Episcopal Soft Power

The Rev’d Dr James Hadley finds the bishops’ protestations that there is no central plan to do away with the parish system disingenuous. Soft power, stealth, patronage and spin, allied with episcopal groupthink and the control of cash is just as powerful as a synodically agreed central policy.

In March, when the Government suspended public worship in the first stages of the COVID pandemic, the House of Bishops went beyond the requirements of secular COVID law in their instructions to the clergy. Priests were told not even to enter their churches, even though government legislation specifically allowed it under certain circumstances. We clergy followed in lockstep.

The crisis of the moment, and our right concern to do our part and be responsible, overrode the fact that there is actually remarkably little central ecclesial authority that can order the suspension of worship in parish churches. We all forgot that dispersed authority in the Church of England means that, civil law notwithstanding, only incumbents, churchwardens and PCCs can order the cessation of public worship and lock the doors of the local church building. But in the fog of the war against COVID we all fell into line.

An important lesson was learned. Just because something isn’t technically the case, or explicitly permitted, doesn’t mean that it is not proposed, planned for, and accomplished.

‘Soft influence’, stealth tactics and spin can frequently have the same, if not greater, effect as ‘hard power’ and law. Just ask those in the diplomatic corps. Bureaucratic negotiation, fake news, financial influence and cultural capital in the hands of a skilled manipulator can sometimes be just as effective as the power wielded by a dictator. Indeed the former is often more seductive, sweet, and felt by many politicians to be preferable to the latter.

I am convinced that the same dynamic is currently unfolding in the Church of England. A number of commentators and journalists have warned in the past weeks that the parish structure of our Church is under threat by ecclesial self-sabotage, managerialism, and the long running crisis of British Christian faith. A number of bishops have come out swinging to the contrary. Yet one senses a sleight of hand at play in their response.

The bishops protest that no national plan exists to close parishes in favour of allegedly flexible, building-free, church plants and new worshipping communities. But read between the lines. One has to admit that, technically speaking, central mechanisms to enforce such an idea do not exist in a synodal church with immense control devolved to dioceses. And yet, I return to the premise that just because something isn’t technically the case, or explicitly permitted, doesn’t mean that it is not proposed, planned for, and accomplished.

No, there may not be a centralized national blueprint calling for the consolidation, and/or elimination of the parish system. But that does not mean the intent and mechanisms to do so are not afoot in print, purpose, or personality.

One need only read Renewal and Reform or browse the corresponding webpage to see the writing on the wall. What exactly is described there as the Goliath we must reform? Answer: The parish structure. We must all be fresh and edgy, because for decades, we are told, the Church has not been.

The crucial point is this. Contrary to the protestations of certain bishops and others, two dynamics are clearly at play that enable the dismantling of the parish structure top to bottom.

(1) Bishop Groupthink. It doesn’t require synod to pass anything. If the managerial class of bishops agree individually that something should happen, as a collective they will try to make it happen in their respective dioceses. This is the obvious goal of the appointments process in the Church of England. Want to see something happen? Appoint the corresponding personnel.

(2) Cash flow. It doesn’t require an act of parliament or synodical measure to do away with the parochial system. The Church Commissioners’ money is regularly diverted to church plant experiments and away from “underperforming” parishes. The financial pressure leveraged against dioceses makes for a real ecclesial agenda in which parochial ministry receives less funding, whether this is spoken or not.

Protestations that something is not happening to our churches ring rather hollow. We on the ground are seeing the signs of it. We are watching it happen. But we cannot manage our way out of post-Christian unbelief. We must support a mechanism of engagement – and that is a parish in every locale, and a well-trained priest in every parish.

The Rev’d Dr James Hadley is Curate of the Parish of Harpenden. His academic interests include liturgical and sacramental theology, and religious art.

A Nuptial Mess

The Revd Paul Thomas asks important questions about our legal and theological understanding of Christian marriage raised by recent reports of a private back garden marriage three days before a couple were due to be married in church.

A couple gave an interview this week in which they revealed that ‘three days before our wedding we got married’. This marriage consisted of ‘just the three of them’, namely the bride, bridegroom, and the officiant who was to minister the sacrament of Holy Matrimony days later. The couple wanted to have their own moment, and so they telephoned the officiant and said, ‘Look, this thing, this spectacle, is for the world, but we want our union between us’.

The officiant paid them a visit, and the couple appear to have exchanged vows in his presence. These vows, we assume, were penned by the couple themselves, vows which are now wall-mounted and available for visitors to the couple’s home to read, we are informed.

