As Others See Us

George Austin on the CofE and the box

For clergy – and for that matter for every Christian – it is not only through television soaps that some power has ‘the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us’. Who could forget the fly-on-the-wall series about St Paul’s Cathedral? In the months during which it was filmed, a journalist told me that the producer had said to him in astonishment, ‘I just cannot believe what we have been able to get on film.’ And it is true that in such a long process it is easy for those involved to forget the presence of the cameras.

Industrial relations

Perhaps the worst gaffe was to let them spy on staff interviews. A senior lay member of the team was offered the opportunity to reduce his overloaded responsibilities, and we heard of the wide variety of his duties. He agreed which of these might be offloaded on to someone else, and this was done. At the next meeting he was told that his reduced responsibilities were not sufficient to justify his continued employment and that sadly they would have to let him go.

The camera was not allowed into their next meeting, to which not surprisingly he brought his solicitor. But the two emerged smiling and his job was secure. It is not difficult to imagine how far in the secular world this debacle must have boosted confidence in the Church’s industrial relations.

It is only in recent months that churchy documentaries have reappeared in the TV schedules. There was the programme The Diocese of Truro, too brief to live up to the promise of its first episode. Then came the excellently produced Country Parson, now I’m told due to go into a second series. And more recently the digital channel, BBC Four, had a three-part series called The Church of England: The Power and the Glory.

The Power and the Glory

When the first part was shown, I tried at first to view it as a non-believer might, someone at least interested enough to learn what that curious institution the CofE is really like. I soon abandoned this when successive shots showed Archbishops Carey and Williams in full canonicals. George Carey of course always seemed uncomfortable in cope and mitre. Mitre especially, which somehow gave him a puzzled look – ‘Why do I have to wear these funny clothes?’

Rowan Williams appeared in, I think, the cathedral at Monmouth darkened for the Easter Vigil ceremonies. He was wreathed in a cloud of incense and bearing a large candle. Was this, the secular Me asked myself, a druidic installation? Now I am not knocking either bishops in ecclesiastical costume or church ritual. The present moves in some parts of the Church of England to abandon robes and vestments of any kind overlooks the proper anonymity of the priest – that by which he is ‘the Vicar’ rather than ‘Bill Smith’.

And we do need the solemnity that ritual brings to remind us of the majesty of God and of the reality that we are not just concerned with this world but with eternal verities, even if it bewilders the outsider. I recall once preaching on Easter Sunday in a well-attended and theologically orthodox church in Florida. I talked of the truth of the resurrection story and afterwards a man who was part of a baptism party came to me and said, ‘If you really believe that guff, I’ve got a hundred acres of the Everglades you might like to buy.’ As he was wearing a white designer suit, a black shirt, a cream tie and sunglasses, looking just as Hollywood displays someone from the Mob, I politely declined. I did gently suggest that most of the congregation shared my view.

Sisters and Gays

But just what does an outsider make of the first experience of a Church of England service? I know that my own, as a ten-year-old, was being utterly bored at Morning Prayer and Litany at a church in Bury. It was several years before I could bring myself to ‘go Anglican’ again.

The producers of the BBC series were obviously limited in the coverage by the time they could give to the programme, and I suppose no one should be surprised that they homed in on women priests and bishops, and on the gay issue. It did the sisterhood no more favours than the programme on St Paul’s did for the cathedral.

The sight of sister superior Christina Rees standing on a table exhorting those gathered to celebrate the ten years since November 1992 was embarrassing, but as nothing compared with the exercise that it followed, when the sisters were urged to make figures of eight and weave in and out whispering ‘Joy! Joy!’ one to another.

 My heart genuinely went out to the many good women pastors I know, quietly getting on with the job they believe God has called them to do and ready to live in peace and harmony with those, men and women, who cannot accept their priesthood, women who would I am sure be deeply uncomfortable with the image of women clergy that this was presenting to viewers.

