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The death of Tory Anglicanism

Issues like gay marriage and women bishops show how distant the Conservatives are from their Christian roots

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

This week the General Synod edged one step closer towards permitting the ordination of female bishops. The final outcome is likely to be some kind of compromise to appease traditionalists similar to that in 1992 when the ordination of female priests was passed. But unlike that occasion, one crucial voice will not be heard nor probably venture an opinion — the Conservative party, which has distanced itself from ecclesiastical affairs over the past 20 years.

This was not the case back in 1992 when a band of Conservative MPs joined Anglican traditionalists in opposing female ordination. Enoch Powell considered it a ‘blasphemous pantomime’, Ann Widdecombe spoke of her ‘utter grief and anger’, while John Gummer judged that it undermined the ‘whole basis of the Elizabethan settlement’. In the end, many followed clergy and laity out of the Church of England to Rome.

No such protest is likely to greet a parliamentary measure on female bishops. The Conservative party, once the defender of Anglican interests, now looks upon the General Synod with bemusement or worse, uninterest. This distancing from the church reflects the party’s distancing from its Christian roots and, indeed, its secularisation.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon. It may have been a long time since the church could be called the ‘Tory party at prayer’ but it was not that long ago — the 1980s in fact — when Conservatives still perceived themselves to be the ‘Church party’. These were the days when MPs were elected on to the Synod, parliamentary ecclesiastical debates were well attended, and when Anglicanism and Toryism were considered to be complementary and intertwining allegiances.

In the 19th century, the party had acted as protector of the established church. In the late 20th century, Conservatives saw their role slightly differently, protecting the church against itself: defending the ‘ordinary man in the pew’ against the ecclesiastical  leadership and its concessions to secular humanism, permissiveness and left-wing politics.


During the 1980s, Conservative Anglicans in Parliament worked with traditionalists in the Synod to reject church measures on revisions of the 1662 Prayer Book, the appointment of bishops and the ordination of divorced clergy. Unsurprisingly, the bishops did not welcome this intrusion into church affairs, although many in the pews did. The church was in the throes of a civil war between its liberal leadership and its more traditional laity: ‘Guardian readers preaching to Telegraph readers’, as one vicar put it. Meanwhile, the Conservatives played up their moral credentials. The party that passed Clause 28 positioned itself favourably against the ‘permissive members’ on the Labour benches and the ‘woolly liberal’ leaders of the church.

It was the church’s acceptance of female priests that proved a step too far for many Anglicans. Much like their 19th-century forebears in the Oxford Movement, they too turned to the Tiber, and so the historic strand of Anglican Toryism died with them. Conversion was not an easy decision. It involved a complete revision of their historical and political consciousness. ‘I feel rather like a man standing among packing cases and looking, for the last time, at the bare boards of his old home,’ lamented Charles Moore.

In the divorce between Conservatism and Anglicanism, the blame was put on the church. But the truth was that the party had changed too. Even in the 1980s, Anglican Conservatives were a dying breed. The new generation of Conservative MPs were more libertarian. Future Tory MPs would be sourced from a much wider pool both socially and religiously.

True, the Tory party today is not completely secular. While the High Anglican contingent may have dwindled (or converted to Catholicism), there are still prominent Conservative evangelicals. But they tend to hold a more individualistic and moralistic faith and care little for goings-on in the Synod.

Paradoxically, though, the Conservative party has become more secular at a time when religion has become an increasingly prominent issue. But faith is now spoken of in terms of the rights of the religious individual rather than the privileges of the established church.

While the Tory leadership may still sometime say that Britain is a Christian country and send out copies of the King James Bible to schools, there is little sense of a religious underpinning to current Tory thinking. If David Cameron has sought to hark back to a pre-Thatcherite tradition of Tory paternalism, he has done so without reference to its Anglican roots. Indeed, the confusion surrounding his ‘Big Society’ agenda may in part be down to its secular articulation (especially odd given that faith groups are expected to do so much of the work).

Until recently, this secularisation had gone unnoticed, concealed under the broader process of Cameron’s modernisation of the party, but the pushing through of gay marriage has changed all that. If the debate reveals anything, it is that the tables have turned; the Conservative party appears to have out-liberalised the Church of England. Cameron’s argument that gay marriage is an inherently Conservative idea is a legitimate one (which certainly reflects popular opinion, including Christian) but he has found it difficult to sell to those ‘swivel-eyed loons’, the Tory rank and file. They feel at odds with the party leadership in a way that many once felt at odds with the bishops. It is no wonder that many are now converting to Ukip.

