Thought for the day: dispense with bishops

The Church is no longer a vital part of modern life - so why do we persist in consulting it? There were angels and archangels once, but they began to look green about the gills
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The Independent Online
This jumping out of bed in irritation, this urge to do anything to create a noise, whether by running a bath or a shower, or by grinding the coffee for much longer than necessary, this desperate attempt, in short, to drown out Thought for the Day - this is no way to begin the morning afresh. This is no manner in which to renew our acquaintance with consciousness.

I want a radio with a Thought-for-the-Day inhibitor, a radio that will turn down the volume automatically at the first mention of their god-slot, but which will monitor the silent broadcast and turn the volume up again as soon as the voice says, "That was Thought for the Day." I want a radio with a bishop-filter, a cardinal-canceller, a vicar's voice-vanisher, a radio programmed to replace these two minutes of tosh with some rare item from the repertoire of short piano pieces.

Other people are not like this, it seems. They want as much bishop-input as they can get. If they are crossing the road, they want a bishop on hand to say, "Yes, you may cross the road". If they are choosing a tie, they want a bishop to advise them: "Not the aubergine stripe, my child, not the aubergine stripe". And if they are falling in love, these people find it handy, as it were, to bring the bishop along to supervise. A bishop in the bedroom, sexual sanctification, a blessing for a boffing - that's what these people want.

It seems odd to be so insistent - odd, for instance, to find people pestering Cardinal Hume for his approval of same-sex sex. This is a man who barely approves of sex itself. Why should he be expected to endorse some sophisticated variant of a thing he doesn't begin to understand?

But the pestering has its effect and in the end Cardinal Hume decides to clarify a few points. He explains that the Church approves of love. This is promising. He explains that the experience of love in this world is a foretaste of our union with God in the next. This is gibberish, but we let it pass.

He further explains that, given its high opinion of love, the Church could hardly be expected to disapprove of a bloke loving a bloke. This is intriguing, and perhaps even rather fresh. But then Cardinal Hume says that the only thing the Church cannot be expected to approve of is a bloke loving a bloke and doing something about it. This takes us back to square one. The Church disapproves of same-sex sex, and that's that.

Oh no, people have said, what the Cardinal explained represented a significant advance, because it acknowledged the matter of sexual orientation. There is nothing wrong with the orientation. What's wrong is simply the realisation of the desires the orientation gives you. The argument, on this reading, is half won.

But it is clear that the argument is not half won at all. Cardinal Hume is merely trying to find the least offensive way of saying the thing that some people will find offensive: that the Church has not changed its mind and doesn't intend to, either.

The next thing that happens is rather charming. An aged, twinkling-eyed fruit, the former Anglican Bishop of the New Hebrides, tells us that, at the age of 50, he had a Significant Experience, and that his confessor thought this a good thing, since it gave him someone to love.

Now this bishop, the Rt Rev Derek Rawcliffe, has a somewhat singular tale to tell, since he appears to have packed into the latter part of his life that which most people go through in the former. Fifty years of censoriousness are followed by a passionate affair with a bloke, then marriage and then, after his wife's death, a realisation that he is gay after all. And at the point when he makes this decision, in a masterly psychological manoeuvre, he decides to give up coin-collecting. So he gives up coins and takes up chaps.

The thing that makes one wonder about this guy is whether, as it were, his ark has yet come to rest on Ararat, or whether there are further developments to be expected. If it was coins yesterday and chaps today, might it not be stamps tomorrow? And chorus girls to follow?

Imagining the whole thing from the point of view of the Archbishop of Canterbury, we can see what a nightmare the issue of gay clergy is going to be, this "murky question" as he described it the other day. Who knows how many cases there are, waiting in the wings? Who knows what stories the New Hebrides could tell, should it choose to?

But the chief problem for the clergy is that they have nothing to contribute to the discussion on homosexuality, unless it is the reiteration of ancient taboos. The Church has not taken any initiative on any sexual debate. It has merely tagged along for fear of being left out entirely.

This is the opposite of what one would mean by the term spiritual leadership. What makes the bishops so unhappy, and what makes them such a pain to listen to, is this underlying knowledge that their role has long since evaporated. Bishops are a kind of prince of the church. Their role sits well with the institutions of feudalism, badly in a democracy, badly in modern life.

The unhappiness of the bishops is rather like the unhappiness of Prince Charles, who would like to retain a meaning for the word prince, a meaning for the institution of monarchy - not a meaning obnoxious to democracy, of course, but a real meaning. The Prince wants to be real, but reality eludes him.

And these bishops and archbishops know at heart that they belong to a hierarchy of which large chunks have rotted away and dropped off. Once, in Christianity, there was a truly awesome hierarchy, with cherubim and seraphim and thrones, dominions and powers. There were angels and archangels once, but then they began to look a little green around the gills, just as these bishops and archbishops are turning a little queasy.

We could put them, not out of their misery but out of a great significant part of their misery, by laying off the pretence that they are a vital part of modern life. We could stop ringing them up for their opinions. We could tell them that they are no longer expected to attend the House of Lords. We could give up the affectation of defence.

And my prediction is that they would find all this a relief, just as the Bishop of the New Hebrides, later Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway, appears to have found his retirement a relief. A relief to be relieved of the duty to hand out inappropriate erotic advice, and to concentrate on his own erotic adventures instead.