Why the Church fails to get answers from above

The Anglican hierarchy is obsessed with management structures over the real issues of morality, theology and falling congregations

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Dr John Sentamu’s replacement as Archbishop of York is the Most Reverend Stephen Cottrell. Having been suffragan Bishop of Reading and then Bishop of Chelmsford, holding the Church of England’s second most important job means Cottrell will likely also be in the running to succeed Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, when the time comes.

Cottrell’s promotion is a textbook case of what the Church of England presently thinks leadership looks like, and how it measures success. At Chelmsford he was known for large-scale thinking and diocesan initiatives. By the time he left for York, the diocese was managed by its bishop, three suffragan bishops, and seven archdeacons. Yet in 2021 it advertised for a diocesan chief executive on £90,000 a year — a manager to manage the managers — while also being in the process of rolling out 61 clergy redundancies.

There were sighs of relief when Cottrell’s successor at Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, assured her clergy — some of whom she recognised as being “close to feelings of despair” — that there would be no more Cottrellesque initiatives. “I’m not so comfortable,” she told them, “with that kind of language which is currently widely deployed in the church. It risks, it seems to me, putting too much emphasis on our human powers — that if only we try hard enough and pull together well enough and all follow the same programme, then we can solve the problems and challenges and ensure the future survival of the church.”

One sensible diocesan bishop acting alone is hardly going to be able to solve the wider problem of the present trajectory of the Church of England’s leadership structures. Those structures drove the C of E into its one-size-fits-all reaction to Covid-19, and it is worth remembering that it was the archbishops themselves (Cottrell was not at that stage in post) who stopped the clergy from praying in their churches — even those whose houses were separated from them only by a door, a corridor, or a garden — and insisted that all worship went online. The policy’s nadir was reached on Easter morning 2020, when Welby celebrated Holy Communion not in his private chapel at Lambeth Palace, but on his kitchen table.

“We’ve been online for a year today,” gushed the Church of England’s social media outlets when the relevant anniversary came round, “and we’ve loved every minute of it.” “We” in this context is not insignificant, for it’s a tell-tale sign of a bunker mentality that has become easier to discern at the centre of the C of E’s life in recent years.

One only has to think of the Revd Marcus Walker, no stranger to this magazine, who at the start of lockdown was two years into his first incumbency as Rector of St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London. Yes, Walker is engaging and oozes bonhomie; yes, he was once President of the Oxford Union; yes, he is an experienced public speaker with considerable political experience; no, it shouldn’t have had to fall to a relatively junior clergyman, even one as Falstaffian as Walker, to keep telling the Archbishops that their Covid-restrictions-thinking might have been a bit faulty. Walker’s subsequent election to the General Synod on a “Save the Parish” ticket suggests that he was not without sympathisers.

Who manages the managers?

Who manages the managers? The Archbishops’ Council, which amounts to the Church of England’s executive board, includes the Prolocutors of the Convocations of the Provinces of Canterbury and York. The grand title belies the fact that they are the elected representatives of the clergy, who are supposed to speak to their constituents’ concerns at episcopal — and archi-episcopal — level. Given that the exclusion from church buildings also intruded upon the very real legal rights of incumbents, the prolocutors should have held the archbishops to account and insisted that they showed their workings.

Instead, the opposite soon became true. The prolocutor for Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler, consistently and robustly defended the course of action that had been taken; he spent a good deal of time being drawn into arguments on social media and then blocking people who asked questions about the specific but secret scientific advice that Lambeth Palace kept on insisting, had been taken to justify its actions.

When the Vicar of Christ Church, Shooters Hill, in the diocese of Southwark, the Revd Ariadne van den Hof, asked on Facebook in April 2020 why it was that she was mandated to enter her church to ensure that it remained secure, but forbidden from praying while she was there, Butler responded it was “because, for good reason, the whole picture is not available to you”. It still remains unavailable to anyone, except to the members of the Archbishops’ Council who themselves charted the route and set the compass.

