COMMENT JUNE 2000

 

When the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament finally rejected the deeply flawed Churchwardens measure (see New Directions passim) there were murmurings of General Synod limbering up for a battle royal. The "unwarranted interference" of the state in the government of the Church could, it was noised abroad, be the first round in the disestablishment of the Church of England!

Too many of the ecclesiastical committee were felt to be hostile to Anglicanism. The questioning of the good faith of the bishops in their intentions and practice was felt to be insulting and demeaning. There were indeed several not insignificant members of the committee who were up for a fight. Fortunately wiser counsels prevailed.

The measure was the latest in a long line of attempts to draw all power to the failing centre of the Church. It was draconian in its power to suspend, without hearing, without reason and without appeal, any warden. Even after enforced amendment it remained contrary to natural justice and to the historic ethos of Anglicanism.

Asked to produce evidence of the wrong doings of the Church wardens which had provoked the need for such a measure, representatives of Synod were, in spite of a massive trawl of every diocese over some 20 years, unable to provide any. A similar exercise on bishops and clergy would have ground the parliamentary process to a halt.

MPs and Peers alike testified that this wretched measure had produced the biggest mailbag from the widest variety of people and churches - not a carefully orchestrated campaign but a genuine outrage amongst ordinary Christians. It became a perfectly clear that, given the choice between their wardens and their bishops - real trust resided in their local elected representatives and not in a self selecting power hungry elite.

For most people the Church of England is the parish Church. That is the Reformation settlement famously underlined in Article 19 of the Book of Common Prayer. The persistent attempt to undermine this by hierarchs who have fled the parish at the earliest opportunity or never dwelt there in the first place must be fought at every turn.

Ordinary Anglicans have every reason to be grateful to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament for resisting this petty tyranny and to those wiser heads on the Synod committee who understood all too clearly that, whatever the outcome, a battle with the state, on this issue would, at best, yield a pyrrhic victory.

 

A recent scoop by Christopher Morgan of The Sunday Times has brought to everyone's attention a confidential paper by the Bishop of Durham, A Further Approach to Ministry. This paper is to go before the Archbishop's Council this month.

Its analysis is not wholly inaccurate but it is brief, superficial and sweeping. Such adjectives are completely inadequate to describe its conclusions. Turnbull seems to contemplate, with enthusiasm, the wholesale abolition of the present parish system and its replacement by "locality ministries". Parishes, apparently, hinder mission. He proposes cuts of 60%! So, for example, a deanery of 10 parishes would be reduced to 4 " locality centres".

The paper evinces much concern about clergy stress and low morale but the bottom line is that this plan will enable the bishops "to cut the number of clergy" further. The alleviation of stress by more work is an interesting concept.

Perhaps the reduced stress will be for the bishops who are told that these cuts, savings, rationalisations will, of course, "bring under control diocesan finances". With the crisis in Durham diocese such a radical straw-clutching is perhaps understandable.

Unsurprisingly there is no mention of the possible benefits to morale, finance and workload that would follow from cuts in the top heavy and expensive "management" structures of the Church.

We will give detailed attention to these extraordinary proposals in the next issue but, in the meantime, perhaps the Archbishop's Council would be better informed of the reasons for low clergy morale and stress if it had experienced parish priests in it. And it might like to consider what such proposals say to the ordinary priest and congregation prepared, as they are, for a council whose four bishops' combined experience in charge of parishes averages five years and most of that in the 1970s.

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