Archiepiscopal Contradictions II

Richard Bastable examines the Archbishop of Canterbury’s answers to questions for the informal meeting of General Synod online and, noticing continued failures, asks again for clarity, honesty and humility.

Many of the issues raised in my previous article are subsequently expressed in the Questions to General Synod in July 2020, especially questions 36-62. The synodical bodies have had a busy time with a heavier weight of questions than usual – this is perhaps not unexpected given the response of the Church of England’s central bodies to the pandemic. I have seen the issues raised summarised as “good questions but weak answers” and I find I agree with that analysis.

Question 38 is one of the most revealing:

“Q38 Was legal advice taken before the guidance set out in the Archbishops’ letters of 24 and 27 March 2020 was issued and, if it was, will the House agree to publish it?

The Archbishop of Canterbury to reply as Chair of the House of Bishops:

A Legal advice was not taken as the pastoral letters were advisory and it was not considered that the guidance had any particular legal implications.”

In a sense, this is no surprise. It is hard to see what legal advice could have been taken, given that the letters of 24 and 27 March were obviously issued without insight brought to bear on their contents by ecclesiastical lawyers. It is well-established that lawyers do not freely give advice but only do so if explicitly asked to give an opinion. The legal office of Church House seems thus exonerated. However, to say that guidance which directly contradicts numerous stipulations of canon law could be considered not to have any particular legal implications is bizarre. Compliance with the guidance necessarily put parochial clergy in breach of canon law – how can it be argued then that the guidance did not have a legal implication?

Question 52 cites several canons to highlight exactly which items of canon law ought perhaps to have been considered by the Archbishops:

“Q52 When issuing the guidance set out in the archbishops’ letters of 24th and 27th March what was the understanding of the archbishops and bishops with regard to the relationship between that guidance and the legal obligations imposed by:

  • Canons B 11, B 13, B 14 and B 14A relating to the saying of Morning and Evening Prayer and the celebration of the Holy Communion in churches and cathedrals:
  • Canon B 15 relating to the receiving of Holy Communion by all who have been confirmed;
  • Canon B 18 relating to the preaching of sermons in parish churches;
  • Canon B 22.4 relating to the delaying of baptism; and
  • Canon C 24 relating to the responsibilities of priests having a cure of souls in relation to these matters,

and why did the letters not explain its understanding in that respect or any legal advice it had received about it?

The Archbishop of Canterbury to reply as Chair of the House of Bishops:

A Given the urgency of the situation following the Prime Minister’s announcement of ‘lockdown’ on 23rd March and the need to respond swiftly, the pastoral letters contained concise advice that did not explore the relationship between the guidance offered and the canons stated. In these unprecedented circumstances, legal advice on this issue was not sought.”

The answer reveals more detail for us – it appears that in “unprecedented circumstances” the Archbishop believes that legal advice and the requirements of canon law may be swept aside. We have seen how overused in the last few months has been the term “unprecedented circumstances” and how uncritically it can be applied. Who determines what circumstances are with or without precedent? And who decides which aspects of canon law (or other expected norms) can, in such circumstances, be ignored?

If the canons of the Church of England can so readily be swept aside without seeking relevant advice on the matter, what does that now say about the Church of England’s ecclesiology, her self-understanding, and the faithfulness of her senior ministers to her tradition and identity?

The answer to Question 58 concludes with an acknowledgement that the letters of 24 and 27 March and the guidance therein were arrived at “after prayerful consideration and deliberation… taking account of public health and other guidance from a range of advisers” – but not, it would seem, any legal advisers. There is a contradiction here in the claims that on the one hand decisions had to be made swiftly and thus without seeking legal advice, whereas on the other hand there was time for prayerful consideration, deliberation and guidance from advisers.

The decision that something does not have legal implications is itself a legal decision. If a decision which clearly touches on and contradicts several aspects of canon law was made without legal advice, then the question is who, if not the ecclesiastical lawyers employed for that purpose, judged it to be without legal implications. Did the archbishops therefore decide to act as their own legal advisers?

Questions 39 and 40 ask about the relationship between bishops and incumbents, and the ecclesiology of the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury responds that “the taking of decisions within benefices remained a matter for incumbents in consultation with parochial church councils.” Not once did the letters of 24 and 27 March encourage any incumbent to have consultation with their PCC, but rather those letters were expressed in imperative terms and instructed all incumbents how they must behave without any use of their own faculties of discernment or decision-making, and without reference to their PCC. As my previous article noted, the suspension of public worship can only occur with the consent of the relevant PCC. The Archbishop of Canterbury here seems to contradict his own advice, without acknowledging how or why that contradiction has occurred.

Question 45 deals with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s admission on The Andrew Marr Show on Easter Day that the letters of 24 and 27 March represented “guidance and not instruction” and asks why, if that were so, the letters did not give any indication as to the discretion permitted for the appropriate balance of maximising the effectiveness of ministry whilst minimising the risk of infection. The Archbishop replies that the guidance was a direct response to “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, and Save Lives.” I have already lamented the inadequacy of a Church whose leadership can only uncritically parrot the Government’s line without further reflection on the matter from the wealth of Christian teaching – the attitude is managerial rather than pastoral, and secular rather than theological. However, especially revealing in the Archbishop’s response is his assertion that “This guidance was considered to be self-explanatory.”

