After leaked documents revealed a Church of England proposal to create a “Brexit bishop” and a “Covid bishop”, Anglican priest, George Pitcher, says making the Church into a ‘shadow government’ would be a big mistake
When I was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s chief public affairs flak a dozen or so years ago, I facilitated a guest editorship of the New Statesman for Dr Rowan Williams and he crafted a main leader column about the “anxiety and anger” that was felt at a local level over the pressure on communities to sort their own challenges of infrastructure and public services.
To put it at its politest, the gammon hit the fan. Tory backbenchers (and the odd minister) piled on the archbishop. Two themes that were prevalent were that the archbishop should stick to preaching the gospel from his pulpit and keep his meddling episcopal nose out of politics, which should be left to the big boys and girls of the Westminster playground.
This attitude is problematic for two reasons. The first is that those on government benches are all too ready to demand Church interference when the subject is about family values, or what might be termed social morality. “Where are the bishops when you need them?” goes the cry when the debate is about abortion terms or same-sex marriage.
Politics is viewed through the prism of faith, not the other way around
The second problem is the assumption that the gospel is apolitical. On the contrary, while not party-political, it is profoundly political in a revolutionary sense. How else to interpret the triumphal entry of the Christ into Jerusalem, the belly of the beast of the temporal powers of the occupying Roman Empire and the Jewish Temple, keeping an uneasy joint-jurisdiction of compromise and compliance?
And that’s before considering a manifesto which claims that God’s chosen people are lepers, prostitutes and the poor. As we’re called to stand in their corner against the principalities and powers (Ephesians 6), it’s a bit difficult to make the claim that we’re not straying into the political arena.
If we are, therefore, occupying this kind of political platform, then presumably the Church of England’s plans to appoint full-time, issues-based roles such as “Brexit Bishop” or “Covid Bishop”, revealed this week by The Times , are to be applauded.
Well, up to a point, Lord Chasuble. The difficulty here is not that bishops shouldn’t engage with these issues. They should – just as it’s ludicrous to suggest that church leaders shouldn’t interfere with the management of the economy, when politicians seek to suggest that single mothers on family support in Hull are the cause of our malaise, rather than a financial services industry that precipitated an economic collapse some 15 years ago.
But the issue is what bishops are meant to be doing “full-time”. And, indeed, in what direction their management report-line runs. Because bishops – and all Christian disciples – owe their allegiance to an entirely different kind of polity, one that is not of this world.
It’s to the divine jurisdiction that the Christian commits. This is not an opt-out from worldly affairs. Quite the reverse, as I note above. But politics is viewed through the prism of faith, not the other way around.
It follows that a bishop will have a view on Covid policy, Brexit or immigration because he or she is a bishop. They should not, however, hold responsibility for policy in these areas while working as a bishop on the side.
In fairness, that doesn’t seem to have been the principle purpose of the Church’s leaked plans. The aim is rather to streamline the Church’s structure and management, to reform the unwieldy and wasteful morass of dioceses across the country. For anyone who has suffered at parish level from the stultifying bureaucracy of the diocesan system, this can only be a laudable aim.
So why isn’t that the objective that is reported and scrutinised? It ill behoves someone like me, who has had a spell in senior Church communications, to start saying that our “police” look too young. But there is a tendency to give such tasks, which are too big, to people who can’t manage them. We saw that with the historical allegations of child abuse against the late Bishop George Bell, which the Church has struggled woefully to row back on.
A thorn in the political side
Another narrative is that our archbishops, Most Rev Justin Welby of Canterbury and Most Rev Stephen Cottrell of York, are worth less than the sum of their parts. Talented and credible as individuals, their joint initiatives seem to misfire.
We saw that when the national Church’s “Vision and Strategy for the 2020s and beyond” somehow became conflated with the self-funded Myriad scheme for developing 10,000 lay-led home-churches, and the archbishops found themselves denying that they planned to close down the centuries-old parish system.
The Church constantly seems to have to talk about what it doesn’t need to discuss, and that’s a shame, because the latest agenda item that’s run out of control – that bishops should be issues-led rather than shackled by dioceses – points to a massive elephant in the vestry.
That is disestablishment of the Church of England, so that it can become a thorn in the side of the body politic, rather than a central organ of it. And that really is worth talking about.