Over the weekend, I had occasion to turn to one of the great English historical classics, George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England, published in 1935. The following passage immediately caught my eye.
Liberalism in its Victorian plenitude had been an easy burden to bear, for it contained - and who could doubt it? - a various and valuable collection of gold, stocks, bibles, progressive thoughts, and decent inhibitions. It was solid and sensible and just a little mysterious; and though one could not exactly gambol with such a weight on one's shoulders, it permitted one to walk in a dignified manner and even to execute from time to time those eccentric little steps which are so necessary to the health of Englishmen . . . . But somehow or other, as the century turned, the burden of Liberalism grew more and more irksome; it began to give out a dismal, rattling sound; it was just as if some unfortunate miracle had been performed upon its contents, turning them into nothing more than bits of old iron fragments of intimate crockery, and other relics of a domestic past. What could the matter be? Liberalism was still embodied in a large political party; it enjoyed the support of philosophy and religion; it was intelligible, it was intelligent, and it was English. But it was also slow; and it so far transcended politics and economics as to impose itself upon behavior as well. For a nation which wanted to revive a sluggish blood by running very fast and in any direction, Liberalism was clearly an inconvenient burden. (pp.7-8)
No prizes for any analogy that might be drawn with the just-concluded Lambeth Conference. The reported optimism of the Archbishop of Canterbury at the conclusion of the conference embodies so much of the eerie twilight that characterized those last days of Edwardian complacency that ended with a gunshot at Sarajevo. Yet Dangerfield's thesis is pertinent to our present condition, for he held that the disintegration of Liberal England had preceded the outbreak of the First World War. "The question is," Lord Selborn told his fellow peers as they debated the Liberal-sponsored Parliament Act of 1911 which would strip them of their power indefinitely to veto legislation passed in the Commons, "shall we perish in the dark, slain by our own hand, or in the light, killed by our enemies?" (64)
A similar question hung over Lambeth 2008. Behind all the worthy language of building relationship and understanding cultural context, lurked the spectre of division and subdivision. Critics of the meeting predicted even before it began that it was so structured as to fail to express any view that might be regarded as definitive; so far, they seem to have been proved right.
To my mind, this is not something that can be blamed solely on the Archbishop of Canterbury. Unquestionably, the choice of an indaba structure was guaranteed to produce an outcome very different from that of Lambeth 1998, yet it was open to those conservatives who went to Lambeth to decline to participate in such activity with any bishop who refused to disavow the recent innovations in theological teaching and practice, as defined by the Windsor Report. With the boycott by most GAFCON participants, the only bishops to whom this would have applied would have been certain representatives of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. Yet - the statement from the Sudanese bishops apart - no such declaration was made.
By the same token, I now find it increasingly difficult to view Rowan Williams with quite the same level of equanimity as heretofore. While I agree that the covenant process cannot and should not be rushed and I accept as valid his argument that his powers beyond the Church of England are seriously constrained, if he believes that the traditionalist point of view is a valid expression of Anglicanism there are many ways in which his moral authority could have been exercised to provide temporary shelter for those in the minority, in liberal and conservative provinces, if necessary. In North America, the threat of recognition of the CANA and AMIA bishops would probably have been enough to elicit compliance with Dar-es-Salaam. Archbishop Rowan spoke at great length in his presidential addresses about the need to build trust. When things have reached the state that we currently endure, building trust involves giving the minority the minimum they feel they need, even if it seems excessive.
In 1911 the House of Lords died in the dark; within a decade their Liberal foes had faded from the scene and the Lords endured with a power of temporary veto. In 2008 it would appear that the Anglican Communion is resolved to die in the light.