At 3.30pm yesterday, five hours before the Church of England's General Synod was due to assemble amid the psychological wreckage of the Church's abortive attempt to appoint its first openly gay bishop, a group met in private in Room PL001 of York University to discuss their line at the five-day meeting.
Present were many of the key evangelicals on the Synod, who now make up more than half of the membership of the Church's parliament.
Journalists were barred. "It is an intimate forum," said its chairman, Professor Anthony Thiselton, "where people can express concerns before they are raised in the public arena."
Since the other two groups on the Synod - the liberals who constitute a third of the members, and the waning Anglo-Catholic faction who make up the rest - are a minority, it means that, in effect, key decisions on the future of the Church of England are being made behind closed doors. But then most of the serious debate will take place away from the York Synod floor.
The official agenda includes the first set of guidelines for the professional conduct of Church of England clergy, embryo research and relations with the Methodists. But dominating everything like the figure of Banquo's ghost will be the absent Canon Jeffrey John who "resigned" as bishop-designate of Reading this week after an almighty row.
As the delegates assembled yesterday there was no mistaking the backdrop of anger and outrage.
Liberals were furious at what they see as the manipulation by dark forces of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who pressed Dr John to go. "Rowan was the target," said Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark, "and he has suffered a grievous blow."
Evangelicals were seething at the "high-handed manner" of Dr Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, who nominated Dr John, and who had "not talked to us but lectured us".
There was indignation among the episcopacy. Liberal bishops were angry with their nine anti-gay fellows who had cooked up an open letter in secret during a House of Bishops meeting. Canterbury was said to be irritated with Oxford for mishandling the affair. Oxford was incandescent at Canterbury's "betrayal".
The laity and clergy were complaining that the bishops had been "trying to run too much themselves". And the gays were moaning that a better battleground should have been chosen on which to fight.
All this was in private. Publicly oil was being poured. Unity is not the same thing as unanimity, said one prominent evangelical, Elaine Storkey, on Radio 4's "Thought for the Day". Another, Canon Bob Baker, insisted: "I don't believe it's a mess we can't recover from ... The majority of evangelicals are determined to work with Rowan and be as co-operative as possible on this. We're not spoiling for a fight."
But there was one exception. Jonathan Bartley, a former member of the Church's Evangelical Council, claimed: "At all levels from the parish church councils to the episcopacy, the more conservative evangelicals are seeking to manoeuvre their own into key posts and vie for power and influence."
Meetings were dominated by one overarching theme: "How can more evangelicals be placed into strategic positions within the Church?"
En route to York the talk was of what the conservatives' next move might be. Some predict a witch-hunt against the handful of priests who have declared themselves gay. Others fear evangelicals may lay complaints against existing bishops known privately to be gay. More likely is a campaign to ensure that an anti-gay takes over from Tony Sadler, who is to retire soon as the Archbishop's appointments secretary. What is clear, others say, is that a key group of evangelicals has "a long-term strategy to drive gays out of the Church".
The bishops share the concern. "There's no doubt there's a very tight group working to push this agenda," said one bishop yesterday. "But evangelicals are more split than is often realised. Many are unhappy with the language and behaviour of the extremists. Some might even have supported Jeffrey John had Richard [Harries] not been so cavalier. The trouble is everything is so much trickier now."
Much is riding on the presidential address Dr Williams will deliver on Monday. "The fear is that Rowan hasn't got a strategy, and everyone else has," said another bishop.
"What he has to say is we made a mess of this and here's a blueprint for how the issue is going to be handled from here on," said a third bishop.
It will be a difficult weekend.
What they said at the Synod
Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark "[There is] something unhealthy within the House of Bishops, a culture of secrecy and mistrust, in which honest disagreement cannot bear the bright light of scrutiny. There is talk of a worldwide plot by an un-Anglican sectarian movement ... Moderate mainstream citizens are repelled by these hard-edged congregations."
Elaine Storkey "Real unity does not obliterate difference of opinion and require conformity. Nor does it allow one group to claim ownership of truth. Unity stems from shared faith, but also shared awareness of our own fallibility.''
Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden "We can expect to see the threat of withholding payments used with increasing frequency unless and until bishops and diocescan hierarchs do some proper listening ...''
Philip Giddings, Greyfriars, Reading Of the North American dioceses of New Hampshire and New Westminster - which have approved same-sex blessings and appointed an active gay as bishop: "In comparison with what is happening there, the controversy in the Oxford diocese has been a mere skirmish ... Those who marry the spirit of the age are destined for early bereavement."Reuse content