First Published in ‘Inside the Vatican’ January 2022.

“A moment sometimes comes when we suddenly see things entirely differently. Philosophers often call this ‘the moment of disclosure’; more popularly we talk about the moment that the penny drops.

One of those moments came for me when after a vote in the church of England’s General Synod, the progressive liberals refused to make any space for those who wanted to practice the faith as it had been received, my Bishop expostulated with despair as we left the assembly:

“That “he said “is the end of the 500-year ecumenical experiment that was Anglicanism.” I thought he was perhaps a bit overwrought, but as I thought it through I began to realise the force of his observation. 

What he meant was that in the civil war between puritans, anglo-catholics and progressives, the progressives have just landed a knockout blow that would reconfigure the church forever. 

The Church of England is a confusing entity. It looks like one church, but iut isn’t. 

From its inception it was a conceptual compromise. To put it at its simplest, the church inherited Catholic buildings and ecclesial structures but dressed and prayed as Protestants.

Over the years the pendulum of power swung backwards and forwards between puritans and sacramentalists, but in the 20th century, the church began to buckle before the assault of secular culture led first by Darwin, Durkheim Marx and Freud, and secondly crumpled under the assault of nineteenth century German theological revisionism.

This produced a few aberrational agnostic clergy, but the theological structure of the Church remained contained by the creeds and the Bible, even if no none knew quite how to read the Bible or how to believe in it.

But it was the feminism of the second half of the twentieth century that did more harm than Marx, Darwin or Freud.

A state Church is particularly vulnerable to cultural change. If the society is serves begins to reject Christian value or culture, it is faced with a dreadful dilemma.  Either it has to go along with the repudiation sprinkling putative blessing on the sub or anti-Christian direction as it goes, hoping that being nice, inclusive and charitable will divert its community from noticing that all Christian belief and practice is opposed to the direction and developments (such as abortion, sex outside marriage, homosexuality, divorce) or else it has to take a moral stand and call the society it serves to return to Christian values; in other words, to repent.

There have been moments when repentance was tried. 

Wesley called for it over personal sin and corporate disbelief in the eighteenth century; Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect called for it over slavery called for it in the nineteenth century; Bishop George Bell called for it over the carpet bombing of German cities and the slaughter of civilians in the twentieth century.

But the feminism of the second half of the twentieth century brought not only women priests, but acted as a trojan horse for a variety of secular utopian values; relativism, equality of outcome, the triumph of the subjective over the objective, the campaign to cleanse the womb of unwanted infants, a sense of grievance against the masculine that developed into a campaign against the patriarchy  and  toxic masculinity, a discomfort with the masculinity of both Jesus and the Father and a desire to recast the Holy Trinity as creator, redeemer and sustainer, stripped of God’s preferred pronoun.

And attractive in secular terms as many of these values were, they all undermined aspects of the integrity of revelation.

And so began a process that would develop into preferencing a spiritual agenda for fixings things on earth rather than carrying souls to heaven.

And so began a process that would develop into preferencing a spiritual agenda for fixings things on earth rather than carrying souls to heaven.

So both the Gaia of ecological apocalypticism and the prioritising of ant-racism began to become greater priorities than personal repentance and the rebirth of the soul.

There were a number of consequences of this. Not only does a Church that claims to be scarcely any different from other religions, or a Church that has given up or is ashamed of evangelism begin to fail to attract new members, but it sends off signals that there is nothing particularly special here. 

The two connected but distinctive movements of secularisation, that set out to change the apostolic DNA of the Church of England, were the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, and then the ratification of homosexual relationships and marriage.

Both the ordination of women and the affirmation of gay identities and relationships were prominent secular goals. But neither the feminism that lay behind the first, nor the disordered turmoil of human sexual attraction that lay behind the second, were consistent with what was found in Scripture or tradition. So either this was a new revelation that the church and world had been waiting for….. or it was something else.

a wide variety of Christians from bakers to nuns, were punished if they expressed reservations about the validity of the new order. 

The energy of feminism began to express itself in an ever louder antipathy to masculinity. The war of the sexes became more severe and aggressive. The promotion of greater sympathy and understanding for  homosexuality turned into a strident and aggressive threat to silence voices that questioned its legitimacy. Disorder became the new order, and a wide variety of Christians from bakers to nuns, were punished if they expressed reservations about the validity of the new order. 

Where was the Church of England in these culture wars?  Like so many Protestant groups, it was heavily invested in the values of progress and the personal, social and political ambitions for self- improvement. 

Two old heresies represented themselves to give a platform to this new thinking.