Gay marriage may be seen by some as representative of the divorce of the Tory party from its Christian principles but, more importantly, it suggests that the gulf between its leadership and the grass roots may be religious as much as political. Let it not be forgotten that most dyed-in-the-wool Tories are still predominantly Anglican worshippers from which their traditionalist line on morality stems.

The party’s promotion of gay marriage and its apathy on female bishops are indicative of how much the parliamentary party has changed. This reflects a broader secularising trend across all parties and voters, but there is little doubt that the Conservatives have made the biggest leap in recent times. Conservative historian Maurice Cowling once judged that if the party renounced Christianity, Toryism would be left standing on only one of its historical legs.

When the measure for female bishops finally reaches Parliament, it will be regarded as a sign of progress, but it will also represent the final nail in the coffin for the historic marriage between Anglicanism and Toryism.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Liza Filby is a lecturer in modern British history at King’s College London.

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Show comments
  • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

    Another article where the author is annoyed that conservatives are moving on with the times and stuffing a book about illiterate herdsmen from the bronze age. Religion is dead mate and no amount of crying and moaning is going to make any modern society believe in this nonsense again.

    • Libertus

      And you, alas, are spiritually dead. That is the ultimate death.

      • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

        I feel sorry for you, really I do. You are an adult who still has a boogyman man living underneath your bed.

        • Toby Esterházy

          And what has liberal and permissive Godlessness done, but to bring in millions of Moroccans, Algerians, Turks and Kurds into Germany and Austria?

          • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

            Yeah I agree with you Estharhazy. You know what else we’ve allowed in? Too many poor homeless Hungarians that are now sleeping on any park bench from the1st district to the 23rd……. Do you mind telling your right wing extremist government which I’m sure you worship like a god to come pick up its homeless citizens and stop neglecting it’s duty to take care of its own? Our homeless shelters in Austria are reaching its capacity.

          • Toby Esterházy

            See https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Tinker_Tailor_Soldier_Spy .

            Hungary was ruled by Godless communist tyrants also, no?

          • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

            and now it’s ruled by jobbik a predominantly Catholic party that insists on stifling press freedom, is big on anti semitism and is in love with the facist ideology (which is what one would expect anyways from hard core traditional catholics)…………so if you have a point to make, make it and stop clowning about. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jobbik – You see I too can copy and paste links from wikipedia

          • Toby Esterházy

            Which is what we dearly need also in England.

          • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

            Ha I knew I’d get you to admit you’re a fan of fascism and this time you won’t be able to use the famous ‘typical of liberals to call people who don’t agree with them fascists’ line because I’m not liberal and you were stupid it enough to admit it……..as a christian too proving my point that your faith is revolting and a threat.

          • Toby Esterházy

            At least Mussolini got the trains run on time, eh?

          • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

            trains running on time? His biggest achievement was hanging from a lamp post for a bit.

          • Toby Esterházy

            And Italy went downhill ever since. I am a conservative Protestant, so I am no friend of the Pope and his Popish Church of Rome either, but in my book, the Communists should be shot first, and all those Communists should be lined up against the wall and be shot! They were the ones who let Italy be turned into a Paradise for Gypsy pickpockets!

          • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

            In my book you and and your fascists goons along with communists should be shot.

          • Toby Esterházy

            Let’s hope that our paths shall never cross, eh?

          • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

            I hope they do cross

        • Liberalism is Nonsense

          It’s even more amazing that you think anyone actually takes you seriously.

          Your ideology is fundamentally un-serious.

      • Liberalism is Nonsense

        Today’s liberalism/socialism/marxism is simply a counter-Christian religion. A very primitive one, for sure.

      • Captain Yossarian

        There is no such thing as “spiritually dead”. There is no such thing as spirits. Do you believe in the Easter Bunny, too?

    • GUBU

      Yes, why should we make time for this nonsense when our modern society has created so much new nonsense which we can believe in instead? Hurrah for progress!

    • DrCrackles

      Jurgen you write as though you are a big man, but I very much doubt there exists much behind your cliches.

      • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

        ?????? Was I supposed to be offended by that? You religious goody two shoes realy are rubbish at come backs.