The words of these vows are not known to us as they are private, and so too are the words spoken by the minister. But that the minister was present and spoke words in his capacity as a minister is certain, and that they were words of blessing is highly likely. Believing this to be a private matter, the minister had every reason to expect that a service consisting of ‘just the three of them’ would always remain between just the three of them.

This is a question-raising scenario.

The legal and canonical questions can be addressed quickly. This and any other private garden marriage is not a marriage. This may come as a genuine blow to the couple who sincerely appear to believe (and rather cherish) the fact that they were united in this exclusive and intimate way before the public ceremonies of their wedding day. There were no witnesses present as the law demands for validity, nor were registers signed to indicate the definitive legal reality of their union, nor were authorized vows used. In addition, the place where they were ‘married’ – their back garden – is not licensed for marriages under the law governing marriages in England and Wales, and the officiant was not acting with the authority and dispensation of the necessary Licence for it to be a marriage.

There is no question that what the couple has made public was not the contracting of a marriage as the law and the Church understand it. But that they believe they were married before their wedding day should be taken seriously, not least for pastoral reasons. The official comments made in the light of this news have focussed, necessarily perhaps, on the legal nullity of these garden nuptials, but the pastoral realities of this situation are serious.

There is good reason and ancient precedent that the liturgical rites and ceremonies of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony exist within a framework of law; marriage has a legal personality and the rites of Holy Matrimony in the Church of England and Church in Wales affect a change in the legal status of those being united in and through that sacrament – which is why these rites must be handled with very great care.

As well-meaning as a private garden service might have been at the time in order to meet the immediate pastoral needs of the couple, this private and informal liturgical act clearly gave the impression (and not unjustifiably) that in and through it a married union had come into being, albeit one that had yet to be legally registered and publicly witnessed. It is not in the pastoral best interests of this couple nor any couple to be given such an impression only for it later to be very publicly denied.

Then there is a question of precedent to be alert to. Now that the details of their private ‘marriage’ are very public, many among the parochial clergy can now expect to field a variety of unwelcome questions and requests for similar services. A situation which is already complicated, and at times conflictual, has been made more so by this very public precedent. The secular culture in which clergy are exercising marriage ministry too often sees little need for or relevance in the various requirements the clergy make: qualifications to be married in church; the importance of the consecrated building in which the marriage rite must be celebrated; the spiritual and pastoral preparation necessary; the Church’s legal preliminaries – all these things stand athwart the dominant culture.

This important ministry will now, we can expect, come under even greater pressure to give way to consumer demands, demands which would far prefer to see the clergy marryingcouples in the garden, or even the Garden Centre, according to the tastes and requirements of the couple. A culture which lauds self-fulfilment and self-assertion above all else hears the Gospel of self-as-gift with its careful liturgical and ritual expression with near incomprehension. This difficult situation has been made that more difficult by reports of backyard blessings.

Lastly, it appears that the couple in question were labouring under a common but dangerous misunderstanding in relation to marriage, namely that there is on one hand a ‘union between us’ made privately which is essential and greater, and on the other a public event or ‘spectacle’ performed in a chapel which although legally necessary is inferior.

It is crucial for the pastoral good of the couple as well as the common good of society for the minister to ensure that those entering the holy estate of matrimony have been prepared to understand that there is in the Christian doctrine of marriage no distinction to be made between the private union of two persons and its public character. There is compelling reason why weddings are not conducted clandestinely, because they are not lived clandestinely.

The character of Christian marriage is incarnated in the concrete realities of daily life in which a man and woman live out their mutual self-giving in relation not only to each other but to all others by being actively and christianly part of the human community. Self-gift in marriage does not require the couple to turn in upon one another to the exclusion of all, but rather to turn outward toward the world, so that united in mutual self-giving, they may offertheir marriage as a witness to it, for the world’s good, as a model of the world’s redemption in Christ. 

Christian marriage is inescapably public, deeply personal, yes, but never private. To allow a separation to occur between the private and public in marriage rends asunder what God has joined together.

The Rev’d Paul Thomas is Vicar of St James’s Sussex Gardens & Area Dean of Paddington.

The Primacy of the Parish

The Bishop of Burnley responds to recent claims that the Parish system is up for wide scale review, and strengthens the case for its place at the heart of the identity and mission of the Church of England. He suggests we need to trust the local to make good decisions, resolutely address failure where it occurs, and invest in priests who can renew Parish communities.

