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Defending the bishops [updated]

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By Benjamin Guyer

In 2001, when Christopher Haigh reviewed Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Tudor Church Militant for the English Historical Review, he described some of MacCulloch’s conclusions as “unexamined and unexplained” and others as “selective, speculative, tendentious and agenda-ridden.”

The same can be said about MacCulloch’s recent column against the Anglican Covenant. He notes that 80 percent of the bishops have voted in favor of the Anglican Covenant, in contradistinction to approximately 50 percent of the laity. He then claims that this “suggests an episcopate that is seriously out of touch” with both the wider church and the wider nation. These are sharp words from a historian who has long claimed to be both an agnostic and an “observer” of Christianity. Is MacCulloch dispassionately accurate, or is he playing fast and loose with the facts in a prejudiced fashion?

Two points can be made, and both indicate that the bishops are quite far from being “out of touch.” First, the voting tallies do not indicate an episcopate divided over against the laity. Rather, a majority of bishops identify with one half of the laity while a minority of bishops identity with the other half of the laity. Does MacCulloch believe that the bishops, in order to be “in touch,” should be equally divided? If the pro-Covenant bishops are out of touch with that half of the laity that opposes the Covenant, then the anti-Covenant bishops are out of touch with the half of the laity that is pro-Covenant. MacCulloch’s argument cuts both ways and consequently turns back upon itself.

Second, two recent events show that as a whole, the pro-Covenant episcopal majority is really quite in touch with the current state of things. MacCulloch maintains that the Anglican Covenant only exists to “discipline Anglican churches in the United States and Canada” for their favorable stance towards same-sex marriage. Yet, as the Telegraph reported in early March, approximately 70 percent of the British public is opposed to the government changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. If the Anglican Covenant is really about homosexuality, and if the support for the Covenant indicates opposition to same-sex marriage as MacCulloch claims, then the 80 percent of bishops who support the Covenant are simply standing with the 70 percent of the wider public who oppose redefining marriage. Clearly the bishops are not out of touch.

Let us take a wider, international perspective. In a recent case concerning adoption by a same-sex partner, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) recently  “reiterated” that same-sex marriage is not currently recognized as a human right [PDF]. A 2004 ruling by the ECtHR explained that “national authorities were best placed to assess and respond to the needs of society in this field.” From this perspective, same-sex marriage is a matter of the law of nations, not natural law. So again, if the Covenant really is about the rejection of same-sex marriage by the Church, then those bishops who support the Covenant are simply in accord with current human rights legislation. Consequently, it is difficult to claim that the stance of the bishops violates any law, whether human, natural, or divine. What consensus, legal or ecclesiastical, would one draw upon? Yet again, the bishops are not out of touch.

MacCulloch’s arguments are weak at best. But there is something more going on here than poor reasoning, for MacCulloch is advancing an idiosyncratic argument in favor of populism. On the one hand, vox populi non vox Dei est (the voice of the people is not the voice of God). The bishops are not now, never have been, and never will be under any obligation simply to follow the laity. The Church of England is the whole ecclesiastical body. To borrow from St. Paul, the body is “made up of many parts” (1 Cor. 12:12). There is no theological reason why one ecclesiastical office should be collapsed into another. Curiously, and in an oversimplification bordering upon historical falsehood, MacCulloch asserts that once upon a time the British episcopal churches “wanted to monopolise every form of religious expression.” But by demanding that the bishops sacrifice their voice, it is MacCulloch and his supporters who desire such monopoly. MacCulloch’s anti-authoritarianism thinly veils his own longing for domination and control.

Since at least the British civil wars of the 1640s, marginal groups with revolutionary intentions have claimed that they alone speak for “the people.” But such totalizing declarations should be met with considerable skepticism. Claiming to speak for the people may be both an act of deception and an act of manipulation. Of course, the Anglican Covenant is about the Anglican Communion, not about sexuality. This is why sexuality is not discussed in the Covenant at all. Only a grand conspiracy theory can hold otherwise. Such theories may appeal to some of the now-aged children of the 1960s, but we live in the 21st century. And today MacCulloch’s writing has been shown — yet again — to be selective, speculative, tendentious and agenda-ridden.

Bibliographical Note

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Tudor Church Militant: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation (Allen Lane, 2001), was published in the United States as The Boy King: Edward VI and the Protestant Reformation (University of California Press, 2002). Christopher Haigh’s review may be found in English Historical Review, Vol. 116, No. 468 (Sept., 2001), pp. 903-05.

Update (March 29): The ECtHR case in question is Gas and Dubois v. France, which does not concern same-sex marriage as such but the issue of adoption by a same-sex partner. The court ruled that Ms. Gas does not have the right to adopt the child of Ms. Dubois. The decision of the Court was justified with reference to Schalk and Kopf v. Austria, a 2004 case which ruled, in part, that European human rights law does not “impose an obligation on States to grant same-sex couples access to marriage.” I thank Simon Sarmiento of Thinking Anglicans for correcting my earlier understanding of Gas and Dubois v. France.

Benjamin Guyer, a Ph.D. student in British history at the University of Kansas, is editor of The Beauty of Holiness: The Caroline Divines and Their Writings (Canterbury Press, 2012) and Pro Communione: Theological Essays on the Anglican Covenant (Pickwick, forthcoming).

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