Something rather sinister has happened in the wake of the General Synod’s vote not to proceed with the women bishops measure, and that is the call for Parliament to interfere. The Daily Telegraph has sensibly said that Parliament should “Leave the Church be” but this does not seem to be the position of David Cameron who urges the Church “to get with the programme”, without quite saying what programme he has in mind.
Moreover, on last night’s Question Time no less a person than Yvette Cooper seemed to think that unless the Anglicans sort this out, then Parliament will have to do so. The columnist Owen Jones was also on the programme and spoke about separation of Church and State, and that, given the Anglican bishops’ right to sit in the House of Lords, Parliament had a right to interfere with the running of the Church of England, specifically in the way it appoints its bishops. And behold, already people like Frank Field, a widely respected MP, who also happens to be an Anglican, are talking of parliamentary legislation.
Yet no one, not even the Conservative member of the Question Time panel, Iain Duncan Smith, seemed to grasp the essential point here: Parliament has no moral right to interfere with the internal workings of the Church of England, or any other ecclesial body for that matter, in matters of doctrine. The appointment of bishops and the changing of the supposed Apostolic Succession is surely a matter of doctrine.
Now, I fully accept Owen Jones’s point: Parliament must have a say in the appointment of its members. But this is not an argument for Parliament to say who should be able to be a bishop – it is an argument, and an overwhelming one, for bishops to leave the House of Lords. Membership of the Upper House compromises their religious role, which is something the Catholic Church has long recognised, forbidding, as it does, its clergy to sit in legislatures.
But what really worries me is the presumption that our secular government has a religious role to play, and the presumption that exemption from “equality legislation” is a privilege conferred on religious groups by government. Actually, it is not. In this country, and in every liberal democracy, it is the rights of conscience that are above all other rights – Parliament itself is subordinate to my conscience and should recognise that.
There is an amusing picture going round Facebook at present, of an English politician, the most high ranking of his day, who refused to get with the programme – Sir Thomas More. He paid the price. But it was a price worth paying. Erastianism, the doctrine that the state should control the Church, always was a heresy, and now is a heresy that has passed its sell-by date by several centuries. Its only adherents in the world seem to be people like Yvette Cooper, and of course the government of the People’s Republic of China, who refuse the Pope his right, which we believe to be given by God, to appoint bishops in his own Church. This behaviour by the People’s Republic is just one of the aspects of their unpleasant tyranny. British parliamentarians should beware going down the same path.
I never thought I would say this, but we all need to respect the integrity of the General Synod, and we all need to respect its decisions, carried out as they are in a transparent way according to rules that the Synod (and Parliament!) agreed on.