Bishops’ different hymnsheet

The Church of England has worked to broaden its diversity of background, but its diversity of opinion has declined

Sounding Board

‘‘The clergy should keep their communist conks out of politics.” So said everyone’s favourite churchwarden, David Horton from The Vicar of Dibley. He could just as well have been speaking last month, during the Dominic Cummings Affair, where dozens of bishops took to Twitter to express their collective outrage at his breach of lockdown, especially when one bishop threatened to sever all working relations with the government over it.

Now I don’t intend to relitigate the argument; we all know where we stand. I also don’t intend to question the right of the bishops to raise it. What I’m interested in is how as the Church of England has worked to broaden its diversity of background, its diversity of opinion has declined.

Readers of this column will be aware that a cry from me for the clergy to keep their conks (communist or otherwise) out of politics would be rank hypocrisy, and I certainly shan’t do it. The voice of the church is one which is always going to be political, for deep-rooted theological reasons and, in Britain, for deep-seated historical reasons.

Bishops feed into debate the experiences of real people in a way few other members of the House of Lords could

Christianity will always be political. We worship a God who became incarnate, fled from a tyrant, negotiated questions of taxation and earthly allegiance, and was sentenced to death on a charge of treason.

His words should scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, whatever their earthbound politics. In Britain this is hardwired into our constitution, and the ancient involvement of the prelates of the church in discussions of matters of state continues in the presence of 26 bishops in the House of Lords.

And, just to wind up any secularist readers, while their Anglican denomination is a (happy) historical accident, that they are there is a profoundly good thing for all sorts of reasons beyond historical happenstance: bishops feed into debate the experiences of real people in real parishes across the country in a way few other members of the House of Lords could, especially as the cleric is now one of the few professionals who still lives among the people he or she serves. They inject a moral and ethical reasoning to any debate, which need not be accepted or shared but certainly should be heard.

The House of Bishops is so named because it is the upper house of the Church’s internal legislative body, the General Synod. It is supposed to be a debating chamber, where bishops of various theological and political opinions debate the positions of the Church and the nation. You might expect, therefore, to hear a diversity of theology and political opinions. You would be disappointed.

This is most obviously shown in the Brexit debate. Polling suggests that a full two-thirds of those who describe themselves as Anglican voted for Brexit — and this leaning continued down the age range: 49 per cent of Anglicans under 40 voted Leave as opposed to 35 per cent of those without faith. With such a heavy bias towards Leave among parishioners you might expect that their leaders, the bishops who are ultimately chosen from among their number, would reflect this split.

Not a bit of it. Of the 115 or so bishops of the Church of England, one — only one — came out in support of Brexit. Less than one percent. Guardian readers preaching to Mail readers, as the old saying goes.

A similar picture is painted theologically. Where before the Church had rich theological depth, with all of the different churchmanships strongly represented, now a study of where the bishops trained reveals that an overwhelming 72 out of the current 108 went to Evangelical colleges.Only 19 could be said to come from High Church or Catholic colleges. Rarely before, if ever, has there been such a dominance of thought by one party in the Bench of Bishops.

This lack of political and theological breadth is intriguing as it comes on the back of well-justified and increasing concern to ensure a richer diversity of bishops in terms of sex, race and background.

Am I better represented by somebody who looks like me or by somebody who thinks like me?

Before women bishops were introduced, the Church pushed the government to ensure that any female diocesan bishop waiting for a seat in the House of Lords would take precedence over any male bishop. Much attention has been given to the selection process for priests in order to ensure that biases against ethnic minority and working-class candidates are removed.

This raises the interesting question that lurks behind many of the debates about identity politics: am I better represented by somebody who looks like me or by somebody who thinks like me?

The answer should be nuanced. I am much better represented by Kemi Badenoch (MP for Saffron Walden, whose family is from Nigeria) than by portly white man Richard Burgon, but it is not to be underestimated how important it is for black people, and black women in particular, to see Mrs Badenoch sit on the ministerial bench — and of a Conservative government at that.

This goes well beyond the Church of England, of course. Many of our great institutions are finding the same dynamic occurring in their leadership, not least in academia. How can we broaden our investigations into structural inequality so as to ask what might be creating such conformity of thought even as conformity of background is being broken down?

Maybe only then will Guardian readers experience the joy of being preached at by Mail readers (or, who knows, even by readers of The Critic).

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