The guidance caused widespread dismay, disagreement and confusion, and has elicited around thirty questions to General Synod, so it is somewhat difficult to take the assertion that it was “self-explanatory” with any seriousness. Until Easter Day, it wasn’t even clear whether the guidance was binding or not, and it took a direct question on national television on the most solemn of Christian feasts finally to extract some clarification on the matter. This ought to be some indication to the Archbishop that, however self-explanatory he might have believed it to be, that was not the way it was received.

I attribute no malice to the Archbishop or others in the taking of these decisions, nor in the issuing of letters and guidance. I can see that their motivation was to respond well and to protect. However, I question the method and the means by which they arrived at guidance which I continue to believe was erroneous, and I wonder that there seems to be no acknowledgement of error or failure, but rather what comes across as an entrenched defensiveness.

My previous article on this subject ended with the notion that Archbishops and their colleagues were yet to say “sorry – we got it wrong”, as any person should be permitted to say when responding to circumstances of great stress and urgency. Sadly, the tone of many of the responses to the questions comes across as patronising. Even more concerning is the avoidance of straightforward answers in several cases which gives an impression of disingenuousness. The failure to concede that legal advice should have been sought, that better communication was needed, and that not all the actions taken were necessarily the right ones appears to lack humility. Leadership demands taking responsibility for error which itself is an expression of spiritual depth and maturity. It is concerning that the responses to these questions seem to indicate that no one with responsibility in this matter is willing to make such an admission of their own humility and humanity.

The Rev’d Richard Bastable

9 thoughts on “Archiepiscopal Contradictions II

  1. There is a WORLD of difference between a Pastoral Shepherd and a Branch Manager who serves the State… Mammon has been enthroned, not dethroned by the conformity to the World by Managers, not Shepherds… Who Does the Church Serve?

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  2. I am most excellent and clearly argued article . Perhaps the incumbents should have been more proactive . Liam , Dublin

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  3. Whether there are legal implications of the ‘advice’ should be explored by PCCs. They were sidelined and perhaps their best course of action is to seek clarification from the Charity Commission. This touches on of course areas like parish share and the relationship between PCCs and dioceses. The whole structure of the CofE it seems to me requires reform and a start is General Synod. It is as unrepresentative of the Church as is the House of Bishops. Failures in past months have simply revealed systems and institutions that do not work. The failure on the part of the centre to acknowledge nothing is amiss is symbolic. A church which is parish based, supported by a diocese with only key staff and pastoral bishops is enough. National church institutions did not exist a few years ago and i see no reason for them.

    If Synod will not face the need for change then it will be for PCCs to clarify precisely what they need to fund. The implications of that of course will be fascinating.

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  4. I would love to know what legal advice would have been forthcoming for both sides if the threat of using CDM to enforce this “guidance” had been tested.

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  5. Thank you for this. Frankly, I think you are being too charitable. I found the Archbishop’s responses disconcerting, and suggestive of a credibility gap he seems unwilling or unable to bridge.

    The so-called ‘advice’ was presented to the Church as nothing of the kind. It was couched in the language of command, and some (if not most) bishops appeared to interpret it as an order to be obeyed without question. Certain bishops are alleged to have threatened incumbents with CDMs if they deigned to resist. How, then, could it have been interpreted by any reasonable person as ‘advice’?

    So for Mr Welby to characterise the pastoral ‘directions’ as ‘advice’ (in answers to most of the questions posed) strikes me as being rather worse than disingenuous. Moreover, when queries were raised about the ‘advice’, they were slapped down, the inference being that any challenge to the de facto direction was a potential breach of the oath of canonical obedience.

    Mr Welby and his colleagues also had many weeks in which to seek legal advice and to clarify the legal bases of the letter. It appears that no attempt was made to do so.

    This Himalayan blunder was compounded by any meaningful support from the Commissioners, whose subventions have been in the form of loans (with interest well above base), rather than grants. Since the greater part of the Commissioners’ wealth is a function of licensed looting of the parishes, this has been to add insult to injury. Mr Welby, evidently, cares little about the parishes, which are the essence of the Church of England.

    For these reasons, I do wonder whether PCCs (and DBFs) do have grounds for initiating claims for damages from the bishops, in which the claimants would be indemnified for the loss of income suffered. Even if such claims were not to proceed, the threat might be sufficient to compel the Commissioners to provide direct aid to parishes and/or convert their loans into grants. I mention this in the context of the Commissioners’ wealth being in large measure a function of a regressive implicit subsidy of the Commissioners by the parishes by means of the parish share system (which means the Commissioners do not have to cover most stipends or accrue for post-1997 superannuation).

