Earlier this week the Guardian reported that the Leader of the House of Commons, the Conservative Penny Mordaunt, had written a letter to her local bishop, pressing for the Church of England to use the forthcoming General Synod to change its stand on gay marriage. She pointed out that the Church’s continued failure to support gay marriage is at odds both with the civil law of the land and with the acceptance of such unions by both the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) and the Episcopal Church of Scotland. In addition, she argued that the Church’s position continues to cause “pain and trauma” to many LGBTQ+ people and makes them feel like second-class citizens.
The letter, and the responses of other MPs outlined in the Guardian’s report, offer many interesting insights into contemporary British (and indeed Western) culture. “Trauma,” for example, has to be one of the words most subject to grade inflation over the last decade. It used to refer to serious bodily injury. Now it seems to operate as an emotive catch-all for anything that makes anyone feel somewhat uncomfortable. If LGBTQ+ individuals are truly “traumatized” by the fact that their unions are not sanctified by an institution that was already socially and culturally irrelevant to most English people when I was at school in the 1980s, then the bar for trauma is, I fear, heading in a subterranean direction. Perhaps it is time to retire the T-word as a trivialized term and an insult to the truly traumatized.
Second, it raises the question of what exactly conservatism is today, as Mordaunt represents the Conservative Party. The Trump phenomenon indicated a bankruptcy of ideas in political discourse, thriving for a brief time in a world where the left was detached from the reality of most people’s concerns and a right that seemed to define itself simply in terms of reaction. But Trump is fading, as is the moment that gave the British people Brexit. What do conservatives have to offer for the future? Little more, it seems, than progressive pieties glossed with a traditionalist veneer. What exactly do they wish to conserve? Not much, if Mordaunt is representative (and as Leader of the House, she is scarcely a political outlier). The conservatism represented by Penny Mordaunt seems to have adopted the basic tenets of anti-conservatism.
Third, the Church of England is the established church and therefore has to take account of the opinions of the political class. It has an important position within English law and life, even if its parish churches and cathedrals are irrelevant to most individuals. And that status means that there is an expectation that its values and practices will reflect those of society as a whole. Hence the letter of Penny Mordaunt, while no doubt outrageous to orthodox Anglicans, still makes sense. And on other issues—most recently the ordination of women—the Church has typically obliged by conforming itself to the social mores and expectations of wider English society.
In light of this, it came as something of a surprise that the Anglican bishops voted this week to stand firm on gay marriage. The result is somewhat qualified—the bishops also voted to permit blessings and prayers for same-sex civil partnerships and to issue a forthcoming apology about past sins against LGBTQ+ people. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, however, is apparently delighted:
“This response reflects the diversity of views in the Church of England on questions of sexuality, relationships and marriage. I rejoice in that diversity and I welcome this way of reflecting it in the life of our church. I hope it can offer a way for the Church of England, publicly and unequivocally, to say to all Christians and especially LGBTQI+ people, that you are welcome and a valued and precious part of the body of Christ.”
Or, to put it more concisely in the words of Neville Chamberlain, “Peace in our time.”
Read it all in First Things