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