At St Peter’s in Fleetwood the parish priest has pulled together a consortium which has bought the hospital in the town centre and has developed it as a facility for vulnerable adults with a food pantry and wide range of other services. At St James Haslingden they have formed a community of 30 people who meet online each day for Morning Prayer and who now cook and deliver hot lunches to around 100 people in the community. At Preston Minister they have provided meals to tens of thousands of students and families and are offering genuine excellence in the live-streaming of worship. I could go on … and on! All this, of course, on top of the routine of sustaining a life of prayer and worship. 

This pandemic has shown the extraordinary agility and flexibility of the Parish system. Not many years ago the Parish was being written off as part of the furniture of ‘inherited church’ which, with its expensive buildings and out-dated worship, had to be swept away to make space for the bold and new. 

But the past year has shown exactly why the Parish is and must remain the bedrock of Anglican life in our nation. What makes the ministry of the Church of England distinctive is its legal responsibility for the ‘cure’ of every soul in the nation. It is through the Parish that that lofty goal is delivered.

Within every neighbourhood in this nation there is a family of Anglican Christians who gather in worship and prayer and who seek only the common good of the communities they serve. Most maintain a building as a sacred space for prayer and a tangible symbol of the presence of the incarnate Lord in the lives of his people. Most contribute generously to the stipend and housing costs of a priest who can express the ministry of Jesus Christ through the sacramental life and pastoral ministry. This is an extraordinary contribution to our national life which the Church of England offers at no cost to the national purse. 

In the past three decades we have seen a huge raft of evangelistic initiatives which have pioneered new ways to share the faith. New local congregations, nurture groups, Fresh Expressions, Messy Church and so many others have sought to capture imaginations afresh with the Gospel. What do they have in common? Every single one relies completely on the stability of the Parish structure for finance and implementation. 

So why not leave everything as it is? Recent articles in The Spectator and elsewhere in the press have hinted darkly at plots within the House of Bishops to dismantle the Parochial structure, to add thousands of clergy to the dole queue and to close many of our buildings. There is much that is mistaken in this coverage, not least that the decentralised structure of the Church of England with its 42 autonomous dioceses and 12,000 independent parishes renders such a centralist programme of reform entirely undeliverable. 

But the biggest mistake that lies behind these articles and much of the reaction to them is the presumption that we can leave the Parochial system as we know it now unchanged. The Parish has survived for so many centuries precisely because of the flexibility that we have seen in recent months. In a Church that faces numerous issues in rebuilding its spiritual and financial life after the most desperate health crisis in a century, that flexibility is going to be needed all the more. Only a fool could argue that everything should stay the same.

So how should Parish life adapt? Here are three suggestions.

First we need to trust the local. In response to the pandemic some dioceses are tempted to implement centrally driven programmes of pastoral re-organisation in which the map and the spreadsheet are used to ‘re-imagine’ church life. But there is an alternative which is to hand over much more responsibility to each Parish so that the PCC determines the level of priestly ministry they receive and how they will pay for it. We should shrink the centre and trust the local, using a small level of centrally pooled funds, a fairer distribution of Diocesan historic assets and Church Commissioners Lowest Income Community Funding to sustain urban parishes. This is the model used in the rest of the Anglican Communion and it is one that would incentivise growth and generosity rather than genteel decline. 

Second we need to address failure. In most dioceses the cause of financial problems is a small percentage of parishes which are simply not viable. Some have no vision or zeal for souls, some have priests who have given up hope or who lack motivation, others are infected with toxic relationships. Heavy legal structures make it all but impossible to deal with failed parishes such as these. They are a luxury we can no longer afford, and reform is required so that the small number of failing parishes do not drag down the whole. There are occasions when the best way to serve a community is to close and re-plant.

And third, we need to learn the art of Parish renewal. There are many schemes to train pioneers who can start something from nothing, and they have an important part to play. But what most dioceses need above all is priests and lay leaders who can renew an existing Parish, who can lead tired laity to deeper conversion, who can draw new people into relationship with Jesus Christ, who can demonstrate excellence in the ordering of worship and in pastoral care and so who can bring steady, unspectacular growth. 

The Church of England is inconceivable without the stable bedrock of Parochial life. But an unthinking conservative reaction to the need for reform will not preserve it. Every tradition will need to demonstrate the fleetness of foot we have seen in this year of pandemic. For above all we must remember that our primary purpose is not the preservation of inherited structures but the worship of Jesus Christ. 

The Rt Rev’d Philip North is Bishop of Burnley in the Diocese of Blackburn.

