‘We asked for bread, and you gave us a stone’: the cry that rang out from the gallery of Church House, Westminster, after one of the earliest debates over women’s ordination nearly twenty years ago demonstrates that even in Church politics you should never despair. The mills of God may grind slowly but they grind exceeding sure, or so those who fought for so long for the introduction of women priests into the poor old battered ecclesia anglicana may now feel entitled to claim.
Why was the Anglican Church so dilatory – well behind 13 of its own provinces – in reaching its decision on women priests (the first of whom, even now, will not be ordained until the summer of 1994 at the earliest)? The normal answer is that it has always been a deeply conservative institution. But this will hardly wash in the light of all the upheavals and convulsions it has been through in recent years. No other organisation of the state, not even the British Labour Party, has changed as radically as has the C of E, at least since the beginning of the Sixties. When its last traditionalist Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Fisher of Lambeth, retired in 1961 the flood-gates of reform immediately opened. Even the time-honoured episcopal uniform of frock-coat and gaiters vanished along with him, as the old order made way for a new, informal one.
The allegation against the Church, made by its critics, was that it had sacrificed its birthright for a mess of pottage. In its desire to be fashionable it had become too eager to embrace the spirit of the age, introducing elective democracy into its government, contemporary language into its services, the social gospel into its spiritual message. Peter Simple’s immortal creation, Dr Spacely-Trellis, the ‘go-ahead’ Bishop of Bevindon, personified the popular conception of the modern church leader – until real life played an unfair trick and produced Dr John Spong, the ultra-trendy Bishop of Newark, USA, thereby making satire almost impossible. Only John Betjeman and Barbara Pym stood gallantly with their fingers in the dyke upholding a vision of the dear old ecclesia anglicana as it once was.
A.N. Wilson’s anthology, however, rides nobly to their rescue. It is a wonderfully evocative work drenched in a sense of a glory that has departed. Wilson lays his own viewpoint on the line from the start. ‘The new Christianity,’ he roundly declares in his Introduction, ‘has the character of a brand-new sect’; and he loses no time in making it clear that, while nowadays standing outside ‘the household of faith’ himself, he has no sympathy with the way it has modernised itself. In trawling through English church literature he has cast his net far and wide but, despite the vast number of books and pamphlets on the subject, he nowhere includes any reference to the prolonged debate over women priests (or, indeed, to the protracted discussion over gay clergy either). His book is a celebration of the past – a past that he clearly fears will soon be obliterated and forgotten. Indeed, he explains that he has seen his task as editor ‘to draw up an inventory of the mental furniture which most church members, whether or not they are religious believers, have in common’ – the plain implication being that, without such an inventory, all the familiar bits of mahogany could before long find their way unremembered into some lumber-room of ecclesiastical history.
Most of the pieces Wilson has sought to preserve are certainly worth saving. He is especially strong on the Victorian period – not surprisingly, since that was the golden age of both church novels and biography (mercifully he spares us sermons). It is, inevitably, a slightly nostalgic picture he presents: Virginia Woolf’s typically acerbic memory of a visit to matins at St Mary Abbots, Kensington in1897 shines out like a naughty deed in a predominantly goody-goody world. Although he quotes the best writer the bench of bishops has ever produced more than once, he has failed to catch the peculiarly mordant flavour of Hensley Henson’s prose (and he should also surely have included a passage or two from Owen Chadwick’s Life).
Still, he has discovered enough treasures and curios to keep church mice happily munching away over Christmas – and even those with more secular appetites can count on finding the occasional morsel here to divert them. I particularly enjoyed the revelation that not only did the former Foreign Secretary (and leading Anglo-Catholic) Lord Halifax insist on taking his chaplain with him on honeymoon; the traditional morning call from the butler at his country seat of Hickleton also consisted of the murmured query ‘Tea or Eucharist, sir?’
In High and Mitred Bernard Palmer, the former editor of the Church Times, also evokes a lost world. His is a highly scholarly study of how Anglican bishops came to be appointed over a period of 140 years. That may make it sound like a conducted tour of an Aztec tomb but in fact the book is timely because it serves to remind us that the whole system did not suddenly change with Callaghan’s agreement to the establishment of the Crown Appointments Commission in 1977 (giving the Church the right to nominate two names of which the Prime Minister, in practice, has to choose one). In terms of limiting No 10’s power of direct ecclesiastical patronage, that may have marked a watershed: but, in fact, the whole constitutional process had been subject to continual subtle modifications well before that.
