Picture the scene. The central decision-making body of the Church of England met to decide, finally, on a matter that had occupied hearts and minds for years before. Few on either side of the debate had ever quite asserted that the proposed change went to the essence of the faith; that it was a matter of doctrine, a salvation issue. But if adopted the change would have profound implications for the structure of the Church of England and for the way it presented itself to the nation at large.
On one side were ranged those who might have been called liberals, or progressives. For them, the present situation, an accident of history, should have been borne no longer. It impaired the mission of the church, since it embodied a division that seemed incomprehensible to the nation at large, and only added to the widespread perception that the Church was out of touch with contemporary thought and feeling. The young of today, it was thought, cared little for the theological niceties; the issue was clear, to them at least. Moreover, it discredited the Church’s witness to be seen to be unable to deal with the matter in a way that was timely and without rancour.
On the other side was ranged what one commentator called an ‘unholy alliance’ of conservatives, not usually to be found in agreement. For some Anglican Catholics, the change went far beyond a mere matter of the housekeeping of the Church; rather, it went to the heart of historic catholic order, exemplified by Christ and the apostles. To relinquish a fundamental element of that catholicity was gravely to endanger the prospects of eventual union with Rome. For some conservative evangelicals, the matter was one of the interpretation of Scripture. To vote for the change was to adopt a way of ordering the church’s life which could not easily be directly justified from the example of the early church, and against which there was Scriptural testimony that needed to have been weighed more heavily than had been the case.
And so, after several years of reports, commissions, and successive drafts of the legislation, the day of decision came. The archbishop of Canterbury, often identified with the progressives but acutely conscious, as with other issues, of the need to keep both the bulk of the Church of England and the wider Anglican communion moving together in roughly the same direction, had invested considerable personal capital in the scheme, and argued passionately in favour. And so, the vote came. Overall the voting resulted in a majority supporting the change, but a simple majority was not enough. Measured against the necessarily arbitrary hurdle set beforehand, the voting fell agonisingly short; and so the proposals were rejected.
Naturally in the short term there was great disappointment , not so to say anger and hurt, both within and outside the Church. And more significantly in the longer term, the archbishop thought that the Church’s failure to agree to its own proposals meant a permanent surrender of initiative; never again would the Church of England have the moral right to claim leadership and to speak to those outside from a position of authority, as it once had. In this matter at least, it would from then on be not a leader, but a follower.
The date: not 2012, but 1969. The issue: the scheme to reunite the Church of England and the Methodist Church. Nothing new under the sun indeed.