THERE CAN be much less promising terrain for a conspiracy theorist than the Church of England. The institution could be used to explain and exemplify the cock-up theory of history even to the inmates of a paranoid ward in a mental hospital. Yet this week's episcopal activity does suggest that someone somewhere has had a Cunning Plan - designed to test the strength of evangelical opposition to divorce before the General Synod meets at the end of the month.
Three weeks ago, I approached one of my favourite bishops, a philosophy don who has himself married a divorced woman, and asked if he would write an article on the morality of divorce. The reply, transmitted with exquisite courtesy through an intermediary, boiled down to this: since he knew something about the subject, he had no intention of opening his mouth on it.
Instead, we have had the Bishops of Oxford and Bath and Wells saying that it was all right for Charles and Camilla not to marry, while the Bishop of Durham suggests that the couple should. These remarks are only seemingly contradictory. Taken together, they mark the closest the Church of England has come to declaring explicitly what has been obvious for years: that, when it comes to royal marriages, the Church will do exactly what the Royal Family wants. If the couple want to get married, a way will be found; and, if they don't, no one is going to denounce them for that, either.
This may be a reasonable and civilised position, but it is not a very dignified one. It may also be revised if there is an evangelical backlash at the Synod meeting. I think it unlikely that three bishops would say something memorable in the same week if they had not very carefully swept the ground for mines first; but there might be one or two they have missed.
There is still a residual sense that the Church of England ought to stand for the indissolubility of marriage and no amount of therapeutic gay-bashing while permitting divorces is going to entirely distract attention from this fact. If, as one diocesan bishop recently says, 25 per cent of his priests will remarry, and not just bless, divorced couples, it still means that three-quarters of them won't, and many are likely to hold very strong opinions on the subject.
There is further indignity in the Church's reaction to the Government's green paper on "The Family". As with the Royal Family, there is absolutely nothing that the Archbishop of Canterbury can do except find out what the more powerful party in the relationship wants and agree to it. But at least the marriage service for Charles and Camilla will mention God somewhere. In his reaction to the green paper, he didn't even manage that. This is significant for two reasons.
The first is that divine intervention is surely the missing term in any belief in marriages as a long-term stable factor. I'm not joking. The only society I can think of where really long-lasting marriages were the norm was Puritan New England; social historians may ascribe this to the horrendous penalties for adultery and similar profane factors, but evangelical archbishops must suppose that God had a hand in it too. If the British people are to enter the next millennium as the only society in which divorce carries few financial or moral penalties, and yet in which most marriages endure beyond the 15 years which was the norm last century when death did the job which divorce does now, they are going to need assistance unknown to social scientists.
Of course, there is a lot that social science can do; and the green paper suggests some of it. But - and this is the second bit of creeping disestablishment - it is all to be done by social workers. When Britain was an Anglican confessional state, these tasks were left to the parish. Now the health visitor and the midwife are to replace the vicar and the churchwardens.
Obviously this is a necessary development. The Church of England - or any other Christian organisation - is no longer trusted to come into people's lives and deliver authoritative guidance and useful help. Any government that suggested that any church had a role in social policy beyond pious exhortation would be considered mad.
But I can't help feeling that Christian leaders might comment on this fact, and even criticise the assumptions behind it. They shouldn't pretend that Christians are more moral, or better able to resist temptation than the rest of us. But they could say that Christianity is a more realistic way of looking at human nature than humanism, because it is less pious and therefore has something to say to a government which is attempting to be realistic about human frailty.
It's all enough to make one think there is a God, and that when He looks down on a church whose attitude to sexual morality is that powerless gays are bad and unbiblical - whereas powerful divorcees are unbiblical and, well, quite all right really - He has arranged for it to be taught a simple lesson: that those who bully and discard the outcasts in their own flock will find themselves bullied and discarded by the outside world in turn.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies