Where does the coronavirus leave the Church of England’s status as the established Church?
And so the post mortem begins. As lockdown eases and we prepare to re-open the doors of our churches, the newspapers start to move on to other stories, and we are left to reflect on how the Church has responded to the coronavirus. Parishes have on the whole responded well to the crisis, making the best of a difficult situation, as priests streamed from either their kitchen tables or home oratories, depending on taste, as well as taking more funerals and ploughing through electoral rolls, phone in hand; just as our wardens, readers and PCCs have cared for our buildings, joined in with streaming and taken food to the elderly and vulnerable. At a national level however, the Church seems to have fared less well.
What has gone wrong? Many of my non-churchgoing friends have said that the Church of England has seemed silent on the central truths of the faith. I then watched Archbishop Justin’s statements and interviews from the last two or three months, and found that in most he did in fact speak of how Jesus entered the depths of human suffering and darkness and is with us in times of need such as this. A criticism often levelled at the Archbishop is that he lacks the theological depth and eloquence of Rowan Williams. That may be true, and academic theology is less well represented in the current House of Bishops than in the past, but the Archbishop also brings gifts that Bishop Rowan did not have, and it is too easy a pot-shot to criticise an archbishop (or indeed any priest) for not being his predecessor.
For some reason though, those words did not get across. I think there are two primary reasons for that. One was the debate over whether priests should be able to stream from their churches. This was an important issue, and I signed the letter to The Times in support of Bishop Peter Selby’s concerns about the privatisation of Anglicanism; the House of Bishops seemed to respond the following day by allowing priests back to their altars. As I wrote in the Evening Standard earlier this week however, it was a brittle debate, with a lack of charity on both sides, and, in speaking to ourselves in that way, we as a Church distracted people from what should have been our core messages: how to cope with death; how to let prayer structure your time and your life; how to make sacrifices for the sake of your neighbour; and at the heart of all this, to give an account of the hope we have within us.
The other was what, after a week or two, looked like cosying up to the government, as the Archbishop told ITV News that he thought the Prime Minister was ‘doing a really, really good job.’ That demonstrated a lack of understanding of what the establishment of our Church is supposed to mean and how it is supposed to work. And that is what I would like to focus on here. In celebrating the 75th anniversary of VE Day last month we were reminded of how people then flocked to services of thanksgiving in our churches across the land. We are also familiar with both Cosmo Lang and William Temple’s spiritual leadership during the trials of the Second World War. 75 years ago, the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the spiritual leader of the nation was not in doubt.
Things are different now. Whenever the removal of the bishops from the House of Lords is mooted, the justification for their retention is generally along the lines of their speaking for all the Churches, and indeed all faiths, in some sort of way. The Church of England is supposed to be a representative voice of faith to the nation. That understanding of establishment (and of course there are many others, not the least of which is our presence in every community via the parish system) relies on acting ecumenically and with other faith leaders. I do not know what discussions were held with our brothers and sisters at the outset of this crisis, but the different responses that there were from the Church of England and the Catholic Church vis-à-vis allowing priests into their churches would seem to indicate that the first instinct was not to act ecumenically.
That might seem understandable on one level – when the lockdown began things were urgent, and the priority was quite rightly to keep people safe. How you act at times of crisis is however a good litmus test of your attitudes generally. And the fact that the Church of England did not seem to act in concert with other Churches and faith groups is a worrying sign. Furthermore, had the Church done so, we might well have avoided the unpleasantness of the debate around priests being allowed into churches: with a common position we would all either have been streaming from church (I think the likely position), or, if we weren’t, there would have been less pressure to do so given that no other Church would have been doing that.
Rather than assuming an authority within the Church of England that the archbishops do not have, by telling clergy that they must not go into their churches, had they acted ecumenically and with other faith leaders, their collective action would have resulted in a far higher degree of moral authority. There is of course the risk that such agreement might not have been reached, or quickly enough (and who’s to say that that isn’t what happened), but what at least looked like an instinctively lone response, dealing with this as an internal C of E issue, appears to be at the root of the problems we have seen with the Church of England’s public response to the virus.
Ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue may seem rather a niche area from which to criticise the response to the coronavirus. Without our ecumenical and inter-faith role however – as facilitator, coordinator, and even spokesman at times – our role as the established Church in a pluralist society is lost. And what we say about ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue in ordinary times will only be judged to be genuine if we continue to act on it in times such as these.
Even during the War, when the Archbishop of Canterbury did have the kind of authority I refer to above, he still realised the extra power of speaking with our fellow Christians. On 21st December 1940 The Times published a joint letter from Archbishop Cosmo Lang and Cardinal Arthur Hinsley, which condemned indiscriminate bombing, along with other practices included in Pope Pius XII’s ‘Five Peace Points’ initiative. If the then Archbishop could act in concert with Cardinal Hinsley, then surely ours can with Cardinal Nichols now. By failing to act together with others in the current crisis, the Church of England’s national response has spoken only to Anglicans, and not to the whole country in the way that it should have, and in the way that, frankly, we have a duty to.
I am proud to serve in a Church which makes such a point of serving everyone in my parish, and in this country, regardless of their faith. The Church’s response to the current pandemic has however led me to doubt my continued support for establishment. We must match our parochial philosophy with leadership which recognises our responsibility to act together with others of faith. Otherwise, we not only abdicate that responsibility, but we cannot justify to our Christian brothers and sisters, and to those of other faiths, the privileged position we hold.
The Rev’d Christopher Rogers
Curate, St John Baptist, Catford