In August 2020 Canon Giles Fraser questioned the wisdom of the archbishops’ approach in the Daily Telegraph, noting that in the plight of the parish churches “the response of the centre to the cry of the periphery always tends to be — and here I inwardly groan — the announcement of yet another fancy-sounding yet ultimately vacuous missionary initiative”. Fraser also named what he saw as a serious threat to the future of parishes coming “from those whose very job it should be to defend it”. He was denounced by Butler in a letter to the editor, in which he intimated that Fraser ran a failing parish and should instead “focus on doing something to arrest this worrying slump”.

With friends like these, who needs enemies? At the end of 2021 the clergy of the province of Canterbury voted with their feet and did not re-elect Butler as their prolocutor; they chose the Venerable Luke Miller, the genial Archdeacon of London, to represent them instead.

It has not stopped Butler from airing his views; one of his latest targets was the then-ordinand Calvin Robinson. Robinson’s sin was to have become known to be a conservative Christian with traditional views on a range of topics, including gender politics and the sacraments.

An accomplished communicator, Robinson had had no trouble sharing his beliefs with a wider audience on various media platforms, including GB News.

“Who on earth was his sponsoring bishop?” asked Butler. “Are there not limits of behaviour that need to be reinforced?” Meanwhile, it has since transpired that the Bishop of Edmonton, the Rt Revd Robert Wickham, who also ministers in the diocese of London, was privately suggesting to senior colleagues that Robinson perhaps ought not to be ordained.

Writing in the Church Times, Canon Angela Tilby observed “it is obvious that some of our senior clergy live in a Guardian readers’ echo chamber, in which right-wing views are more heretical than disbelief in the Trinity”.  One might think that at a time of freefall the Church of England might have been glad of an effective champion in the public square — especially one with a significant internet following in the context of the recent online-worship drive — but it is as though the powers that be believed that no-one else could possibly take Robinson’s position seriously.

They forgot, of course, that many members of the Church of England tend to be more conservatively-minded than those who get appointed to high office. With his ordination in jeopardy, Robinson left the CofE and was ordained instead by the Free Church of England. As it happens, both bodies share an ecumenical arrangement, so under the C of E’s own rules Robinson can now officiate at as many Church of England services as there are incumbents who are willing to invite him.

The Robinson affair has exposed serious problems

The Robinson affair has exposed serious problems at the top of the Church of England’s leadership structures. Emails that have come to light as a result of Robinson’s subject access request, which he has shared online, show that some senior figures pursued agendas in ways that suggest that the bunker mentality is firmly entrenched. Most startling were those relating to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments about Robinson’s situation, which were reported in the Church Times in May: “I haven’t been involved at all in that case.”

The correspondence tells a different story. An email to Dr Emma Ineson, the Bishop to the Archbishops, demonstrates that Welby, after being tipped off by Wickham, had asked to see examples of Robinson’s tweets as early as December 2021. Robinson has described Welby’s comments as representing “a flexible and transitory relationship with the truth”; in the absence of any clarification from Lambeth Palace, it is hard to disagree.

Tilby shares neither Robinson’s theology nor his politics. Nevertheless she argues that “we need conservative thinkers if we are indeed the national Church, not least to challenge the lazy, hand-wringing leftist orthodoxies that refuse to enter debate”. Conservative thinkers may be needed, but the Robinson affair suggests that they’re not necessarily wanted. Tilby called it “a monumental own goal” for the C of E, “which will now have to cope with him on TV in his clerical collar […] politely, but accurately, bewailing our moral and theological spinelessness”.

The Church of England urgently needs leaders who are able to self-scrutinize, to model inclusivity in a way that does not seek to exclude, to represent the people of this nation in more diverse aspects than mere outward appearance, and finally to recognise that management and leadership models that have obsessed the C of E for decades have not necessarily been entirely to its benefit. Where those leaders are now going to come from, however, God only knows.

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