At the start, as Palmer’s narrative makes clear, Queen Victoria was much concerned to defend what she regarded as the rightful exercise of her own prerogative. She recognised that the pass had been sold by her Hanoverian predecessors but, since she was by title ‘Supreme Governor of the Church of England’, she saw no reason why she should not be intimately concerned in the selection of its leaders. She met her match, however, in Lord Palmerston – who dismissed her pretensions with the brusque comment delivered in a letter to the Palace: ‘The responsibility of advising your Majesty must rest with somebody, and it happens to rest with the First Lord of the Treasury.’ (In private Palmerston was even more brutal, writing to his friend, Lord Shaftesbury: ‘She fancies, poor woman, that she has peculiar Prerogatives about the Church because she is its Head, forgetting that she is equally Head of all Institutions of the Country.’)
Still, it was never in Victoria’s nature to give in easily and she continued to battle away – developing a novel constitutional doctrine that she should have a special voice in appointments to dioceses that contained, or even were contiguous to, any of her own residences. Eventually, too, she found a highly effective ally in that great ecclesiastical courtier, Randall Davidson, who at the age of 35 she had personally insisted on having appointed Dean of Windsor (leaving even Gladstone to whimper about ‘the heavy artillery she was pleased to bring into the field’). The truth was that a monarch who could involuntarily exclaim, ‘She is greatly opposed to Canon Liddon being made a Bishop, but Bishop of Oxford he must never be,’ was not going to abandon the struggle, and successive prime ministers gradually came to learn that quarrelling with the Queen over nominations to bishoprics often proved more trouble than it was worth.
It was nonetheless Randall Davidson who provided the drawbridge into the future. The fact that he had, in effect, been the Queen’s private chaplain – and, after brief stays in the sees of Rochester and Winchester went on to be for 25 years Archbishop of Canterbury – put him into a uniquely strong position in relation to No 10. There may have been little that was formal about the arrangement but by the time Davidson got fully into his stride at Lambeth it was rare for any bishop to be appointed without at least the concurrence of the Archbishop of Canterbury (if the system occasionally went wrong, it tended to be because some civil servant in Downing Street had ideas above his station.)
In that sense, the great change lay not in the creation of the Crown Appointments Commission but in the fact that prime ministers gave up making directly political appointments. Of 20th-century premiers only Churchill showed any inclination to do that – and he, to be fair, was more impressed by military decoration than by political convictions (at one particularly dark moment of the war he put three DSOs onto the bench all at the same time). Otherwise, though, in secular terms the record is rather creditable. It was the arch-Conservative Lord Salisbury who appointed the first socialist bishop, Charles Gore, in 1901 to Worcester; and more than half a century later Mervyn Stockwood, the only bishop ever to have been a Labour councillor, also owed his preferment to another Tory occupant of No 10, Harold Macmillan.
Now, of course, a further and even more singular distinction awaits some future prime minister. In a characteristically British way the legislation that was passed by the General Synod two weeks ago includes no provision for women to be made bishops. In a perhaps unconscious echo of John Henry Newman’s famous line ‘One step enough for me’ it is concerned solely with their right to be ordained priests. But the ceremonies for ‘the form and manner of making, ordaining and consecrating of Bishops, Priests and Deacons’ do not lie back-to-back in the Book of Common Prayer for nothing. It may take a little longer than in the United States where there is already a (divorced) woman bishop in Massachusetts; but, if the C of E is to lose a reputation for being a male-dominated trade union, and gain one for being an equal opportunities employer, it will plainly sooner or later have to appoint a female member to the episcopal bench. How relieved they must be in Downing Street that, except in the formal sense, the breaking of this last taboo will not fall to a prime minister. Mr Palmer’s meticulously researched piece of history makes clear that the Church itself has – as much by evolution as revolution – assumed responsibility for resolving who its leaders should be. In a few years’ time, by the divine providence of a couple of votes, it should even, with luck, be deciding whether they should be men or women.