Lambeth Conference: God help the church

The row over gay bishops threatens to tear apart the Anglican Communion. It's not all about sex, explains Cole Moreton. But why should the rest of us care?
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So, there's this group of men from all over the world, and they're having a fortnight away together. They like to wear long, flowing robes and are very fond of the colour purple. Some have ostentatious rings, others go for flamboyant hats or blingy crosses on long chains. Right now, they are staying on a university campus, living in halls like the old days. What's on their minds? Sex. Particularly gay sex. They are obsessed with homosexual intercourse. They think about it all the time, and the rows they have over it are tearing them apart. But only one of these men, at least in public, is gay. And guess what? He is the only member of their club who has not been invited to this great big house party. Sometimes the Lambeth Conference does look very queer indeed. So much attention has been given to this gathering of bishops, but what is really going on? Is it really a huge moment in the life of the Anglican church, part of the biggest change in English religious life since the Reformation? Or is it just a series of incomprehensible hissy fits? And why should unbelievers care, anyway? In the immortal words of Cilla Black's camp classic...

What's It All About, Alfie?

The 650 bishops who are there represent 80 million Anglicans. The Lambeth Conference happens only every 10 years. Which part of Lambeth is it in? Er, the part that is Kent. Canterbury, actually, where they are talking and praying together for the next fortnight and not falling out. Definitely not. They're all friends, honest. Except the ones who were too angry to come. About a quarter of those invited did not turn up. They had their own soirée instead, in Jerusalem last month. But why were they so angry?

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby

That's what it's all about. Not bonking bishops, vicars in knickers or curates with their hands on the organist, though. Tabloid tales of lusty clergy are a great English tradition, like saucy postcards. Only last year a real-life rector's wife told how her former husband wanted tarty sex every day – or, as the News of the World put it: "the Vicar of Dicker forced his wife to defrock like a stripper". Phew! There have been serious sex scandals too, of course, but none has brought down the largest Protestant church grouping in the world. That seems to have been left to the love between a 60-year-old Kentucky man and his partner.

Mad About The Boy

Gene loves Mark. They've been together for a long time now, and were when the Rt Rev Robinson became Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. He had to wear a bulletproof vest that day, because someone promised to express the love of God by shooting him. Millions of others decided the Episcopal Church had departed from the "traditional" view of the Bible that homosexuality is a sin. If it did not repent, they could no longer bear to be in the same worldwide family of believers. Liberals asked who the traditionalists were to impose their interpretation of the Word. Others prayed hard and wished it wasn't happening – including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the thoughtful, fretful Rowan Williams, who really didn't want to be the man who let the Anglican Communion destroy itself.

Tainted Love

The Communion is a loose network of churches that share beliefs and practices with the CofE. The Archbishop is often seen as its head, but he's not in charge, like the Pope. He has hardly any power at all. The Archbishop nominally calls the Lambeth Conference, named after his palace on the south bank of the Thames. The first one took place in 1867, amid talk of a split. Sounds familiar. But Dr Williams would not want to follow the example of the man who started the whole shouting match, Archbishop Charles Longley. A year later he was dead.

I'm Coming Out

The 200 bishops who stayed away last month plan to start their own, alternative network of believers. Maybe. One day. If the Communion doesn't become more like them. That leaves the rest to talk about unity. This conference won't pass any resolutions as a peace-keeping gesture – like the decision to snub Gene Robinson, the first bishop in history not to get an invite. He's there anyway, speaking at fringe events. But does any of it matter at all?

Better the Devil You Know

Not to most churchgoers, admits Paul Handley, editor of the Church Times. But on a higher level it is "a huge bloody tragedy", he says. "The Anglican project was an attempt to demonstrate that you could run a church for grown-ups: you could hold people together in a joint venture of mutual respect, learning and humility. That has gone now, already." Instead, people are huddling together with those who are like them, and bitching about the rest. These new huddles will tempt those who want to leave the Church of England. What will that mean?

I Don't Feel Like Dancing

Things don't look good. Fewer than a million people go to CofE services on a Sunday now. Broke and short of priests, it can barely provide pastoral care in every parish – its main reason for claiming to be the national church. Other faiths are upset that so many bishops automatically get seats in the House of Lords, and that will change. The Queen's successor will not be crowned Defender of the Faith; Charles will swear to defend faiths of all kinds. Up to 1,300 clergy might leave if women are allowed to become bishops; a similar number could walk if the CofE accepts openly gay, non-celibate priests. Attendances will go on falling. That won't mean the end of Christianity here: there are many other kinds of church, some of which are huge and growing fast. And some have very strong views indeed. That's one reason for even unbelievers to care. For a long time, our state church was known for prizing moderation, unity, compromise and sensible behaviour. Take that away – either by one group taking over the CofE or it dying off completely – and some fear the empty space will be filled by extremism. The character of England will change (if it hasn't already). But there is another very big question to ask: who will look after the churches?

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

The church in England and the world could yet be reborn. Or the future could look like this. It's 2018, and the next Lambeth Conference is held in the student union bar, attended by a dozen bishops and a cleaner. The CofE is a busted flush: a property empire worth £5.7bn in 2008 has been decimated by recession. Dissident congregations fight over who owns their churches. Is it the Crown? Is it the local parish? The legal answers are horrendously complicated, but neither can afford to pay for the upkeep of 16,200 buildings. Roofs are falling in. The Church of England is too small and too poor to go on caring for these crumbling treasures, as its members have done so patiently and sacrificially for years. You may not care about the collapse of the CofE. You may rejoice in England throwing off its state religion. But in this vision of 2018, the loss of ancient churches that are jewels of our architecture and heritage will feel like a catastrophe. And looking back, the beginning of the end will have been the summer of 2008, when that bunch of bolshy bishops spilled out of the church disco to start up their own, singing: "I am what I am..."