        • Liberalism is Nonsense

          Certainly, the war against Christianity traces back some 2,000 years. From Judas, through Karl Marx and Lev Bronstein, to Gyorgy Schwartz and Hussein Obama. No question.

          • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

            again, what does this have to do with me? I’m I supposed to be impressed?

    • tolpuddle1

      Perhaps you should tell the Saudis that Allah is Dead ?

      • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

        don’t cry your heart out ok. I make it a mission of mine to mock islam too.

      • Liberalism is Nonsense

        If only.

        • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

          Ah I see another bleeding heart conservative who knows me better than me. Go on tell me how I don’ mock muslims.

    • PhillipGeorge(c)2013

      Jurgen – you are a Darwinian. “Death becomes her” was a Merryl Streep movie. No, you don’t get it. Not this side of the first cold day in hell.

      blah blah science. The only thing missing from your church is the mitre hat – all the other language equates. Be nice to the planet now.

      • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

        hahaha ooooooh you’ve really upset me. Lets talk in 20 years again when you can count Christians on one hand and then tell me that joke again. Trust me I enjoy watching organized religion die out. think of it as karma for the centuries of stupidity it has inflicted on the human race.

        • PhillipGeorge(c)2013

          good morning Jurgen. Ommmmmmm Darwin. Ommmmmmm Darwin. I am a scientist, I am rational Ommmmmm Darwin.
          Try disorganized high entropy chaotic religion then Jurgen. Or digitally model it and see what it evolves into.
          Love your work.

          • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

            yeaaaaah religious people are just rubbish at humour aren’t they?

          • PhillipGeorge(c)2013

            Allah hu akbar
            call a spade a utilitarian gardening implement then. I thought of it more as openly mocking the church of scientism.
            Of course you don’t understand that.
            Third party readers are the message recipients.

          • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

            And even then it still wasn’t funny

          • PhillipGeorge(c)2013

            mocking is rhetorical Jurgs, humour is another thing, so you’re accidentally half right with that last comment.

        • Micha_Elyi

          …the centuries of stupidity it (Christianity) has inflicted on the human race.
          –Jurgen Schwarzgruber

          Aww, you’re just mad because Jesus ascended into heaven without you. Or that He didn’t wave His hand and make everyone instantly perfect. Still cursing the gift of free will He gave you, eh?

          Within the first 1000 years of Christendom’s existence, the Christians (Catholic ones, mostly) had established schools and colleges, invented the university, developed and described the scientific method, preserved the written heritage of the Western world, invented the style of writing now adopted by speakers of all the Romance and Germanic tongues, and invented the Cyrillic alphabet for the Slavic peoples so they could read and write too. Christians developed the basics of geology, genetics, astronomy, meteorology, chemistry and physics.

          What has atheism and paganism accomplished in the 50,000 years of their existence to match that? Even in the last 100 years atheists have been the top champions of “stupidity”; when a Catholic priest (the “third man” Eddington couldn’t recall, perhaps?) developed the fundamental theory modern cosmology, atheists dubbed “The Big Bang” in order to mock it and refused to give up the pagan idea that the universe had always existed and had no beginning.

          Like science? Thank a Christian.

          • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

            Wow I don’t even know where to begin with this stupidity. ‘Still cursing the free will He gave us’. So in your books you have free will because the big boss says so? What an idiot. Well believe that to along with all your nonsense. In a good 20 years or so you’ll probably be the only one in your village square with the megaphone and a cup of pencils and everyone will pass by feeling sorry for you and believe me that day will come

        • Nele Schindler

          Talking about ‘karma’ makes you look like a nitwit. Are you from Vienna by any chance?

          • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

            Maybe……….are you a moron by any chance?

  • Libertus

    Consecration.

    • Iain Hill

      Try to keep it quiet!

    • mikewaller

      Whatever has UKIP got to do with Christianity? The problem for the Tories and the Anglican church is that most young people seem to have ceased to see the relevance of either. And I can’t see much point in other Christian churches crowing as most of them are going to go the same way.

      The real issue is whether a society in which the majority move away from organised religion is capable of holding the line against highly doctrinaire believers of other faiths who, like the Christians of earlier centuries, are so convinced that they are on to the real thing, they grant themselves the right to impose their beliefs on non-believers by any means that come to hand. If and when that push comes to shove, refusing to ally with those whose type of sexuality makes you uncomfortable will be a very much less than smart idea.

