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We’re Stuck in an English Costume Drama


I recently lent two of my buddies a copy of one of my favorite movies, Lady Jane (1986, Trevor Nunn). I told them that Cary Elwes, the male lead, is blond and stunningly gorgeous—but I also warned them it’s an English costume drama, knowing that most guys can’t stand that sort of thing; Henry the Eighth and all that.

It turns out Scott rather likes it; I was surprised he didn’t recoil in disgust. Plus he’s Roman Catholic, so he comes at these movies rooting for the wrong crowd.

Nevertheless Elwes is gorgeous and Helena Bonham Carter is too. Lady Jane was her film debut. It’s a women’s picture from start to finish, thus I very much enjoy it: lovely scenery, impossible costumes, high-blown rhetoric as they talk us half to death, lush music, royal intrigues, romantic tragedy; what’s not to like?

Cary and Helena both lose their heads in the end, which is pretty much how Henry VIII movies always come out. Of course the Protestants always win, though they reveal themselves every bit as morally corrupt as the Catholics they replace.

What’s odd—very very odd—is that now in 2008, Anglicans worldwide are once again living through this same costume drama. Apparently we can’t run a schism without it.

Today the issues are different, yet the same: who controls the Church? The pro-Gay people or the anti-Gay people?

The Episcopal Church, which is the Church of England in America, has slowly over 35 years come to be the pro-Gay people, which I am grateful for and proud of. We are the ones who ordained Gene Robinson, the first openly-Gay bishop in the history of Christendom. But of course the opponents of LGBTs have pushed back hard; they want to control the Church, but to do that they have to outmaneuver and outvote us, not just in the United States but in virtually every corner of the world.

Most of the national Anglican churches are somewhat divided, so it’s all quite complicated. My side seems to be winning so far, though narrowly. It appears that our rivals are going to set up their own separate church this summer at a meeting in Jerusalem—though the Bishop of Jerusalem, who’s anti-Gay, doesn’t want them anywhere near him. He’s got his own problems and doesn’t want to be associated with this controversy. He’s got Arabs and Israelis to deal with, as well as a local rival. He wishes the separatists would go somewhere else.

But let’s stick with this on the movie level of flickering images and tragic antagonists; on the storytelling level. One thing you can always depend on in an English costume drama is that the heartbreak always develops from a series of Fatal Mistakes. Henry thought he had to have a male heir—though it turned out his daughter Elizabeth would become the greatest English monarch in history. Henry ran through a gaggle of wives, six in all, gradually destroying the respect of nearly everyone. His constant political maneuvering to get what he wanted made enemies out of his friends. In A Man for All Seasons (1966, Robert Bolt), Sir Thomas More lets Henry talk him into becoming his Chancellor—the crown lawyer—though More is a committed Catholic. He ends up beheaded because neither man will back down, and all along the way you can see that if More had stuck to his guns and simply said no, he’d have lived to a ripe old age and never had a church named after him.

In Lady Jane we see the same series of tragic miscalculations. Jane consents to her father’s manipulations and marries the wastrel Guilford Dudley in an elaborate plot to ensure that Protestants continue to control the throne and the riches they seized from the lazy and corrupt Catholic Church. Jane and Dudley turn out to be idealistic reformers; mistake #2, because their policies would overturn the thieving dukes who backed them. Queen Jane keeps her throne for just nine days.

In the present controversy, it’s not immediately easy to see the Fatal Mistakes; that perhaps takes time and hindsight. If the principal actors knew they were making mistakes they wouldn’t go forward. But we know in any tale of usurpers and thrones, the results will be bloody, someone will win and someone will lose, and the losers will have only their own choices to blame. The most conniving and obsequious will come curtseying back to the winner.

In that sense, it’s not unlike a presidential campaign. Rudy Giuliani, anyone?

In the current schism, who is making the Fatal Mistakes? For that matter, what is the nature of such an error?

If Henry VIII is any guide (and indeed, he’s the archetype), we know that outlandish ego is always a personal motive. We know that property, financial interests, as well as power are in play. We know that circumstances spiral out of control, moving the action forward to an inevitable conclusion. We know that principles are quickly sacrificed and friends are betrayed. We know that the ultimate outcome is that whoever wins and loses, the institutions they represent are reduced to shambles—though out of that, with skillful leadership, rebirth can take place. And we know that along the way, a few key players turn out to be completely ineffectual and must be swept aside.

So now, let’s begin to cast our movie. What shall we call it? “Murder in the Cathedral” is already taken; “Anglican Jamboree” is too light-hearted. (That’s an in-joke, you either get it or don’t.) How about “The Lambeth Road”? It will have to do for now.

Who in our cast has the dominant ego? That would clearly be Peter Akinola, the anti-Gay Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria and would-be usurper. The man loves to see his name in print and loudly proclaims (to, for example, that recalcitrant Bishop of Jerusalem), “I go where I want to go. I say what I want to say. I know the Gospel truth, and I will punish you if you don’t submit to me.” The poor man thinks he’s a king, when in fact he’s a cleric on the take for his share of the oil money.

