In the last few months there has been an unprecedented frequency and degree of archiepiscopal involvement in affairs which are of diocesan and parochial concern. The Archbishops (sometimes along with other episcopal colleagues) have written to the clergy of the Church of England three times. Sadly, these communications have not been a triumph of accuracy, appropriateness, or good advice. My purpose in this article is to explore some of the issues of these communications, particularly where there are questions of theology, ecclesiology or where the letters appear to contradict Anglican norms. I am mindful that these letters will have been written at a time during which we have all felt great pressure and the need to respond quickly, so whilst I am not claiming the communications should have been perfect, I want rather to indicate that they betray some worrying notions, and to ask that where appropriate these may be examined and possibly corrected.
On 17 March the Archbishops wrote: “Being a part of the Church of England is going to look very different in the days ahead. Our life is going to be less characterised by attendance at church on Sunday, and more characterised by the prayer and service we offer each day.” I hope this infelicity is the result simply of the urgency with which the letter will have been produced, but it is regrettable that clergy and parishes might feel an implication that the Archbishops consider there is an extent to which the life of the Church is not usually to be characterised by daily prayer and service to others. Further in the same letter: “We urge you sisters and brothers to become a different sort of church in these coming months: hopeful and rooted in the offering of prayer and praise and overflowing in service to the world.” Again, we might ask how this could be considered a radical change from the Church’s calling and task in more ordinary circumstances? Surely it is precisely the same sort of Church, but merely expressed differently. The Church hasn’t changed in its essence, only in its outward forms.
On 24 March the Archbishops wrote to us together with the “Bishops of the Church of England” which in itself was an interesting idea. Which bishops of the Church of England? All of them? They certainly hadn’t all signed off this text. Members of the House of Bishops? But they hadn’t yet met. All the diocesan bishops? But I don’t believe they had all been consulted either. So just how does this letter purport to come from the “Archbishops and the Bishops of the Church of England”? This remains unclear to me. Is it the case that the Archbishops can claim to speak for all the Bishops of the Church of England?
I won’t attempt the arguments of ecclesiastical law as to whether the instruction/guidance of this letter is lawful, though it was revealing that the language around instruction was quickly changed to guidance by Archbishop Welby when pushed on the Andrew Marr Show on Easter Day. I note that public worship may only be suspended with the consent of the PCC (Canon B14A) and that this letter makes no mention of any recourse to the PCC (even for rubber-stamping); and that the rights, privileges and responsibilities vested in an incumbent mean that he/she cannot be prevented from entering the church of which he/she has charge – again a matter which the letter does not mention or address. I hope this blog elsewhere will attempt to speak about the consistent trend in the Church of England towards undermining the rights of incumbents as office holders, which appears to be a deliberate policy and yet is rarely discussed.
In a similar vein to 17 March, this letter concludes: “our belonging to Christ has never been measured by the number of people in church on a Sunday morning (though we long for the day when this way of knowing Christ can return) but by the service we offer to others.” Here I want to wholeheartedly agree! It is of course true that church growth has far more to do with growth in faith, spirituality, service and mission to the local community, than it does to do with numbers on a Sunday morning. It is a shame, therefore, that the current culture of the Church of England dictates that numbers mean everything. I am glad of the recognition that a church’s growth and success has far more depth to it than mere bums on seats – even though these are undoubtedly easier to quantify. I hope the Archbishops’ welcome insight here will be carried over into the post-lockdown future.
Further problems with this letter lie in the guidance itself. By this stage we are advised that we must behave in such a way that exceeds the legislative directions and supporting guidance issued by the Government. Within three days a further letter was released to explain this. Although the situation was developing fast and required quick responses, it seems odd that two letters in such a short space of time should be required when such information and interpretation of the guidance would have been more suited to a diocesan-level approach.
On 27 March the Archbishops (and Bishops of the Church of England) wrote again. They helpfully provided this mantra four times in their two-page letter: “Stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.” The Church, it seems, was so fully to imbibe the Government advice that it was to be our sole influence and ethic. Let me be clear: I have no problem with the Government’s policy. I think it has been simple and effective, and I have been content to follow it and encourage others to do so. However, it seems disappointing that the Archbishops (and their episcopal colleagues) have so little to say from the Christian vocabulary of moral theology, ethics, preference for the other over self, sacrifice, kenosis, that they only uncritically parrot the Government’s line. Sadly, I fear this demonstrates a lack of deep theological thinking and spiritual reflection at the heart of the Church of England’s response which has been managerial rather than pastoral, and secular rather than theological.
In addition to this, the letter created a bizarre paradox. The Church of England was parroting the Government’s line but then going beyond the Government’s requirements, therefore both obeying the government and contradicting it at the same time.
The letter attempted some reasons why this was a very important line for the Church and its ministers to follow. “The Church of England is called to model the very best practice. We must lead by example. Staying at home and demonstrating solidarity with the rest of the country at this testing time, is, we believe, the right way of helping and ministering to our nation.” I struggle to believe that God has called his Church (or even the Church of England) into existence in order to model best practice – isn’t this the territory of business management? Why then should it be the vocation of the Church? If the clergy of the Church of England are to be called to follow best practice, then surely they are bound to fulfil their duties wisely and well by ministering to the faithful. It seems the understanding of “best practice for clergy” (if such a thing exists) was defectively secular.
