|A Church at War:Anglicans and Homosexuality by Stephen Bates. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004. ISBN 1850434808|
Reviewed by Bill Morrison
The day after I finished reading A Church at War I was at the Victoria house of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine presiding at the Eucharist. The gospel reading was Jesus' parable of the guests at the banquet, all concerned about who is sitting where, who's ahead, who's behind, and who's got the seat we think we ought to have.
And it struck me that that is exactly what Guardian journalist Stephen Bates is describing in his romp through the last few decades of Anglican history.
The Anglo-Catholics who opposed female ordination were secure in the knowledge that they had the pre-eminent place at the Church of England table - until that terrible day when (shock, horror) the resolution to allow women to be ordained to the priesthood passed the General Synod.
Conservative Evangelicals thought they spied someone else making for that seat of prominence — their worst nightmare, the highly organised and powerful "gay agenda lobby" that was intent on taking over the Church.
And the gays (who were neither organised nor powerful, and had neither an agenda nor a lobby) feared that the only seat that would be left for them if the Evangelicals got to the head of the table would be somewhere outside the door, in that place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
It is one of the points that comes across again and again in Stephen Bates' book that both "sides" in Church controversies see themselves as persecuted minorities, and their "opponents" as powerful and organised.
Then there are the bishops from the developing world who claim that the bishops from the North have forfeited the right to seats of honour at the table, and must be "put in their place."
Missing from the table entirely seems to be the person we would expect to be sitting in the highest seat — Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Before he became Archbishop, Williams was an inspiring, creative, and profound writer and thinker with a gift for words and vibrant images with which to probe the mystery of the triune God and the life of grace. But now he seems capable only of vague warnings and bemoanings that trail off into inarticulate silence.
The book opens with background chapters on the muddled character of Anglicanism that has landed it in this muddy mess; the Biblical "clobber texts" and how they have been variously interpreted; interviews with a wide range of Anglicans; a brief history of homosexuality in society and the Church; and the increasing polarisation of the Church between "liberal" and "conservative" understandings of theology, scripture and morality in the aftermath of the social and sexual revolution of the 1960s.
|Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams|
Then follow chapters on the 1998 Lambeth Conference, the appointment of Rowan Williams, the actions of the diocese of New Westminster and the episcopal nomination of Jeffrey John, and the election of Gene Robinson.
Bates (who is a Roman Catholic and is married to an Anglican Evangelical) is more-or-less even- handed in his identifying of fools and villains, finding plenty of both on both "sides" of the controversy. Most of the players are English, and apart from what I learned about them in this book, their names, if not their tactics, were unfamiliar to me.
The prime villains/fools on the "liberal" side are Bishop Jack Spong, former diocesan bishop of New Jersey, and Peter Tatchell, British gay rights campaigner. Spong's deeply offensive comments on illiterate and uneducated African bishops simply reinforced the anti-American feelings already present in the Communion and made the atmosphere at Lambeth 1998 truly poisonous.
Tatchell's confrontational tactics did a lot of damage, especially when, just before the Lambeth Conference, he and his minions crashed a garden party being hosted by George Carey, and swarmed the Archbishop, shouting in his face in a manner that made him fear for his personal safety. If this demonstration was intended to soften Carey's stony heart, it undoubtedly did exactly the opposite.
Bates writes with the immediacy and verve of an excellent journalist, and the book is an absolute page-turner. It is filled with juicy details, and surprising bits of information that had me chortling or saying "really?" again and again. I recommend it highly to anyone who is interested in the history of the debate on sexuality in the Anglican Communion.
The Rev. Canon Bill Morrison is rector of St. Columba, Strawberry Vale, Victoria, in the Diocese of British Columbia (Vancouver Island). He is editor of his diocese's newspaper, the Diocesan Post, and associate editor of Integrator, where this review first appeared. It has been condensed. The full review can be found at www.toronto. integritycanada.org.