Who’s not in it for the ego? I’m thinking Katharine Jefferts-Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. She’s soft-spoken, has a sense of humor, doesn’t throw her weight around if she can help it; and though I sometimes criticize her administration, I don’t think her purpose is to enhance her own power and status. Even the American bishops who don’t agree with her praise her gentle presence and collegial behavior.

Who is the ineffectual functionary? That’s obviously Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury and titular head of the Anglican Communion. He was for Gay rights before he was against them, like a weathervane atop Lambeth Palace.

And who are the clamoring dukes and earls, intent upon accumulating all the people’s property for themselves? Ah, we have several; Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, the preciously-named John-David Schofield of San Joaquin, Jack Iker of Fort Worth and various viscounts, lords and minor nobles like Peter Jensen of Sydney and Gregory Venables, an Englishman now representing Argentina.

However, the current star of the show is the aforesaid John-David. In the past six weeks he has tried to engineer a coup against Jefferts-Schori, only to find that he doesn’t have all the support he thought he had, just like Lady Jane’s scheming father.

This is the result of a series of Fatal Mistakes.

He has purported to lead his California diocese out of the Episcopal Church and into Venables’ arms in South America. At first he claimed he hadn’t seceded, or at least that he was a bishop of both Churches, but then Venables had to fix that; John-David can only be one and not the other. He received a letter of support from distant prelates, including a closeted Gay bishop in England, who was promptly outed by a former American trick. This is very odd behavior for a man whose issue is Gay clergymen. But then it turns out that he’s got his own sexual problems—and where have you heard of this before? Larry Craig has a wide stance, and Ted Haggard didn’t know that Gay hustler, but then he did, and he never bought drugs from him, but then he did, and…

Gay-bashing from the closet is always a Fatal Mistake.

Jefferts-Schori inhibited Schofield, which is rather ironic considering how inhibited he already is. This is the second step to defrocking him, though of course Venables will promptly frock him back up. (I told you this is a costume drama.)

When a priest in San Joaquin refused to follow Schofield to Argentina, John-David publicly fired him on Christmas Eve, after having strong-armed his way to the parish altar the day before to announce he wasn’t firing him.

On Christmas Eve? Not good press.

When John-David’s standing committee, which is rather like a Privy Council, didn’t instantly follow him to Buenos Aires, he fired them—or perhaps secretly left them in place so that they, as nominal Episcopalians and his allies, could continue to control the Church’s property worth millions. Jefferts-Schori told what was left of the committee that she “cannot recognize them” as a valid authority. They promptly wrote back that of course she has no authority over them and they are the real Episcopalians, in open warfare against their Presiding Bishop.

As Thomas More learned too late, it’s seldom a good idea to undermine the crown.

The fortunate thing in all this is that Jefferts-Schori has so far not made a single Fatal Mistake. She is not governed by her passions. She receives reliable advice from her Chancellor (see, nothing’s changed) and her Privy Council. She has suffered numerous attacks and setbacks with surprising equanimity. She was chosen for this role, if not by God, then at least by the General Convention in parliament.

However, unlike a true costume drama of the gripping, Oscar-winning variety, this one is turning banal. We can already predict the final reel before it’s even mounted on the projector. Akinola and Company will go to Jerusalem, there to set up the Akinola Communion, whereupon John-David and all the lesser nobles will kiss his ring and proclaim him Emperor of Africa and Asia, Europe and America, Australia and the Isles, Defender of the Faith, &c. They’ll all put on their frocks and have a merrie old time.

But they will not and cannot be Anglican, no matter how often they proclaim themselves the rightful heirs; they are mere usurpers, not in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

At last Rowan Williams will be forced to pledge his loyalty to Church and Crown, or Elizabeth II will sweep him aside.

Don’t ever forget who the Queen is here; it’s not John-David Schofield, no matter how much he thunders, schemes, manipulates, lies and flounces in his lace. He is not the Queen, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth is.

And though the viewer might wish for a few cathartic beheadings, everyone will ultimately retire quite comfortably. No wonder they don’t make movies like they used to.++

2 Responses

  1. Can’t people be trying to live out God’s revealed truth and genuinely disagreeing with sex outside a one-flesh marriage of a man and woman?

    Besides, you missed out the Will of God in your costume drama.

  2. Gee whiz, “God’s revealed truth;” how nice that you seem so certain of what that is. A “one-flesh marriage;” I’m utterly in favor of it, but heterosexuals seem incapable of achieving it. Their relationships are so fragile.

    The thesis of the piece was that this is a fight about who controls the Church; it’s about power and politics and ideology.

    We know which side you’re on, muerk. Stop Gay-bashing on my gay spirit diary.

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