Following Government guidance is crucial, of course, so why were the Archbishops and Bishops attempting to exceed it? Legislation has surely been very carefully constructed in such a way as to minimise the risk presented by the virus whilst also ensuring that as much as possible could continue as normally as possible (although this often felt like very little). Unnecessary disturbance and disruption, when so much is already necessarily disturbed and disrupted, exacerbates anxiety and distress. The Archbishops and Bishops instructed (or perhaps advised) that we go further than required, and thus catastrophized the situation. By doing so, they cast themselves as distracting from and damaging to public health, rather than contributing to what little aspects of normality could be sustained. The Government recognised that worship is essential and therefore permitted that it continue as normally as possible; the Church of England obstructed and prevented this.
By going further than the Government, the Archbishops and Bishops tacitly implied that the Government was not going far enough, thus undermining the very maxims they claimed to uphold. It wasn’t by mistake that the Government included provision for clergy to offer private prayer in churches, to livestream this if desired, and permitted funerals to be conducted in churches. The Government was, presumably, making efforts to pay careful attention to community needs that would contribute to good public health (mental health, bereavement care, grief, being factors in this). The Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England acted (and instructed/advised) as if they knew better. Why should the Government give religious bodies special consideration again? Has the Church imbibed a sense of its own insignificance and colluded in fatally undermining its own role? We do not need grand delusions or pretensions of importance, but a mystical and theological understanding of the Church is that it is a different thing and set apart. This rather suggested an underlying notion of the Church which is secular, managerial and lacking in depth.
As for “demonstrating solidarity”, there is something theological to be said about where and how the Christian expresses their solidarity with those who suffer, which I believe is by being in close proximity to the cross, and thus (for the catholic Christian and the priest) by going to the altar, rather than by staying at home. Solidarity in the common space of the church is so much more powerful than solidarity in the private space of the home, which lacks the symbolic and theological associations of Christ with us and among us. By the priest going to the altar in the place set aside for the purpose of prayer for the community, the priest brings the people with him/her in that place which has been hallowed by their prayers too. Ramsey tells us that the priest’s task of prayer is “to be with God with the people on our heart” – this is never more true than when we do so in the place where the people themselves would ordinarily come to pray to him.
We were to go a month without further communication, but also without recourse to the succour of our churches, before the House of Bishops met on 5 May 2020. No archiepiscopal epistle this time, a simple update on the Church of England website, and further detail to be determined and disseminated within the dioceses (why could not that have always been so?). Among other issues, too numerous to detail here, there are three clear problems with the statement released that evening. First, if the guidance of the letters of 17 March, 24 March and 27 March could be released without a meeting of the House of Bishops, why was a meeting of the House of Bishops necessary to begin the gradual repealing of this advice? Perhaps those who issued the controversial restrictions now found the statutory body a useful tool in order to share culpability. It is revealing that each individual diocesan bishop was asked to communicate with his/her diocese following that meeting, and to interpret rules in a pragmatic and common-sense manner – this is the approach that should have been taken from the start. Although this is an improvement, the language used is still dubious as it speaks of the Bishops giving ‘permission’ to incumbents rather than recognising that incumbents and PCCs are the real authority in most cases.
Secondly, it wasn’t until 10 May that the Prime Minister announced that the Government was lightening any restrictions on the public, but the Church of England managed to introduce its own easing 5 days ahead of this, stating that “the House of Bishops recognised that there have been some welcome signs of improvement in the current situation, including a reduction in new cases and hospital admissions giving evidence for hope.” The risk is that the Church of England here presents itself as better equipped to interpret statistics and make decisions than the Government. Whither leading by example? Were other institutions similarly to have prematurely begun altering their guidance then national chaos would have ensued. Whilst of course it seems the right conclusion to have come to, I’m not sure expressing it in terms of “an improving situation” is helpful or safe. It would have been better to acknowledge that the previous guidance was too heavy-handed and restrictive, and therefore in need of review and modification.
Thirdly, the update from the House of Bishops contained no reference to their previous maxim of demonstrating solidarity. Had this principle now been binned? If so, why? Nobody else in the country was yet liberated from any aspect of the restrictions, but the clergy of the Church of England were to be liberated of the episcopal directive that solidarity is expressed by not being in Church ourselves.
In a time of acute disruption and pressure, of course, we are all liable to make mistakes and to need to review our decisions – Archbishops and Bishops are not excepted from this. Honesty and openness about this is humanising and demonstrates humility and, as such, should be both embraced and welcomed. However, this does not seem to have been the approach followed by those who issued the extraordinary letters of the last few months. As it stands, the contradiction between 27 March and 5 May does not add up, unless it is also the case that those responsible for the letters of March (Archbishops? Bishops? Some? All?) also forgot to say on 5 May, “Sorry, we got it wrong. And now we must repent and change.” Who knows, maybe such an admission is yet to come.
The Rev’d Richard Bastable