There was as always much more fundamentalism here than at the Reform conference, though Reform’s over-the-top arguments did not really help their image. Partly as a result, gay clergy fared much better, featuring one who had left the ministry because of what he felt was the homophobia of the Church and another still serving in the Diocese of Durham.

The latter, Fr Guy Wardale, was a vicar in Darlington living with his partner. He was eventually invited to apply for a chaplaincy, but before he could go for interview (as the only candidate), the appointment was blocked by Bishop Michael Turnbull on the grounds that this would be against the Church’s guidelines on gay clergy. It was for more than one reason a bizarre moment.

Viewers would realize from the commentary that there are many active gay clergy in post, and the policy – if policy it can be called, since it is interpreted by expedience rather than principle – was exposed in all its chaotic nakedness.

There was however another, brighter, picture of the Church. Another programme I caught recently was about that great Christian of the 1930s and 1940s – Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This was the story of a man who could easily have avoided what he saw as God’s call by remaining in America rather than returning to Nazi Germany. And his was a faith and an acceptance of a vocation that brought him to prison and execution.

Job Specifications

I am sure I was not alone in believing that the old concept of vocation had been replaced in the Church of England by one in which the priesthood had become just another job, with promotion prospects, financial benefits and the deliberate avoidance of the difficult parishes and posts.

For some it might, and the comments of one rather formidable lady did not go towards changing my view. To one of her compatriots she grumbled that a member of her congregation had complained because her sermons were ‘too intellectual’. ‘They would’, she said, ‘never have said that to a man.’ An unreal world she surely inhabits.

More seriously, she complained that women were not given any advancement – too few canons, archdeacons, and of course no bishops. There is some truth in this, but if that is so, who are those with the responsibility of making the appointments? Men who almost without exception are in support of women’s ordination. Could it be that they argue that some senior posts require a little more experience in orders than the ten years that women can now offer?

It was however the rather different approach to ministry of others in the programme which quite changed my view that the sense of vocation has disappeared. Perhaps I had spent too long on synods. First there was Rowan Williams, clearly accepting the archbishopric not because he sought it but because it was what God wanted him to do.

And there was Jimmy Hinton, praying with his friends at St John’s Nottingham as he plunged into the unknown together with his wife and family, leaving the comfort of the extended family of the College to a curacy in a run-down area of Bradford, only recently torn by riots. His vicar remarked casually that some streets were dangerous after dark.

At his ordination retreat Bishop David Smith, then of Bradford, charged the candidates that they were to be themselves, to remember that they would often feel inadequate, that this or that task was impossible, but that they must rely on the grace of God to carry them through.

Padre Steve Franklin, in a posting to Afghanistan, was shown doing just that as he ministered to a shaken troop of soldiers who had just returned from a patrol, during which they had been fired upon and could have been killed or injured.

And there was Fr Nick Wheeler at St Paul’s, Camden Town, where the church building was literally splitting dangerously apart, and where a congregation of a hundred people, most of them only able to rent their homes, would be expected to raise £1million to preserve a Grade 2* listed building.


In a rather different way from any of these, Jamie in Country Parson was shown facing the sometimes reluctant support of his staid, middle-class congregation as he tried to develop work with children, and angry incomprehension when he refused on principle to bless the Hunt and hounds as they prepared to ride out to kill foxes.

These both were programmes that showed the Church of England as it is, slightly chaotic, fundamentally divided on more than one important issue, with two extremes seemingly unprepared to try to live in some sort of harmony with those with whom they disagree, and with personnel management that does not bear favourable comparison with many parts of the secular world. That of course is the reality, so who can complain?

But there was the other side – clergy who understand only that it is God who calls them, be it to danger, hardship or difficulty, and that he will give them the strength to fulfil that vocation.

If this is incomprehensible to those outside the Church, so be it. But all praise to the programme makers for showing us, warts and all.


George Austin is a former Archdeacon of York.

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