Rt Rev’d Joanna Penberthy

Turbulent priests

How should the clergy best engage in politics and public disputes?

Sounding Board

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It is July and therefore time for my annual sharing of the most passive aggressive prayer ever issued by the Church of England. The year is 1776 and the people of England are called to a “Publick Fast and Humiliation” observed throughout the kingdom. 

O blessed Lord, who hast commanded us by thy beloved Son to love our Enemies, and to extend our charity in praying even for those who despitefully use us, give grace, we beseech thee, to our unhappy fellow subjects in America, that seeing and confessing the error of their ways, and having a due sense of their ingratitude for the many blessings of thy Providence, preserved to them by the indulgent care and protection of these kingdoms, they may again return to their duty, and make themselves worthy of thy pardon and forgiveness: grant us in the mean time not only strength and courage to withstand them, but charity to forgive and pity them, to shew a willingness to receive them again as friends and brethren, upon just and reasonable terms, and to treat them with mercy and kindness, for the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Bitterness through the medium of prayer is never an attractive sight and many might consider it a little bit of an abuse of the pulpit (the Almighty, it is worth noting, did not move especially hard on receipt of this petition). But it always raises for me the interesting question of how we clergy engage in public dispute.

The Church should see beauty in all, regardless of their politics

Which takes us to the St David’s Bishopric Controversy. The Bishop of St David’s, the Rt Rev’d Joanna Penberthy, successor to one of the most spectacular and profound Christians ever to have walked these lands (whose diocese is named after him) has rather let the side down by having a vitriolic Twitter account in which she proclaimed that one must “never, never, trust a Tory”, compared Tories to vermin, told a woman who said she couldn’t vote Conservative this time round “that you ever supported the Tories says everything that we need to know about you”, and that she was “ashamed of each and every one” of the 47 per cent which a poll in May 2020 suggested would vote Conservative.

The Bishop apologised, blaming her private Twitter account (rather than herself), promising to shut the miscreant account down in punishment. It then emerged that she had an official Twitter account (with a meagre hundred or so followers, which nobody, including, seemingly, her press office, knew about) on which she had also vented her fury.

She has retweeted “never trust a Tory”, she has retweeted hashtags like #ToryScum, she has retweeted comparisons between the Conservatives and fascists, Hitler, and Stalin. Which makes one quite nostalgic for the passive aggression of the 18th century occasional prayers of the Established Church.

At the time of writing, I don’t know if the Bishop of St David’s will survive. There are many voices calling for her to go. I can certainly understand why. But my voice is not among them. What I would like to see is her call to mind the charge from the Book of Common Prayer at the ordination of priests (sadly rarely used these days, having inevitably been rewritten drippily by a committee a few decades ago):

Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue.

These are pretty dreadful words — in the proper sense of the term. And rather than either put out a mealy-mouthed press statement or be forced to resign, the good bishop should take he pastoral responsibilities seriously and ask herself, “Have I caused any member of that part of the church which I lead to take any hurt or hindrance?” 

And satisfying herself with a yes, to start a process of self-examination which might actually help the whole church. In this process it would be useful to include people who tweet, or blog, or write articles for, say, The Critic, all of whom have to wrestle with how to engage politically while not hurting that great treasure which has been committed to our charge.

This isn’t a question of a social media policy. That is remedial, not restorative. What we need is to remember how to see in all people, made in the image and likeness of God, their beauty and integrity regardless of their politics. 

What we need is to try to see in them a genuine integrity regardless of whether we think they are profoundly wrong, and “to shew a willingness to receive them again as friends and brethren” regardless of whether they have made “themselves worthy of … pardon and forgiveness.” I stand ready to serve. Does the Bishop of St David’s stand ready to lead?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover