COMMENT

 

That the Church of England is run by gossip, and largely inaccurate gossip at that, should come as no surprise to serving clergy of any experience. That such gossip should occupy the front page of The Times newspaper is of no service to the Church. The subject of this gossip and consequent attempted character assassination was, of course, Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, a leading contender for the See of Canterbury.

The Times went to great lengths to outline the various rumours it had unearthed on its trawl through the Church of England's murkier waters. It then concluded that there was no evidence to support any of them and suggested that this might be the work of liberals and sexuality lobbyists trying to undermine the candidacy of a noted Evangelical Conservative.

First, some facts. These rumours have been around for several years and the editorial board of New Directions has, variously, been aware of them all. They range from questioning Nazir-Ali's age, his marital status and his faith history to the validity of his academic achievements, the conduct of his diocese in Pakistan and his preferment in the Church of England.

Second, we have far less resources than Times Newspapers but, whenever we have asked the rumourmongers to substantiate any of the gossip, they have been unable to do so. We have, therefore, concluded that the rumours are malicious and declined to give them any space in this magazine. The Times approach of listing the accusations on the front page before, finally, dismissing them is, to say the least, unfortunate. Perhaps they will even things up later by running the other candidates under such headings as ‘Bishop X not a Wife Beater after all!’

Third, we hold no brief for Bishop Nazir-Ali's candidacy, though he has been a warm and welcome guest at a Forward in Faith National Assembly. We believe simply that, like all the other candidates, he deserves to be assessed on the facts.

Fourth, we hold no brief for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement but it is palpably unjust to imply that they are somehow the source of all this malicious rumour. If they are the source, then name them. If not, then do not imply it. We have only to imagine our own reaction if, by implication, the smear campaign had been unjustly laid at our door.

Finally, we must turn once again to the wretched and broken system that allows this sort of nonsense to occur. The unreformed and highly secretive shambles that is the Crown Appointments Commission has already begun its task. In an atmosphere of deep distrust, its record is appalling, where gossip replaces fact and patronage outranks piety, we should not be surprised if the collective nostrils of Fleet Street have begun to twitch.

One of the characteristics of this government, with which we have become familiar, is the proliferation of Prime Ministerial advisers and policy Tsars. With the appointment of a Roman Catholic ex-seminarian, John Battle, as Religion Tsar, however, it might be thought that Tony Blair has reached the end of the line.

Battle says his task ‘is about whether the best of the faith community can find fuller expression rather than the worst being asserted all the time… The job is to be out and about in Britain … looking at the impact of inter-faith communities and feeding that back into the power centre.’ He likewise noted that he would be involved in helping Blair with the disestablishment of the Church of England as the official faith of Britain.

All this is puzzling and problematical. Mr Battle is no doubt an honest and well-intentioned man. But by what criteria are he and the Prime Minster going to decide what are the best and what are the worst ‘expressions of the faith community’ in order to ‘feed them back into the power centre’? Are some independent ethical and religious principles to be enumerated and invoked? Or will Mr Battle and his Prime Ministerial boss simply apply the views and standards of New Labour for the time being?

Then there is the matter of the disestablishment of the Church of England. That, of course has always been on the agenda as part of the process of the ‘modernisation’ of Britain – a ‘modern’ multi-ethnic, multi-religious society cannot be seen to have an established religion! Religion, in a modern state, is essentially a private matter. But disestablishment will take time, and will certainly not have been achieved in time to free Tony Blair from having to choose the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Other religious groups will no doubt be watching that event in order to get a flavour of life under the new Tsar and the new regime.

As it turns out the front-runners can, rather conveniently, be labelled according to the three contending parties within Anglicanism: Rowan Williams for the Liberals; Michael Nazir-Ali for the Evangelicals; and Richard Chartres for the Conservatives. (It is not as simple as that, of course, but one could hardly expect a politician to see the niceties)

Which will be the choice of New Labour? Or to put it another way if, of the two names on the list, one was broadly in sympathy with the NL agenda (Pro-choice; pro-euthanasia and assisted suicide; in favour of further liberalisation of homosexual consent etc.) and the other was opposed in each of these areas, who would the PM choose? Would the most committed Christian Prime Minster since Gladstone uphold traditional Christian values – or not? Blair might well wish not to have to make such a choice; but he cannot avoid it.

Furthermore, when disestablishment is finally possible – and the CofE, glueless, drifts inexorably into its constituent parts and parties – to whom will he assign the not inconsiderable assets? A really ‘modern’ PM, for example, might well be tempted to give the cathedrals over to the National Trust and to enact legislation allowing the use of them by all religious groups in turn. Or the assets might be split between contending groups, with the further provision of a religious ‘community chest’ to sponsor ‘the best of the faith community’ according to the government’s current lights and precepts.

One thing is certain, in the midst of all these imponderables: that neither the Prime Minister nor Mr Battle has any reticence in judging and evaluating religious and ethical systems which predate by millennia the Labour Party (and Parliamentary democracy itself), according to the flimsy standards of a transient modernity.

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