Super Bishops & Simpler Structures

Ben Phillips reflects on the increasingly top-heavy structures of the Church of England and commends a radical rethinking of diocesan boundaries which would enable bishops to be both real pastors on the ground and effective symbolic leaders of the wider Church.

Many in the Anglican Twitter-sphere were found to be getting their ecclesiastical hosiery in a twist on 26 December, after an entertaining piece by Steven Doughty appeared in the Daily Mail.(1) (with accompanying header photo. ed)

Whilst the headline ‘Shutdown of churches and ban on weddings during Covid crisis has cost Church of England £150MILLION and could trigger a cull of parishes’ was designed to provoke and outrage on the second day of Christmas, Mr Doughty’s report contained something more interesting to the readership of this blog: ‘Among those [reforms] discussed have been a cut in the number of bishops from more than 100 to as few as ten.’

From 119 to 10! (2) Many readers will laugh at the prospect of a 90% purge of bishops. It can be argued that having cut at the parish level for decade upon decade, any future reorganisation requires some members of the House of Bishops to contemplate the same sort of reduction within its own ranks. 

After such significant investment in time, effort and patronage of the Talent Pool, the ‘mini-MBA’ for Deans, the unrivalled expansion of Archdeacons and director-level posts with titles such as ‘Creation and Justice’ and ‘New Communities and Evangelism’, are we to see it go the way of all flesh, so that we may be ‘Bolder, Simpler, Humbler’? As the new Archbishop of York said in his address to Synod: “We, the Church of Jesus Christ is (sic) being purged. We are being asked to consider what really matters, and where shall we put our trust, and upon what things shall we depend.” (3) Surely, a reduction in unnecessary and tangential positions to the core ministry of the Church is intended as part of this vision? I’m not so sure it is.

From the Arbuthnot Committee on Diocesan Boundaries in 1965 (4), right through to the so-called ‘West Yorkshire and the Daleks’ scheme in 2013, the Church has constantly reiterated its emphasis on being smaller and nearer to people, promising to pull back the creep in hierarchy numbers whilst in fact doing the complete opposite. So how does 119 become 10? 

In a Church Times article as far back as 2 May 2003, the Reverend Gareth Miller wrote of the critical financial and pastoral crisis facing the Church of England. Entitled ‘A Church Simplified and Renewed’, (5) the article makes a radical suggestion of tearing up the English diocesan model and replacing it on a model more akin to that of the US Episcopal Church or of our Roman Catholic brethren. It is an interesting model – by grouping each current diocese into a new ‘super diocese’ (6) with a bishop with Metropolitan-type powers, the necessary administration and ‘curial’ functions of each current diocese would be absorbed into a regional centre. The current diocesan structure of advisors, committees and working groups would too be lifted to regional level. The bishops of these ‘super dioceses’ could not be the micro-managerial type that seems to find favour within the House of Bishops at present. Such larger dioceses would require a bishop who would be comfortable with being more a figure-head leader administratively, who could hold the office with gravitas and be at ease with that. This might re-open the episcopate to those academics who have shown reluctance to accept nomination, but also allow for those whose who were more pastoral a chance to be nearer the faithful and be out in the diocese as their ‘Father/Mother-in-God’ because they are not weighed down and encumbered by managerial responsibilities on a day-to-day basis. Whilst we may never get the balance right between the somewhat divergent catholic and evangelical understanding of bishops I believe that this shake-up would give us the once-in-a-generation opportunity to edge closer towards that goal. 

So where do we see these new ‘super dioceses’ being based? Mr Miller’s model suggests 10 which seem to be a good starting base:

Ely (or, possibly, Norwich)
Birmingham (or, possibly, Lichfield)

It is clear that both Archbishops would not (and could not) be bishop of their respective ‘super-diocese’, and in some cases, the administration of it would not be from the see-town.(7) So we’ve found our ten – but what of the others? Before Watts and Co. begin packing up their episcopal purple for storage, Mr Miller contemplates a more local ‘accessible… and pastoral’ episcopate, made up of 104 episcopal areas, (8) his aim being that ‘it makes the dioceses smaller, simpler and more coherent.’ Under his place, each of these episcopal areas would have a single Archdeacon, and potentially a Cathedral, although Miller admits that this would mean levelling down some more ancient foundations to be smaller and simpler, to reflect their episcopal area. Smaller, simpler, more coherent – sounds familiar, doesn’t it? 

