When the Church of England Synod meets in high summer, its thoughts inexorably turn to love – or rather, to same-sex relationships: the perennial pachyderm in the Anglican room.
As members gathered on Sunday to discuss the intractable topic, the minds of some may have drifted longingly towards the hearty thwack and ping of the Murray/Raonic final. Alert to wandering attention, David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s former director of reconciliation, urged his colleagues to “prepare yourself for Wimbledon withdrawal”.
Reconciling the schism between sport, sex and spirituality was the least of the participants’ challenges. Their attendance was regulated in advance with a dense thicket of protocol.
Members were asked to eschew social media, abandon clerical dress for “casual, comfortable clothes”, and “Remember your body language. Watch that it doesn’t say, “I’m bored’.”
If people look bored while you are talking about sex, you’re probably doing it wrong. But the jittery preamble of secrecy around these conversations is intriguing.
There was a time when the C of E’s agonising over sexuality was a source of keen public interest. The General Synod of 1994 drew headlines when demonstrators from the LGBT activist group OutRage held up placards outing ten bishops as gay.
So did the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution on sexuality, which rejected “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture”. Still, as the Sibylline Oracle once gnomically observed, the divine mill will at last grind the flour. In 2003 the Episcopal Church in the USA appointed, with a minimum of fuss, Gene Robinson, a gay priest in a same-sex relationship, to the diocese of New Hampshire. (The fuss came later – he was advised to wear a bulletproof vest for public appearances.)
Meanwhile in the C of E, the laity (not Synod’s House of Laity, that is, but those of us who used to pitch up at church every so often to arrange the flowers, ring the bells, sing the hymns and cherish the liturgy), at first appalled and then bored by the spectacle of Christ’s representatives on earth skirmishing like ferrets in a sack, began to drift away.
In 2013 a majority of respondents to the British Social Attitudes survey described themselves as having “no religion”, rather than the default agnostic self-description of “C of E”.
In That Was The Church That Was, a devastating critique of the C of E, Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead note that the decline of the established church doesn’t signify a wider lack of interest in spirituality. On the contrary: “As the Church lost its grip over the provision of ceremonies, the English – always great ritual innovators – took to the task of reinventing them with relish.”
For evidence of this I need look no further than my own street and the recent deaths of two neighbours – one a matriarch of 102, the other, untimely, at 47.
Neither family was devout but both would, in recent memory, automatically have turned to the C of E for the funeral obsequies. Neither did.
Their secular ceremonies were dignified, affectionate and deeply touching. Meanwhile at York this weekend, the vision of George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, that the C of E would eventually become “a toothless old woman muttering in a corner, ignored by everyone”, seems all too plausible a spectre. Rather than sequestering itself from the secular world, Synod might as well have watched that Murray final, after all.