The consecration of V. Gene Robinson as an openly gay bishop of New Hampshire has divided the Anglican Community, a historic pillar of Christianity embraced by seventy million people in 164 countries. Most Anglican groups outside the United States oppose the ordination of gay clergy. After Robinson's consecration, overseas bishops jointly announced that they were in a "state of impaired communion" with the 2.3 million-member US Branch of the Episcopal Church--a step short of declaring a full schism.
In A Church at War, journalist Stephen Bates assesses the current state and historical context of this fight. Including personal interviews with all chief players in the struggle, this is the only book to offer the full story of the Church's vicious row over homosexuality. Showing the strengths and weaknesses of the different positions, Bates takes the details of church politics and creates an engrossing and exciting narrative. As the threat of schism looms ever closer, this book, with its controversial yet fair look at the fight will be both illuminating and essential to all with an interest in the Church and its relationship with homosexuality.
I am a British journalist and author. In a 36 year career in Britain, until 2012, I worked for the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail and for the last 22 years for the Guardian. I specialised at various times in covering education, politics, Europe and the European Union, religion and British royalty and I reported from more than 40 countries across the world. The Photographer's Boy is my first novel and has been more than a decade in the making. Set against the background of the US Civil War, it's a story of journalism, early war photographers, war and politics: there's even a little sex. I've previously written three books combining my twin interests of history and journalism: A Church at War was about the struggle over homosexuality in worldwide Anglicanism; God's Own Country was about the history of American religion and politics and Asquith was a short biography of the Edwardian prime minister H.H. Asquith. I also edited the Bedside Guardian 2012: the annual anthology of the paper's best articles. I've been fascinated by American history ever since I was a student more than 40 years ago and have visited (and reported from) the US many times - including the locations and battlefields of my novel. I have two more books coming out next year: both history and both non-fiction: An Immense Scheme in View: Britain in 1846 is about the great political, economic and social upheavals at the heart of Victorian politics. And The Poisoner: The Short Life and Deep Crimes of William Palmer is about a man Charles Dickens called "the greatest villain ever to stand in the Old Bailey dock", a serial killer whose trial transfixed the nation, from Queen Victoria downwards. But did anyone ever really prove that he was guilty? Read the book from next Spring and find out! I live in Kent, England, have been married to Alice for 27 years and we have three grown-up children. I was brought up a Roman Catholic but covering religious affairs managed finally to kill off my faith, so I am now an agnostic. Hope this tells you a little bit about me and my latest books!
The good, to begin with. Bates does an admirable job getting first hand interviews, and with them creates an engaging and fast-paced narrative. Present at many of the discussed events, he has a deep familiarity with many of the less publicized machinations of the communion. He writes on an issue well worth discussing- with everything occurring in the world around us, why is homosexuality such a splitting point when it comes to orthodoxy? Why are Christians so concerned about sexuality and so lax on everything else? Bates identifies some potential answers to these questions. I'm sympathetic with Bates’ concern- while I wouldn't categorize myself as having the entirely liberal Christian beliefs, I generally tend towards that direction. But even with that agreement, this type of book isn't the way to have a serious discussion about these issues. There is place for cynical and jaded attempts at witty commentary, but a book postured as a serious work of journalism is not the place.
Everyone discussed in the book who has a negative opinion of homosexuality is presented in a strikingly negative (and most often physically negative) light wholly aside from their views. Let the views speak for themselves- making each person into a cheap mock-up of Dickensian villain is unnecessary. It becomes almost comical- another pro-gay clergyman, another wholesome personal figure. Another anti-gay Evangelical, another overweight, sweating misanthrope.
If the author's descriptions are true, then most of the opponents of homosexuality are unintelligent, ignorant, and hateful people with an extremely tenuous grasp on theology. If in fact this is not the case (which seems very likely), it seems as if Bates went out of his way to find some of the weakest possible proponents he could, and then triumphed in disproving them. Many opponents of homosexuality are undoubtedly that simple, but certainly not all.
In seeming attempts to support his assertions, Bates makes some questionable statements, such as his characterization of the state of New Hampshire as “deeply conservative," which is either misleading or amusingly out of touch, considering that NH had (at the time of publication) voted Democrat in two of the last three presidential elections and had consistently recorded more than 45% of state voters opting for the political left.
Then we have off-hand comments such as, “Augustine... believed that intercourse was fundamentally disgusting." While I am certainly not an Augustine scholar, this statement seems at best a dubious reading. Certainly Augustine speaks at length about sex and the sexual habit (as Henry Chadwick translates it) but Bates takes a position so lacking in nuance that it might shock even the biblical literalists he so disdains. This lack of nuance in evaluating a collection of texts is particularly interesting in a book which repeatedly ridicules people for not taking a nuanced approach to biblical interpretation.
These issues are representative of the entire work; it is a work of intolerance attacking Anglican leaders for being intolerant. It argues for a sophisticated and contextual reading of the Bible while refusing those same readings to any of the views it criticizes. Bates acknowledges his prejudice up front- specifically, his sympathy with those discriminated against by the anti-homosexual portion of the Anglican Communion. But what has really hurt those who have been left out of the church because of their sexuality more: the mere position on homosexuality, or the vicious and uncaring way in which the members of this group have attacked their opponents? If it's the latter, Bates’ caustic disdain places him dangerously close to the same tactics.
I'm not sure what to give as my rating...if I could do two and half stars, I would, but I'll estimate up to three.
So! ... a very "inside baseball" book on the Anglican church. I, being a jingoistic American, thought this would have a more Episcopal Church USA flavor (what with an American bishop on the cover!), but this is more Anglo-centric/CoE. It does touch on the U.S. (obviously!), Canada, and the various African provinces/dioceses, but its a British author talking about the Church of England. Nevertheless, it's been awhile since I've read a through and through British author, and his style is like having a documentary narrated, with interviews interspersed between passages.
I think it's "inside baseball" mentality does wear a bit thin at times -- maybe if this was centered on EUSA it would mean more, but I don't have that much connection with the literal Church of England. As the author states, us Americans are a bit "meh" about the Anglican Communion, so there. Also, the author does have some stereotypical British snide asides and editorial commentary, which, whilst humourous, can be rather distracting.
All that said -- if this is a subject (Anglican/Episcopal church) that interests you, this does track the issue rather well (though with a 2004 publishing date, slightly dated). For us American Episcopalians, we know how women ordinations and gay/lesbian ordinations have affected the church. Certainly our way of doing things is different from CoE -- much more autonomous in our dioceses (I honestly had to look up who the current Archbishop of Canterbury is!). But it is a good dissection of the various clergy and "sides" of the debate. So, if this insular issue is your cup of tea, it's a good read.
A journalistic record of the state of play in the Church of England circa early 2004. As history, it is necessarily dated. As analysis, it is perhaps inevitably a bit dyspeptic. There are nevertheless fascinating nuggets around the edge of the main narrative. (A few pages on the first New Westminster blessings gave me a very good start toward a case study of that moment.) Bates got almost everybody on the record, too, which is impressive in its own right. Use with caution, spiritually speaking—the material is full of hatred and thus of danger—but for me at least, ten years and more have taken some of the sting out.