I look forward to seeing the Synod proposal detailing the new plans in due course. Archbishop Stephen is right – we do need to consider what really matters, on what we can depend and where we can put our trust. As we have seen in recent months, the current system has not functioned well for some time, trust is at an all-time low, and, I’m sure I can speak for many in saying that I have found it difficult to depend on the Church for quite some time. My hope is that those of us who truly believe that the Church of England is a place for all expressions of Anglicanism will be able to have our voices heard and contribute to the changes our Church is called to face, however hard and however difficult.

Ben Phillips is a liturgist and historical musicologist, currently finishing research into Welsh Anglican choral foundations in the wake of dis-establishment.


1 https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9088245/Shutdown-churches-ban-weddings-Covid-crisis-cost-CofE-150MILLION.html 

2 This does not count the two current vacant suffragan sees at time of writing (Stockport and Stafford), or the Bishop at Lambeth.

3 Cottrell, S., Presidential Address to General Synod (July sitting 2020), https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2020-07/Presidential%20Address%20-%20General%20Synod%20July%202020%20.pdf

4 Diocesan Boundaries, being the Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on the Organisation

5 https://web.archive.org/web/20030502202842/http://www.sarmiento.plus.com/documents/garethmiller.html#table

6 Mr Miller refers to them as ‘provinces’ and their bishops as ‘metropolitans’ – to save confusion, I have retitled them as “super-diocese” and “bishop/diocesan bishop” respectively.

7 For example, Newcastle would make more sense for the Durham “super-diocese”, and Lichfield as the Cathedral of the Birmingham “super-diocese”.

8 In his piece, Mr Miller refers to them as ‘dioceses’. Since most diocesan responsibilities have been raised to the regional level, I have designated these as ‘episcopal areas’.

Middle Management Malaise

Charlotte Gauthier speaks from her experience of middle management in the secular world – how it works well, and where it works badly. The Church of England is replicating all the worst management patterns of a failing company heading for collapse. How can we stop this malaise and restore an efficient and energising vision of what the Church of England could be?

Much has been made recently of the increasing bureaucratisation of the Church of England, with a seemingly endless proliferation of middle-management-style posts at diocesan and central level. Commentators have decried the rise of Associate Archdeacons, Directors of Peace, Justice and the Integrity of Creation, and other such conjurations of overzealous HR departments, whose ministries seem entirely disconnected from the worship of Almighty God amongst our friends and neighbours in the village church.

As a former middle manager at companies and charities ranging from six-person startups to multinational publishing houses, I know that effective middle managers act in the same way a transmission does in an automobile, driving power from the engine to the wheels. But adding more and more transmissions to a car won’t help get you anywhere if the engine is choked – or dead. Middle managers translate vision into the strategy and tactics that will turn things written on paper into a reality in the world. They are useless – or worse, destructive – in the absence of a clear vision, and can never compensate for its lack.

A lack of vision is therefore the single most pressing issue facing the Church today. Practical problems, like the structural issues with central funding that cannot be used for parish ministry and thus encourage the proliferation of central roles, need to be addressed in Synod. The motivation for addressing such practical problems will not arise without some sense of what we are striving towards as the Church, however.

The plughole diagram that presently substitutes for the 2020s vision of the Church of England is dead on arrival. Jargon-filled meaninglessness never motivated anyone to dedicate their lives to building it. People have to be wildly over-compensated to spend their careers enacting such things. The present proliferation of Directors of this and Associate Archdeacons of that is plainly an attempt by Church leadership to substitute strategy and tactics for vision. The Directors have been hired to figure out what to do without being given the support or the leadership necessary for them to do their jobs effectively or the clear vision that is so necessary as a yardstick for their effectiveness in their roles. It’s a pattern depressingly familiar to anyone who has worked at a failing company with a CEO who is out of his depth.

Fortunately, there is an alternative vision available – a clear, compelling vision with which the majority already agree. It is simply this: A Christian presence in every community.

Six words. And that’s all you need. Everything else – Church structures, funding, training, and all the rest – can neatly fall in line behind it, if we have the courage to drop the insulating and responsibility-shunning layers of management twaddle and commit to something so simple, pure, and holy.

Let those who have the experience translating vision into strategy and tactics show the Church how to make it work. These needn’t be overpaid central posts; plenty of experienced laity would jump at the chance to work with clergy to figure it out. Most of all, it’s a vision to which people can dedicate their lives. Christians from the Apostles to the present day have done so. Why not us? Why not now?

