COMMENT: FEBRUARY 1999

The Churchwardens Measure (see New Directions passim) is providing, at every opportunity, an insight into the government of the Church of England. The measure, giving Bishops the right to suspend wardens without the right of appeal, got rough treatment at the hands of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament.

The episcopal proponents offered a series of bizarre explanations

a) It would hardly ever be used. (Why have it?)
b) They have hastily drawn up guidelines for Bishops to prevent abuse of the measure. (This has never worked on other measures empowering their Lordships.)
c) Synod passed the measure by an overwhelming majority (The packet of measures grew like Topsy; almost no-one realised the implications of this careless vote. It all ably demonstrates how inadequate Synod has become in checking the power of the executive.)

The Parliamentary scrutineers were not desperately concerned with the feeble excuses proffered. What they wanted to know was why the Church wished to proceed with a bad law that is contrary to natural justice and the first question must be: Is there any evidence that such a law is needed?

Since the measure itself requires Bishops to provide no reason for the decision to suspend a warden, such a simple question from Parliament must seem somewhat impertinent.

You might have thought that it was evidence that forced Synod to act in the first place. If so you would be wrong.

The Synod legal department has now written to all Diocesan Registrars asking them to get their Archdeacons to provide as much 'evidence' as possible to boost the Bishop of Peterborough's flagging case.

As the Registrars are informed that names and details and parishes should be omitted, this 'evidence' will be unchallengeable. Around the criminal courts such a modus operandi is known as 'a fit-up' (As the evidence is pitifully thin at the moment perhaps there should be a prize for the most productive Archdeacon.)

Like the measure itself the case proceeds from bad to worse, illogical, unaccountable, the product of a disastrously failing governing structure held together by a repellent combination of megalomania and paranoia.

 ---ooOoo---

Though there are serious problems about the present governmental vogue for 'modernisation' - not least the problem of who decides what is 'modern' - it is clear that there is to be no immediate let up, and that the House of Lords will be unrecognizable within eighteen months. What of the Bishops and what of the Establishment of the Church, you will ask?

 

Pace that seasoned old trouper, Colin Buchanan, Establishment is of the essence of the Church of England. It is what gives to the otherwise motley crew which administers it their prime characteristic - a sense of effortless superiority. They are in the Lords - or they will be if they hang around long enough. The Establishment is the glue which holds together the adherents of at least three quite distinct religions in one body. The stained glass windows, pointed arches and Commissioners pay cheques are what gives the thing cohesion. Take them but away, and hark what discord follows!

Yet, it appears (though unknown to the Bishop of Oxford [Sunday Programme, January 17]) that groups of movers and shakers have been coming together informally to think the unthinkable. A multi-faith (or even secular) installation of the new monarch (muttered to have the approval of the Fellows who count) is on the cards; and who (the Bishop of Oxford included) knows what else?

Perhaps we may be permitted a word of caution. To disestablish the Church of England is to unravel a great deal. Of course 'establishment' is a complex, ramshackle concept and dissociation from it will necessarily be ragged and piecemeal. It is in the interests of all the principal parties that it should be so. But the fact that it is gradual will not minimize its effects. At every stage questions will be raised which have heretofore gone mercifully unasked.

A good case could be made, for example, for the 'nationalisation' of the Cathedrals. They are major tourist attractions, and important venues for musical and cultural events. The bodies which run them, moreover, have been subject to a good deal of adverse publicity. Recent reforms, it might be argued, do not go far enough. The nation would be better served by a National Cathedral's Commission, under the National Heritage banner, which would administer them impartially on behalf of all the faith communities.

The ownership of other property might also be in question. Who owns (or ought to own) the churches, parsonage houses and other parochial assets? At present we are informed that the residual owner is the Crown. But with disestablishment, who might the owner be? A case could surely be made for vesting the property in a central government body and leasing it to any lively Christian or other faith community which had a use for it and could fulfil clearly stated requirements of maintenance.

And then there is the question of affiliation. It is perfectly possible, with disestablishment, that some sections of the present CofE might wish to part company with the parent body, as it moved to a new status and constitution. To be fair and open the disestablishment process would surely require a mechanism for bishops, dioceses, parishes and clergy to opt into the new arrangement - or at least to opt out of it! Evangelicals might wish to dissociate themselves from a body which they saw as increasingly liberal and unbiblical. Catholics might seek freedom to pursue relations with the great churches of East and West unencumbered by the present and impending doctrinal innovations of the CofE. A 'modern' government, in a post-modern, multi-faith society would surely need to bend an ear to their concerns, and provide for them equitably.

In short the ending of the present Babylonish captivity (as Bishop Buchanan might describe it) promises the beginning of interesting times (in the proverbial Chinese sense).

Those who have most to lose - the bishops - will naturally hope that the process, though inevitable, can be so protracted that nobody notices it is happening. Those who have most to gain (the opponents of the present liberal establishment) will need to be hawk-like in the attention they pay

 ---ooOoo---

As articles elsewhere in this edition (and in the national press) confirm, the Millennium bug is beginning to bite. We anticipate further entertaining controversy about the Church of England's role in the celebrations, enlivened from time to time by CAN (the Churches' Advertising Network). Quote of the month is from the CofE's 'Millennium Team':

'We will not be intimidated by the press sneering at our new image', said a spokesperson.

It is a sentiment with which our own dear April Heavisides has a profound sympathy.

 

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