Arianism emerged as feminists complimented Jesus on his restricted but worthy acceptance of women, but castigated him for being a man of his time and blind to the  improvements that it took the twentieth and twenty first century to discover. This was not the Logos that stood on the threshold of the beginning of time and space as the Pauline cosmic Christ, but a historical figure limited by the particular culture he had grown up in.

Pelagianism laid the foundation for an unrealisable ambition to improve the lot of people and society by a renewed political and social energy by removing injustice and inequality.

As soon as women bishops were introduced into the Church of England the pace of affirming sexual diversity and the preoccupation with racism as the truly great and unforgivable sin, developed and deepened. Instead of relying on the Holy Spirit to provide vocations, a central committee set quotas of racial and social diversity that it expected to achieve by social planning and policy.

As the church moved shifted the weight of its energies from evangelism and the Bible to social justice and activism, the more traditional at either end of the puritan and catholic spectrum began to leave.

It was a vote in General Synod where both these constituencies asked to have their theological and spiritual integrities recognised and protected that caused my colleague that I referred to at the top of this article such dismay. Evangelicals and anglo-catholics had begged their fellow Anglicans to respect their beliefs and to opt out of having women priests and bishops imposed on them. The liberal majority refused them, and refused them with a jubilant satisfaction.  

As I left that particular Synod I had an experience which acted as an interpretative lens for so much of what was happening in the wider church.

I found myself standing and waiting at a bus stop on my way to the station. Next to me was there appeared a  well-known feminist activist priest. (She was soon become a bishop herself, and was distinctive for two things in particular:– a love and promotion of recreational nudism, and her discreet lesbian friend, with whom she shared her house.)

“We took revenge on you all”

I said something about what a terrible and bruising time we had had in Synod. “Well you know why we did what we did of course?” she almost spat back at me. “No, I don’t think I do” I replied. “We took revenge on you all. We punished you for every slight and disrespect any of you have ever shown to a woman.”

I was astonished, both by her vehemence and by what she had said. Without stopping to argue about her assumption of widespread misogyny, I replied; “but you have invoked a spirit of revenge. That is a spirit that is deeply opposed to the Holy Spirit. Have you any idea of the havoc that the invocation of such a spirit will wreak in the church?”  She looked at me blankly. We were talking two different languages, and living in two different worlds.  

So yes, the five-hundred year ecumenical experiment that had been the Church of England was over. The awkward and delicate and precarious balance between puritans, anglo-catholics and the devotees of the ‘spirit of the age’ or zeitgeist was over.

The power grab had been affective and the inter-nicene struggle has ended with the purge of the puritans and the Anglo-Catholics. The puritans had provided a vigorous and evangelistic congregationalism to the Anglican mix; and the sacramentalists had inject a degree of Catholic piety and spirituality, borrowed from the mother church,- a taste and an inclination for holiness and the Eucharist.

It was they who had brought both depth of prayer and the width of new blood by conversion.  

Stripped of both wings of the church, what was left was a shallow, politicised and de-energised centre, incapable of either spiritual renewal, repentance or conversion.

The puritans fled into the wider evangelical world, and the Anglo Catholics took a grateful refuge in the Ordinariate. Over ten percent of the Roman Catholic parish clergy are now ex-Anglicans.

The victory for the progressives look increasingly pyric. The demographics look bad. Only 1.9% attend church. During the ten years from 2009-2019, attendance fell by between 15% and 20% Baptisms weddings and funerals fell by between 30-40%. 33% of the church are over 70.


As conservative Anglicans across the world try energetically to mobilise to fend off the wealth of American Episcopalians and face up to the fact that the congregations are aged in the  increasingly progressive C of E, the lack of anything equivalent to the Catholic Magisterium leaves them prey to schism and sectarian conflict.

The next serious crisis will occur when the Queen of England dies and a new coronation service has to be constructed with pressure from both the growing atheist and Muslim community to gain representation in the liturgy.

This will throw up the serious question of the exclusiveness of Christianity. What future the Church of England has as the Christian national church with only 1.9% of the population practicing will be determined through those conversations and their outcome.

Those many of us who have turned to the Catholic Church have done so because the cultural turbulence of our day has caused us to look at the claims of the Reformation afresh and found them wanting. On re-examination many of us re-read the fathers of the first five centuries and found there, not Luther, Calvin Zwingli or Erastian settlements, but instead we found the Catholic Church and the magisterium.

The promise of Jesus to Peter in Matthew 16.18 “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” rings with a new and urgent resonance. 

Dr Gavin Ashenden.

Comments are closed.