Charlotte Gauthier is a historian whose research focuses on late-medieval conceptions of ‘Christendom’ and the effect of the crusades on Church, state and society in fifteenth-century England. Before returning to academe, Charlotte was a manager specialising in digital strategy for the publishing and charitable sectors.

Back to Basics Bishops

Fr Barry Orford asks important questions about how the Church of England goes about appointing bishops and what a bishop is. Has an obsession with managerialism prompted us to lose sight of the true episcopal vocation to serve and care for the flock of Christ?

When the Pandemic recedes, the Church of England will face one of its biggest challenges, and therefore biggest opportunities, in recent times. It needs to find humility, and learn afresh what the Church is here to be. Vital to that will be rediscovering what purpose bishops should be serving.

It was inevitable that the House of Bishops should be strongly criticized for going beyond what the law required in their response to the first lockdown. In fairness to them, however, they can never please everyone, and this was a situation none could have anticipated.

Nonetheless, it has released an explosion of anger and frustration against the Church’s leadership which had been building up for some time. As a result, we are in territory where the historic relationship between bishops, their clergy and their people is seriously threatened.

The contributory factors are familiar: complaints from clergy that their bishops have no time for them; mounting wrath with ever-increasing diocesan management posts with high-flown titles while churches are deprived of priests; frustration in parishes at being treated like financial cattle whose role is to be milked relentlessly for diocesan funds; suspicion at how those funds are being used; rage at the way parishes are falling victim to schemes for “rationalization” hatched by diocesan officials, and so on.

However, as I have spoken and corresponded with priests and lay people something more has become apparent. Not only are they disillusioned with many of their bishops, they no longer trust them. They are frequently not convinced that all diocesan bishops have the interests of the faithful at heart.

To mention but one sensitive issue, those who are working as parish priests frequently do not believe that their Fathers/Mothers in God are actively upholding the parish as the most important unit in the Church’s outreach – hence the episcopal willingness to keep parishes without priests, to threaten with closure churches deemed to be “failing”, and to pressurize churches into suspending services on the pretext of keeping people safe from COVID-19. Behind this discontent is a rising conviction that bishops, with honourable exceptions, are management people rather than spiritual leaders.

Under Justin Welby, we have seen the creation of a bench of bishops cut mostly from the same cloth – frequently evangelical, unfamiliar with the Anglican tradition’s emphasis on liturgical and sacramental worship, and often hazy about its distinctive approach to theology and spirituality. As a colleague remarked to me, “In the Church of England today, the ordained ministry has ceased to be a vocation and become a career structure.” Looking at the present episcopate, the pattern of advancement becomes depressingly familiar.

How much responsibility for this lies with the Crown Nominations Commission? With them, finding candidates for the episcopate seems to have become a matter of box-ticking, and selecting individuals from approved lists of safe names. Are serious scholars or theologians ever put forward for nomination?

No doubt the CNC will claim that it is committed to genuine discernment in selecting bishops. I therefore ask the CNC, when are its deliberations attended and assisted by experienced guides in the Ignatian principles of Spiritual Discernment? A rhetorical question, because what the CNC means by discernment appears to be managerial and political calculation with a dusting of piety.

If priests and parishes are to recover confidence in their diocesan bishops, then episcopal material must change, which means the process of electing bishops must be changed, along with the expectations the Church has of its bishops.

Whatever means we employ for making episcopal appointments, they must have at their heart the conviction that a bishop is to be above all someone whose priorities are prayer, sacramental worship, the pastoral care of their clergy, learning, and absolute dedication to helping parishes flourish under hard-working priests. It is not enough for such ideals to be recited at episcopal consecrations, only for new bishops immediately to become functionaries of the present Church Managerial.

There are those who would fit this bill, but they are unlikely to feature on lists of individuals deemed acceptable for episcopal election, and if made suffragans are rarely appointed as diocesans. Some might see what I am saying as unfair to our bishops and the CNC, and an absurdly idealistic view of what contemporary bishops should be. Nonetheless, I am undoubtedly not alone in thinking our present ways of appointing bishops are flawed by fatal misconceptions of the episcopal office. We need leaders who will act as true shepherds to their clergy and people.

The dissatisfaction of priests and parishes with the present leadership is a fact. If the Pandemic does not goad us into a return to basics, then the outlook is indeed bleak. The future does not lie with streamed services, or maintaining the Institution, or inflated schemes for mission. It lies with the greatest possession we have, parishes served by dedicated priests. 