    • Captain Yossarian

      The irony of following a Middle Eastern religion while voting UKIP.

  • dalai guevara

    What happens when the foundations for one’s existence are pulled away from under one’s feet? Quick, quickly, let’s change to gloss over the fact that Henry VIII was a jaffa. Perhaps no one will notice.
    Too late, chaps. It’s over.
    Laters,
    Dalai G

  • la Catholic state

    Tories are the party of rich pagans.

    • David Lindsay

      While the General Synod was debating women bishops, David Cameron promised Sir Tony Baldry, on the floor of the House of Commons, that the rules would be changed so as to fast-track them into the House of Lords.

      Was that because either the Prime Minister of his questioner looked forward to the robustly orthodox critique of everything from same-sex marriage to the Bedroom Tax?

      Or was it because they both looked forward to a reversion to the well-meaning but ineffective liberal outrage of the 1980s, only half-diagnosing the symptoms of economic, social, cultural and political evils, while entirely unable to diagnose their causes, and while barely even thinking about what the treatments for either might be?

      Some provinces of the Anglican Communion, plus a few American and Australian dioceses, were founded by Evangelicals. In various ways, it still shows.

      Some provinces of the Anglican Communion, plus a few American and Australian dioceses, were founded by Anglo-Catholics. In various ways, it still shows.

      But the American Episcopalians were founded as an expression of the same eighteenth-century Rationalism that produced the American Republic. In various ways, it still shows.

      And the Church of England was founded by Henry VIII. In various ways, it still shows.

      A great, if idiosyncratic, Anglican liberal once said that whoever
      married the Spirit of the Age would be a widow in the next. But the
      Church of England has always been married to the widow next door, she’s
      been married seven times before.

  • Iain Hill

    Keep a copy of this. Some day you’ll re-read it and laugh at its irrelevance to all of the main problems facing us. Can anyone seriously think that women can make a greater hash of the Anglican church than men have done over centuries?

    • mikewaller

      My own feeling is that given the nature of modern ministry, what really frightens the pants of the men is that women in general do a rather better job.

      Regarding the question of why many women side with the men who object even to the extent of rushing of to Rome, Rory Sutherland’s piece on page 93 is well worth reading, particularly the following quote from Haidt: “The rational brain thinks it’s the Oval Office when it’s really the press office”. Put another way it is a post hoc rationaliser of decisions and motivations that are made and embedded elsewhere. So forget the self deluding nonsense about women priests not being God’s will; for women, it is just basic stuff about womanly rivalry and loss of access to males required by role to display tenderness, interest and platonic love and sometimes, by at atavistic urge, more.

  • Archie Mohan

    It’s a shame that there is a fall in Anglican Tory – it should be better represented like other Tory groups. I’m a Christian floating between Anglicanism and Evangelicalism, but I wouldn’t want the Party to be an Anglican voicebox!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Organised religion, dodo.
    Make a sentence using the above.

    • Micha_Elyi

      I’ll accept your challenge, Jackthesmilingblack:

      I’m not a member of any organized religion, dodo.
      (I’m a Catholic.)

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    You`re with a bunch of sky pilots, about to eat when one says. “Do you mind if we pray?”
    First thought is, “Knock yourselves out”, but on second thoughts you say, “Sure, I`ll join you.” So you mumble away finishing with the audible phrase, “…100 million dollars”.

  • Toby Esterházy

    The Church of England must abolish the restrictions on divorce, unconditionally for the laity, and conditionally for the prelacy and the clergy. Indissolubility of marriage and all the rest of it are all an erroneous theology, based upon centuries of pedantic reading from Roman, Byzantine and Alexandrian misinterpretations, out of its rightful Pharisaical context, of Matthew 5:32, in the original Koiné Greek, from the verbal Aramaic. It is no more correct than to require men amongst the faithful to undergo circumcision alongside the rite of baptism.

  • While the cultural/political divorce the article describes may well be occurring, I’m a bit confused as to how the vote concerning women bishops proves this. The Author seems to be saying that the fact that women bishops won’t raise a fuss in Parliament indicates they have forsaken their Christian roots… and yet it was Synod which overwhelming passed the legislation to begin with. That strikes me as a rather strange presentation of the issue.

    The fact that the Conservatives have been the ones to push for gay marriage in place of civil unions is ironic, and it does indicate that the party is out front of the Church of England on this issue–so here, at least, there’s a solid point.

