more seriously than any of his predecessors – his responsibilities to the world-wide Anglican Communion of which he is the titular ‘President’; and it would hardly be helpful if he departed immediately after the 1988 Lambeth Conference, leaving any follow-through from its deliberations in fresh and less experienced hands.

For another, and on a more personal plane, it seems inconceivable that Dr Runcie would even contemplate retirement so long as the position of his own Special Representative, Mr Terry Waite, held as a hostage now for a year in the Lebanon, remains unresolved. Whatever suffering the Archbishop went through as a result of the whole Gareth Bennett tragedy is reliably reported to have been as nothing compared with the continuous sense of grief (and guilt) he feels over the plight of his own former staff-member.

In any event, the question should surely be not whether Dr Runcie has done well or badly but whether there is any reason to believe that anyone else could conceivably do better. It was his fate – rather than his fault – to take over an institution which, over the last fifty years, has probably gone through a greater decline in influence than any other in British life. At least this July at Canterbury, as he moves among the bishops from what used to be known as ‘heathen lands afar’ (perhaps even giving vent to that legendary Lambeth cry ‘Bless me, there’s Bombay!’), he will have the consolation of knowing that he has kept the show on the road. There could be many worse epitaphs for a late 20th-century Archbishop than that.