Fundamental to renewal will be the restoration to us of bishops committed to supporting and inspiring those parishes, as well as being desperately needed spiritual leaders and teachers. It is time for us to raise our voices and demand the reforms which will bring us such leadership.

The Revd Dr Barry A. Orford is a retired priest and an Emeritus Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford.

Change and Clerical Decay

Dexter Bracey asks if the current agenda for change in the Church of England might not be at odds with the spirit of the newly published Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing. Could it be that the trend for reinvention is driving clergy to burn out?

The heavy burden of office appears to be taking its toll on Archbishop Justin Welby, with comments on social media about his sometimes frail-looking appearance. I for one hope that he is in good health, and that his forthcoming sabbatical may be a time of refreshment and renewal for him.

Yet, only a year from when the Church of England agreed its Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing, I find myself pondering why the burdens of office might weigh on him in a particularly heavy way. I have no doubt that the demands of that particular office are very weighty; but I can think of too many clergy who have been made ill in the exercise of their office, so I suspect that a deeper malaise is at work.

Part of that malaise, I suspect, is the culture in which “change” has become so central. It is no secret that Justin Welby took up office intending to instigate a significant change in the life and culture of the Church of England. Indeed, the programme at the heart of his archiepiscopate is called ‘Renewal and Reform’, words that speak of things being shaken up rather than of stability and continuity. At various points, Archbishop Justin has complained that “there are no easy levers of change that I can pull” (1) but despite that he has overseen a massive shift in the way in which the Church of England sets its priorities, focusses its spending, and speaks and thinks about its purpose. The introduction of the Strategic Development Fund, and the rapid growth of resource churches, have seen traditional parish ministry, with all its established connections and relationship, downgraded in favour of resource hubs and fresh expressions. Follow the money, and you will see exactly what the Church of England under Justin Welby thinks is important.

Achieving such a shift will not have come easily. It will have required the overcoming of resistance at every level, and constantly working against the grain would be exhausting for anyone. That will be as true for an archbishop as it will be for anyone else. There are also clergy around the country who have suffered as a result of the pressure to introduce change, and to be seen to be getting with the programme.

In some places, the expectation that those in ministry will be in the business of driving change through the barriers of resistance is embedded in some of the on-going training offered to clergy. When I served in the Bristol Diocese I was one of a large number of clergy put through its Missional Leadership Course run jointly with CPAS. Those leading the course were enthusiastic supporters of the ‘Renewal and Reform’ programme, and at the heart of that course was a conviction that change was an inherently good thing, which should be the goal of every Christian minister. Indeed, such was the commitment to the ideal of change as an inherent good that one of the tutors said at one point that he wished that at theological college he had spent less time studying Christology and more time studying change management.

One particular session from that course, however, remains stuck in my mind. Another of the tutors told us the supposedly encouraging tale of one minister who had achieved his desired change in his church. He had done so by committing an entire year to his project of changing the community for which he was responsible, and spending every available evening visiting members of his congregation, putting his case, and winning people over one by one. They came to agree with him: he achieved his goal. Having told this story, though, the tutor added – almost as an afterthought – that the minister in question had made himself ill in the process of seeing his project through.

I don’t know if I was the only one to be struck by that final comment, but I was the one stupid enough to put up my hand and ask if that was what the Church of England now expected of its clergy, that we should put our health on the line in order to pursue the holy grail of change. Of course, it was a stupid question, because there is no way that anyone would answer it. The tutor ‘ummed’, and ‘ahhed’, and fluffed and flannelled, and averred that it was all very difficult. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the Church of England does indeed see its clergy as cannon fodder in the war for change, and that we are expected, as one former colleague of mine once put it, to suck it up for Jesus.

Of course, we all know that change in the life of the Church of England is inevitable, and that things can’t go on as they are indefinitely. Yet quite how the life of the Church will develop cannot now be known, much less planned for. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that plans are the playthings of fools: events will lay waste the best made plans, and we gain nothing by making ourselves ill in pursuit of them. What we need now is the Spirit of wisdom that we might know something of God’s intentions for his Church, not the wisdom of management consultants and change managers.

The Church of England now has a Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing. We might find it ironic that such a thing has come into being in the year when clergy redundancies have begun to loom as a frightening reality. I would suggest, therefore, that if the Church of England is serious about the well-being of its clergy, it might revisit some of the assumptions behind the ‘Renewal and Reform’ programme. It might then consider where and how to invest in parish clergy who are so often overstretched and under-resourced. It might even do away with the idol of ‘change’ which so often puts clergy through the mill, can stretch pastoral relationships to their limit or beyond, and takes a massive toll, spiritually and emotionally, on those expected to drive that change through.