    In France the bishops were agitating actively for revisions to the strict ban on public worship, which never extended to livestreamed worship conducted by priests, with assistants and cantors. The French bishops, perhaps conscious of the risks associated with putting people out of the habit of regular worship, were very forceful in encouraging all parishes to be primed and ready for the resumption of public worship. This all happened very smoothly and quickly. There is a chance that the Church in France will pull through. France was presumed to be about a fortnight ahead of the UK in terms of infections (though by mid-March it became evident to Sage that this was not the case); since both countries were moving through the first wave in approximate lock-step, the re-opening of churches for public worship in the UK ought to have occurred at roughly the same time as in France (i.e., 20 May). Instead, at least six further weeks have been lost to public worship in England.

    This is crucial, because long-established habits are quickly lost (usually after about 10 weeks), and are difficult to re-establish. The additional time lag could have momentous, and catastrophic, consequences for the Church of England.

    In England the apparent lassitude of bishops and many clergy (busy congratulating themselves on the presumed success of ‘virtual worship’) in contrast to their French or German counterparts has been a wonder to behold. There seems little evidence that parishes were ready to hit the ground running on 5 July, though it ought to have been obvious to all but the most purblind for weeks before that public worship would recommence at some point in the near future. All we have had instead has been some timorous re-opening of churches for private prayer (they were always open on most of the continent even during lockdown), and very little public worship. I have this morning searched high and low for public worship in the dioceses of Bath & Wells, Salisbury, Bristol, Leicester, Peterborough, etc., and I have found very little on offer. I have done so since I have been undertaking a pilgrimage around the country for more than a decade, which has led me to attend services at more than 5,000 churches.

    I am sorry to put things this way, but what on earth are the clergy doing? Is this incompetence, laziness, negligence, or an unsavoury combination of this attributes? Given the imminent risk of the loss of the church-going habit (which may have occurred already to a large extent), it seems that a very large section of the clerical profession seems intent on putting the Church to death through sheer myopia and folly. Many clergy need to be given a very good collective kicking. Since the bishops are, for all their individual abilities, collectively incompetent, they cannot often be relied upon as a spur to re-establishing worship (and, with it, parochial and, therefore, diocesan finances) in the manner of bishops in France, Germany or Italy.

    This is a momentous period in the ecclesiastical history of the country; it has been a moment of truth, and the Church, taken as a whole, has failed abjectly to meet the challenge, especially in its upper echelons. And then we are treated to evasions and – at best – half-truths in the manner characterised by the answers to many of the questions posed in Synod.

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    1. I grant that the ‘advice’ (of 17 and 24 March) was adjusted subsequently, but not – it would seem – after the bishops had rejected overtures to modify that initial ‘advice’ (5 May). The ‘advice’ seems to have been refashioned only subtly and after relatively a protracted interval, and not in a manner which have anyone the impression that the substance of the message had changed in any way.

      Moreover, as the High Court has indicated lately in the Dolan case, the government’s decision to advise the closure of churches itself may have been unlawful.

      All the while, little effort appears to have been made to follow or learn from what was happening in neighbouring countries, who for a while had trajectories of infection and mortality that were similar to those prevalent in the UK (at least until the impact of the disastrous decisions to cease testing and to return infected patients to care homes were made). More obviously, the RCC took a quite different approach to their church buildings, without in any way discounting the importance of safety.

      Mr Welby protests that the Church had to take radical steps when the R number was at almost 3. That may have been true. However, as mentioned, the Church in France did not close churches completely (many remained open for limited periods), and services were livestreamed from a number of churches by clergy – thus retaining a connection between the buildings and the worshipping communities they serve. This was an essential step for the purpose of maintaining the connectivity between building and people, which will enable the French Church to survive following the crisis. Whilst I do not deny that Mr Welby and his colleagues needed to act quickly, they should have been more circumspect (by assessing what approaches were being taken by other countries), and they ought to have taken a much more dynamic approach to their ‘advice’ as the days and weeks passed, in view of the hit being taken by the Church at its grassroots. In addition, they should have been far less passive with respect to the re-opening of churches; prompt re-opening of the whole stock for worship being that more essential in order to forestall the complete withering of fragile grassroots.

      Although 48 people died from the virus yesterday in the UK (and about 1,700 people were recorded as infected), few churches will be used tomorrow for public worship. In France 24 people died from the virus yesterday (infections were about half those in the UK), but churches have re-opened everywhere, and this has been the case for seven or eight weeks.

      The habit of churchgoing, even amongst the rump of professing Anglicans, is therefore much more likely to be eroded in England than in France. Yet the stakes are rather higher in England and France, since in France the parish church is a charge to the local commune, whereas in England it is a vulnerable private trust enjoying scant public assistance.

      There seems scant recognition of that possibility on the part of many bishops and clergy.

      The Third Commissioner has today assured cathedrals of the provision of support. No such promises have been directed to the parishes, although it is the parishes who provide the cash to the dioceses, and thus relieve the Commissioners of the burden of funding most stipends and all pension accruals. The cathedrals are, truly, the spoilt children of the Church.

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