Poor Geoff Hoon. As ministerial careers move into terminal decline, there often comes a moment when the hapless figure awaiting dismissal cannot seem to get anything right; everything he says is twisted against him. Thus matters stand with Mr Hoon, who is now being anathematised by the Bench of Bishops.
On 10 October there is to be a service in St Paul's Cathedral to commemorate the end of the Iraq war. Mr Hoon said that it would "give thanks for freeing Iraq [from] tyranny''. One might have thought that this was an uncontroversial, even commonplace, remark. If the Iraqi people had not been freed from tyranny there would be nothing to give thanks for, and the service would not have been organised.
This simple logic eluded Mr Hoon's clerical opponents. He was denounced for triumphalism. Though it sometimes seems as if the only history which interests today's bishops is the bedroom chronicles of Sodom and Gomorrah, it may be assumed that a few of his clerical accusers know something about classical Rome. They will be aware that triumphs were held in honour of victorious consuls and emperors. Barbarian spectacles, replete with chained captives doomed to slavery or death, such celebrations bear no relation to any Christian service.
Mr Hoon wanted to hold a dignified thanksgiving, not a Roman triumph. It is inconceivable that any such service could ever have been deemed triumphalist, and it would have been more honest of Mr Hoon's critics to admit that they had no wish to commemorate a war which they opposed, or to give thanks for the overthrow of a tyranny which they would have been content to preserve.
That said, the Government is partly to blame for stoking up the self-confidence of its clerical adversaries. After the first Gulf war, there was a victory parade. This time, after a greater victory in a harder campaign, there will not be a parade. That was an appeasing concession. Ministers wanted to avoid protests from the Labour left, even though a victory parade would have given a much-needed boost to recruitment. A government that will not allow its servicemen to celebrate their victory, and which is almost behaving as if it was ashamed of them, ought to be ashamed of itself. It is the sort of government which would lie to the British people about its reasons for going to war.
Not that the truth would have helped it much, at least in its dealings with senior figures in the Church of England. One can see the bishops' problem; Christianity sits uneasily with war. Yet from at least the time of St Augustine, great Christian scholars sought to reclaim war from evil and to establish principles which would define a just war. The cause had to be good, with right upheld and wrongs suppressed. The force used, and the casualties inflicted, had to be proportionate to the likely benefits. Care should be taken not to inflict excessive suffering upon a defeated adversary. If such rules were observed - as they were in Iraq - the war could be legitimate. It is hard to believe that Augustine, Aquinas or Grotius would have had any complaints about the allied campaign in Iraq (though it is also true that they would probably have lowered their thresholds for a war against pagans).
So there would have been respectable theological precedents to enable today's bishops to support the Iraq war and to lend encouragement to a restrained and solemn celebration, in which the sword would approach the altar with humility while the good soldier was blessed; in which courage would be honoured, but all to the greater glory of God. After Alamein, Churchill ordered church bells to be rung, which they were, all across the nation. If today's clergy had been in office, half of the bells would have remained silent, while the largely empty pews were regaled with prim, priggish little admonitions about the dangers of triumphalism.
When Archbishop Williams was appointed to Canterbury, fears were expressed that he would be an uncritical supporter of New Labour. These were clearly unfounded. The Archbishop, and many of those around him, are visceral old Labourites. In their book, the West is always wrong: the Americans, doubly so. It is utterly wrong of any British government to support a conservative Republican president in a campaign against an Arab country. There is no high Christian principle involved in any of this; it is merely an instinctive reaction. It is also one which renders the Archbishop unworthy to lead a national church.
He may not wish to do so. Before Dr Williams was enthroned, he commissioned studies as to the consequences of disestablishment and gave the impression of being sympathetic to the separation of Church and State. Yet this is dangerous territory for the Church. If the studies were intellectually rigorous, they ought to have informed him that without the State, the Church of England would not exist.
This necessary symbiosis between Church and State goes back to the Church's origins. Brendan Behan wrote a history of the origins of the Church of England which were so succinct that it only took him one sentence: "The Church of England was founded on the bollocks of Henry VIII.'' Not that Henry was ever a coherent Anglican; that had to wait until his daughter Elizabeth. She found herself dealing with a largely Puritan hierarchy which wished to implement a much more Protestant form of worship. But she insisted that even if Anglicanism could no longer be Roman Catholic, it would remain Catholic.
That was the Elizabethan settlement, but it settled little; it has been under attack for 400 years. Puritans in the 17th century, Deists and Methodists in the 18th; Roman Catholics in the 19th, agnostics in the 20th, militant homosexuals in the 21st; old Henry's restless appendages were almost as disruptive for future Archbishops of Canterbury as they were for his wives.
Better an unstable foundation than none at all. The Church of England may have evolved out of a compromise between Catholicism and Calvinism, but the middle way which it took seemed to chime as easily with the English character as the chime of its bells delights the English ear. "My kingdom is not of this world''; there are those who would argue that a church which follows such a master should never be an establishment beholden to the State. Yet the Church of England's established position not only helped to civilise the State. It also helped the Church to hold together, while giving comfort, solace and pleasure to millions of adherents down the ages. In theological terms, establishment may be a dubious concept. In a fallen world, it has worked.
But it is now under threat. If matters drift on as they are, there would be no necessity for a formal break. The Church of England would cease to be the national church, not through disestablishment but through moral implosion. It would have demonstrated itself as unworthy to play any serious role in our national life, just as it is now proving its unworthiness to bless our servicemen.Reuse content