Comment April 1998

THOSE IN THE Church of England, and in the Orthodox Constituency, who have been persuaded to shelve their anxieties about the implications of the Human Rights Bill, should take note of recent events in the diocese of Gothenburg (Church of Sweden, Porvoo Communion).

Opponents of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate have no rights whatever in the Swedish Church, which exhibits a totalitarianism which Anglicans who know it well have always found uncongenial. Nevertheless opposition to the new ministries has been extensive and tenacious. The diocese of Gothenburg has long been a thriving centre of dissent.

Now the government ‘Equal Employment Advocate’, Lena Svenaues, has determined to ‘break the resistance to female priests’ in Gothenburg. In particular she has in her sights the congregation of St Pauli, which on January 18 this year hosted the illegal ordination of two men who do not support women priests. (Men opposed to women's ordination cannot become candidates for ordination in the official Swedish system.)

Svenaues has drawn up new recruiting procedures for the diocese which she intends to impose if they are not freely adopted by the Diocesan Synod in April. She has already given notice that if the Synod refuses she will haul it before the Equality Commission, where a fine of up to 200,000 kronor (25,000) could be imposed. Svenaues finds that women are ‘under-represented’ among priests in the diocese and, on behalf of the State, is demanding that they are given access to every role and position in the Church.

You have been warned!

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TO UNDERSTAND the Church of England in all its delicious complexity is to have mastered the art of reading between the lines.

So an article by Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian (where else?) purporting to reveal the substance of a radical document (‘presented in December to the influential Policy Committee of the General Synod’, but only revealed in a piece dated March 20) is titillating in the extreme. From the obvious time-lag one can confidently conclude that whoever leaked it was probably the author.

The motive was, almost certainly, the side-lining of the report by the committee to which it had been submitted. So far, so good.

But who might be the author / leaker of a document which, according to Bunting, ‘urges the adoption of spin doctors and Blairite modernisation for the Church’? Step forward former Islington Councillor (let the reader understand) and sartorial survivor of the seventies, Peter Alan (‘Pete’) Broadbent, Archdeacon of Northolt (who else?)

Alas, while Pete was exhibiting his New Labour credentials, the Church of England's dapper new communications supremo, Dr Bill Beaver, was flatly contradicitng the Archdeacon in the august (if recherche) pages of PR Week, the trade journal of public relations persons. 'The Church is not looking for a spin doctor', said Beaver, 'because we're into consistent, coherent, constructive communications, not spinning.' Just so.

But perhaps there is more to Pete than merely the spin, or lack of it. The publication of the 'leaked' memorandum, in full in the 'Church Times' , reveals that his strong suit is an attack on the culture of terminal politeness which is strangling the General Synod. And there he is surely closer to the mark.

When the Synod is being self-congratulatory (which it is a great deal of the time) it preens itself on being very unlike Parliament. Worthy members exhort the Synod to avoid 'party spirit' and to be 'non-confrontational' - forgetting that democracy without parties is totalitarianism ('democratic centralism', as Stalin called it), and that confrontation, in a fallen world, is often the only way to uncover Truth.

What the C of E needs, if it is to leave the nineteenth century behind and enter the twenty-first, is not careful spin-doctoring but greater robustness. If the Archbishops' Council is to be dissuaded from the beguiling conclusion that it is the Church of England, it will need to be treated with all the robust criticism to which governments are subjected in lively democracies. On present showing that will require just the radical change of culture which the Archdeacon is demanding. When, in a democracy, there is no effective means of dismissing the executive, then from time to time it must be bridled. But will Pete be able to grasp that nettle?

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THE APPOINTMENTS at Liverpool and Southwark have been made. Orthodox believers can have a fairly objective view about them. Having been variously disappointed or betrayed by appointments in Sheffield, Newcastle and Truro, orthodox have historically and recently no legitimate expectations in Southwark or Liverpool. Curiously, and perhaps refreshingly, neither post went to the initial front runners.

In Liverpool the rejection of Buggins's Turn has resulted in the appointment of James Jones, 49, Bishop of Hull. On the positive side he is said to be "media friendly" but more importantly sound on the doctrinal and ethical issues except the one that would have stopped him becoming a bishop.

On the negative side he has not been particularly "orthodox friendly" in his Hull remit. It is also true, and to his credit that he worried about it, that he has only four years experience as a vicar and only three and a half as a suffragan.

It would be easy and accurate to say that it could have been a lot worse. But it is equally true to say that it is unlikely that there was a better candidate on the list.

In Southwark the hot money was on Rowan Williams, Bishop of Monmouth. Williams, twenty years ago the great hope of orthodoxy, is now one of the most liberal of bishops in these islands. He is also an unfailingly kind and gentle man who would have been torn apart by the civil war in Southwark. He wisely declined.

Enter Tom Butler, Bishop of Leicester. Butler, a Mirfield man has too often gone down the liberal establishment road and is regarded by man as little more than a heavy handed and ambitious apparatchik. Interestingly he has turned out to be one of the fairest Diocesans to orthodox clergy. He is media friendly and he is nobody’s fool. He is unlikely to tolerate much nonsense or the mushrooming of empires that have developed in contempt of weak diocesan leadership.

Again, Butler would not be the orthodox first choice but..... after three disastrous episcopates in a row, it is difficult to think of anyone more likely to sort out the byword for diocesan nightmare that Southwark has become.

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