Saturday, 19 January 2013

Constitutional conundrums

I've just caught up with Slate magazine's American politics podcast from the end of December. As someone who spent large portions of his life in the US and still feels a sliver of American identity mixed in with the confusion of Britishnesses, I'm a shameless addict of the subject. But their end-of-year show steps back from political streetfighting to address 'conundrums' of all kinds, from the profound to the deeply frivolous.

One 'conundrum' this year was, if you could take one feature of American public life with you to a foreign country, which would it be? If you're interested in their answers, download the podcast. But it set me thinking: if that question was asked of British public life, how would we answer it?

There are cheap, obvious and perfectly true answers: the NHS, the BBC. Or there are cheap and realistic ones: we've already spent centuries exporting parliamentary government, slavery, common law, cholera and hypocrisy, so why stop now?

But I'll attempt something a little deeper: the power and depth of convention and consensus in public life. The US almost manages this, but not quite, because of its written constitution. Of course, in practice we all know that written constitutions are flimsy documents: plenty of countries routinely replace, rewrite, violate or simply ignore theirs. The American one has survived so long not because it's particularly brilliant (I mean, it's not at all bad, but there are also some definite oddities there), but because of an amazingly deep and universal political consensus that accepts it as legitimate. The US Constitution is powerful because political consensus and convention says that it is. And so the American system has deep reserves of stability, for all that it looks superficially dysfunctional right now.

In Britain we have something similar: a very deep and broad consensus about the basic rules of the political game. Unlike the US, we don't have a formal constitution to express that consensus. The advantage of that is that it allows the consensus to develop organically, and for new elements (the now-established position of occasional referenda, for example) to take shape. The disadvantage is that we have fewer formal safeguards against any attempt to violate the consensus.

But then, written constitutions aren't effective safeguards. They're just paper. The real safeguard, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a deep political culture that makes attempts at violation seem simply illegitimate. That only emerged in the UK as a result of a long, contingent and, frankly, weird set of historical processes. It is one of the least exportable things in the world. And I think it would be one of the things most worth exporting.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Andrew Marr

I'm very pleased to hear that Andrew Marr is recovering, but still shocked by his stroke. ... I've been a long-term fan of his, ever since coming across him as a columnist on the Independent back in 1994. He seems to me to exemplify something of the best of what journalism can be. There's a real moral and intellectual gravity: he knows that ideas matter and that there are deeper currents beneath the political and economic froth of the news. A boldness in being willing to spot patterns, sometimes before all the evidence is fully in: this it seems to me is the particular thing journalists can do above all, and it's also what makes him such a consistently interesting historian. And an underlying sense of fun which stops him from taking himself or the whole business at all seriously: he communicates a mischievous sense of relish which manages to cheer up almost anything. Plus he can write. I'm tempted to say that, for a Scot who studied at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, these qualities are hardly surprising. Still, for my money he's one of the most interesting people in modern Britain. Get well soon.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Women bishops again

Happy New Year to all. And with it, more thoughts on this still unresolved problem. Not whether Synod can somehow be persuaded to break the deadlock in the summer, but on the fundamentals underlying it.

In short, in all the discussion about women bishops, we've been worrying about women. But should we perhaps be worrying about bishops?

Full disclosure: I am wholly unpersuaded that bishops are jure divino, or indeed that they are anything more than a pragmatic governing structure which any Christian church can choose to adopt or discard as it sees fit. I don't object to them, because (a) they seem to work; (b) there's a long tradition there, and there are worse things in life than intertia and institutional conservatism; and (c) lots of other Anglicans do think that they are jure divino, and there is no harm in going along with them.

(There is harm in that partisan opinion, and all the stuff about apostolic succession, being mistaken for Anglican orthodoxy, which it is not: that kind of thing lies behind the pernicious and sectarian language of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which virtually unchurches non-episcopal Christians. Even Richard Hooker would have balked at that. But that's another post.)

Still, even if you think bishops are jure divino, 'bishop' is a capacious word and has been used to describe very many things, from urban church leaders to grand ecclesiastical princes, and that today's Anglican bishops are very different in the nature of their authority and ministry from most of their predecessors. I wonder if those differences might be worth exploiting a little.

The reason so many of those who oppose women's ministry find women bishops intolerable is that they cannot ignore or evade episcopal authority - not completely, anyway. And that is because we are wedded to the notion not just of episcopacy, but of geographically contiguous, uniform and exclusive episcopacy.

This is, frankly, a little weird. To take the analogy of parishes: I like the parish system very much, but we also have to recognise that geographical parishes are now overlaid by what you might call metaparochial structures, in which church communities are assembled from people residing across a wide area. So it is, and so, probably, it should be. We choose our parochial ministers, from the menu of those available in a particular area.

Why shouldn't individual churches be able to do the same with their bishops? This isn't just about gender. The Church of England's episcopate includes plenty of towering spiritual leaders, but they're a pretty funny cross-section of the Church. Mostly liberal Catholics and liberal Evangelicals, on the grounds that those are the people who find it easiest to be on speaking terms with everyone. Very few conservative Catholics; no conservative Evangelicals at all, which, as the representatives of that constituency keep saying, is a little odd. I know conservative Evangelicals are widely regarded as not properly housetrained, but that kind of distaste is no reason for keeping them out.

What I'd like to see is a set of super-dioceses, say eight of them, in each of which there were about five collaborating bishops: they'd have to recognise one another's legal authority, but they would be free to despise one another as long as they made the institutions work. And the parishes could choose who to look to, rather than chafing under a regime which they found disagreeable, as plenty do now. A commitment to having at least one bishop of each gender in each grouping would be easy.

But then I'd also say that the leadership of those groups should be collegial, with perhaps one of them elected by his or her peers as temporary archbishop (where does it say in Scripture that archiepiscopal office is indelible?) - and my underlying Presbyterian agenda comes out.