    All of that said, the article seems to assume that there is a single legitimate Christian perspective on these issues, and that Christian’s cannot come to support new positions.

    The central evidence of a break down is the same in England as it is elsewhere: a rise in the “who cares” response to the church.

  • rtj1211

    The question I’d really like the CoE to answer is why they believe in seeing gays as lesser beings.

    Did God make them so or was it bigoted christian sheep??

    • Jurgen Schwarzgruber

      Don’t bother, they themselves don’t know the answer

    • la Catholic state

      Christians don’t see gays as lesser beings…but see gay acts as sinful.
      In fact….pagans seem to think gays are superior beings.

  • Liberalism is Nonsense

    The purpose of marriage is to beget, protect, and raise children.

    The crime against nature of homosexual sodomy has absolutely nothing to do begetting, protecting, and raising children.

    • mikewaller

      Can’t help thinking that Christ, who by most accounts was a very decent sort, would respond that there is not particular harm in letting marriage simply be a celebration of commitment. What, however, is really needed is a major beefing up of baptism, a ceremony which is unequivocally concerned with “protecting and raising children”. But, then, as I say he was a very decent guy.

    • Captain Yossarian

      Many people get married without the intent of having children. Lots of infertile people get married — lots of old people get married.

      Similarly, plenty of people raise children without being married. So your definition is essentially a fantasy. This “purpose” only exists in your head.

      And sodomy is not a synonym for homosexuality. Sodomy is something that can (and does) happen with heterosexual couples. You obviously failed GCSE Biology if you thought otherwise.

      As for a “crime against nature” – erm, evidence please? Is Mother Nature filing a crime report with the local police station because two guys went on a date?

  • mnemos

    You could actually look at the drift in a different way… as Anglicanism has drifted to being a purely secular feel-good organization, it has drifted away from the more religious Tories, and the less religious Tories no longer have to play along.

  • Surely you mean the Protestant ethic?

  • David Webb

    What about the Queen’s Coronation Oath:

    Archbishop. Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?

    Queen. All this I promise to do.

    She is an oathbreaker. What right does she have to the throne? Her family were only drafted in in 1714 on the basis of a promise to keep the Coronation Oath…

    • Micha_Elyi

      One cannot “maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel” and simultaneously “maintain in the United Kingdom the
      Protestant Reformed Religion” because the latter contradicts the former. So, at best, the Coronation Oath operationally means no more than that the Sovereign agrees to go along with whatever a vote of Parliament says on any matter of religion in the United Kingdom.

      Well, kiddos, that’s what you get when you let a King – specifically, Henry VIII – place State authority over the Church.

  • Terry Field

    The C of E is, essentially, a bastard creation of the acolytes of a psychopath.

    It has a variable spiritual element, and a belief in a deity that waxes and wanes according to pragmatic need. It talks about ‘love’, spiritualitly’ and such slush in terms more familiar to an animist or to a forest shamen.

    The church regards the social context of the moment as the vital prequsite for thinking about any matter of human life, and has miraculously moved to an acceptance of modern science not because it ‘believes’ it to be true, but because it is expedient to do so. The same with ‘gays’ – it knows well the texts, but no matter, it will bend as required.

    Belief = pragmatic success.

    I often ask anglican vicars if they consider that there is God, and if we are possessed of an immortal soul that can be united with the aforementioned deity by the action of belief and its consequent faith.

    They look at me as though I am insane – a rural idiot not ‘up to speed’ with advanced latte thinking.

    The C of E is, in fact, a mere decorated element of the Home Office, with ‘heritage’ office accommodation and conference centres.

    The C of E top executives will tell you what you wish to hear – and will reflect the mush that industrial university education has pumped out to a population of ‘graduates’ who have done ‘Existence 101’ and think they ‘have the answers’.

    The Chief Executive is an oil man – a great choice – I listened to his ‘speech’ (address?) when he became the chief banana, and it was a string of p.c. safe assertions and Blair-like bland blandishments that shouted ‘I have no real convictions AT ALL’.
    Inspirational stuff for people who prefer chicken nuggets to roast sucking pig.And that of course, is nearly everyone who lives in the Dark Island, in these blandest of bland times.

    They have dumped Tory life as a vote loser and a pew emptier.
    It may well be, but there is nothing better for the C of E out there, now or in the future.

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