A respectful answer to Tom Utley

I’ve never met Mr Utley but, judging by his work, he is a decent man without a rancorous bone in his body.

Moreover, his wife drives a London bus. Considering the pay structure at the Mail, Mrs Utley probably does so not out of dire necessity but as a hobby. If so, she ought to be saluted for proving that endearing English eccentricity is still extant. Mr Utley isn’t just a nice man, but also a lucky one.

Though self-admittedly an agnostic, Mr Utley, unlike his Mail colleague Andrew Alexander and everybody at The Times, is not a religion hater. He claims he respects the C of E, venerates the prose of its texts (those the Church itself unfortunately doesn’t venerate any longer), and he sounds as though he means it.

That’s why the questions Mr Utley raises in his article on women bishops deserve kind answers, not the contemptuous dismissal which is the lot of those whose animus towards God overrides their mental faculties.

Lamentably, many things he says, along with his conclusions, are still wrong. Some, however, aren’t. For example, he points out it’s illogical for the Church first to ordain women as priests, then refuse to consecrate them as bishops 20 years later. Indeed it is.

In fact, I know several Anglicans, as conservative now as they were then, who supported the first folly but opposed the second one. Their opposition to women bishops is therefore slightly compromised, but this doesn’t make it intrinsically wrong. To use a popular cliché, two wrongs wouldn’t make a right.

This aside, there are also important differences between bishops and parish priests. These have to do with apostolic succession, originating with the first Bishops of the Church, the twelve apostles, passing down to the bishops they consecrated, then on to those consecrated by them and so forth, to the present day.

Hence, while ordination of women weakens the already disputable claim Anglicanism lays to being an apostolic church, consecration of women bishops would demolish it. This would effectively turn the C of E into another Protestant sect, one of dozens. Those who not only respect the Church as a social and political entity but also love it as a sacred institution would find it intolerable.

That the Supreme Governor of the Church is at this historical moment a woman is an undeniable fact, but one that doesn’t rate the importance Mr Utley attaches to it. Mostly symbolic anyway, this title refers to the complex interaction between the secular and sacred realms in the English constitution.

Its origin goes back to the regrettable break with Rome caused partly by Henry VIII’s libido. Mercifully, however, subsequent monarchs have had only a steadily attenuating influence on the Church, and no sacramental role too play. The whole issue is interesting and debatable, but it has little relevance to the problem at hand.

Mr Utley hails women priests’ ‘huge contribution to keeping the leaking hulk of the C of E afloat’, which changed his otherwise conservative mind on female ordination. I don’t know how closely Mr Utley follows church affairs, but those of his fellow conservatives who do would question the size of this contribution.

The more intelligent among them also tend to regard the very presence of women priests as the biggest leak, one caused by the Church succumbing yet again to faddish secular pressure. Does Mr Utley know many female priests using the KJB and the Prayer Book, whose prose he rates so highly? If not, this is further proof that female ordination is a negation of every conservative principle he holds dear, not to mention the first two millennia of ecclesiastical history.

In fact, Mr Utley himself kindly provides another proof of this by saying that the Synod vote contradicts ‘the views of most of the British public who… regard the vote’s outcome as a gratuitous and baffling insult to women.’ The fact that this argumentum ad populum can be plausibly put forth at all is sufficient to argue in favour of disestablishment, which is the only debate where it belongs.

And surely a man who describes himself as a reactionary Tory can’t possibly believe that the majority is always right? Surely an intelligent man can’t possibly think most Englishmen are sufficiently conversant with the theological, historical and philosophical aspects of the issue for their views to have much value?

Mr Utley clearly underestimates the effect comprehensive education has had on ‘the British public’. And he is mistaken if he thinks that the Church should emulate our politicians by replacing its mind and soul with focus groups. The Church isn’t yet a purely political setup, Mr Utley, though it’s undoubtedly moving that way.

The C of E is indeed the national, established Church, but it’s still run, or rather ought to be run, on principles different from those applied, say, to the British Arts Council or the Social Service. Its allegiance should be to God, scripture and church tradition – not to the latest PC fad shoved down the throat of our brainwashed masses.

Mr Utley is absolutely right when he points out that Christ first revealed his resurrection to a woman. I’d go even further and say that moreover a woman was vitally involved in the incarnation, even though an omnipotent God could have achieved the same end without her. That he chose not to emphasises the unique status of women in Christianity, which is equal, and in the case of the Virgin superior, to that of any man.

Men and women are equal before God – but it’s a logical solecism to aver that ‘equal’ means ‘the same’. They both serve God, but they must continue to serve him in different ways. Christ himself communicated this nuance by first revealing his resurrected self to Mary Magdalene but then never consecrating her as an apostle. The logical inference from this was accepted as, well, Gospel by every believer for two thousand years.

Mr Utley respects the Church. That’s why he ought to refrain from repeating the facile arguments of those who hate it. He can do better than that.

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