We have recently celebrated the incarnation of the One who came that we might have life and have it in abundance: clergy, be they parish priest or archbishop, might know more of that abundant life if they were free of programmes for change.

The Rev’d Dexter Bracey, Rector of St John the Baptist, Coventry

1) e.g. https://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/should-clergy-expect-deference/ (15th July 2019)

Build Bach Better

Opportunity from crisis in COVID-era Parish music-making

Jonathan Pease examines recent trends and developments in the Church of England’s choral tradition. Although COVID has produced many problems for church choirs in the immediate term, might it be that the pandemic prompts a renaissance in traditional church music and the life of parochial choirs in the long term?

The last traces of stained-glass moonlight vanish from the choir stalls. Sturdily designed for one row of trebles and two rows of adults on each side, they bear but eight piles of music, dutifully laid out for Thursday choir practice. With bitter nostalgia, the choirmaster examines a picture of himself in the vestry, proud behind thick, black glasses: The Choir of St Balthasar, 1976. It was Darke in F back then, you see, followed by Sumsion for Evensong; and Choral Mattins on the Queen’s Official Birthday.

But that was before the Beasants moved away, and Rosemary’s piles made the top C in Allegri’s Miserere too risky. And that trendy new vicar they sent in ’94 wasn’t much good, either. “Times are changing,” he said. “How can we make church music more… democratic?”

In scenes redolent of The Dream of Gerontius, the choirmaster drifts away and glimpses the afterlife: his hell of jangling guitars; his purgatory of the New People’s Mass and gender-neutral hymn lyrics; culminating in a glorious vision of his own personal heaven: a church where Government and Episcopy conspire to ban congregational singing and return musical duties solely to the choir.

Choral singing in church has, alas, just been outlawed again. But for a few months, our friend enjoyed an earthly foretaste of paradise. In fact, as COVID-19 conspiracy theories go, the involvement of a disgruntled choirmaster is scarcely the least plausible. Many feel that restrictions have hit the High Church hardest, compromising tangible, sacramental ministry, while the sermons of her Evangelical cousins transfer online in a flash: and with a pause button into the bargain. But aesthetically, should the reserve and introversion of the High Church – the tacit envelopment in scripture, ceremony, music – really fear a state-sanctioned still, small voice of calm? After a flash of monopoly status for our church choirs, I wonder: could the Coronavirus lead to a renewed interest in choral liturgy?

Our protagonist oversees what I’ll unkindly call a zombie choir. Once offering a 30-strong weekly Evensong, it is now painfully diminished, numerically and musically. Membership is, commendably, drawn mostly from the congregation, but recruitment is a desperate struggle. They don red outfits, bear tattered folders and process with varying degrees of precision, but are essentially prefects, leading congregational hymns and mass settings: perhaps stretching to a motet, if numbers allow. Such situations are common, and of noble provenance. Removing long-held status from devoted volunteers ain’t a good look for a Vicar. Besides, it’s helpful to have somebody leading the singing, and people like to know the choir is there. “Nice to see a robed choir on Christmas Morning!” somebody once exclaimed to me, with zero reference to any aural experience.

Through the most unforeseen of circumstances, such groups have just enjoyed a few months of genuine leadership. They remain permitted to record in church, and my money says that they’ll be back long before congregational singing. Maybe it’s time we took them for a test drive.

As a none-too-observant newcomer to a Chapel Choir, I pondered that the Magnificat settings we sang all had very similar words. Barely more informed, I took up my first Anglican organ post and noted, bemused, that everybody was saying the same words every week. Of course, the former is a counterpoint to the latter: the beauty of liturgy lies in repetition and rhythm, the kaleidoscope year bringing change only in appointed places. With choirs in the limelight, is now our chance to rediscover their potential to recolour and refresh the unchanging language of the liturgy? Is it any less mad to repeat the same mass setting every week than the same readings or prayers? As seasonal hymns elucidate and poeticise our scriptural diet, might we rediscover the choral repertoire written expressly for this purpose?

The Parish Choir was historically a source of free education, with particular significance to poorer areas. On my travels, I’ve encountered a man whose 1950s choristership at St Peter’s Bethnal Green equipped him to become choirmaster at a ‘big show’ in leafier Woodford. Free music lessons at St John the Baptist Hoxton changed the poverty-stricken childhood of a bass of mine. It’s considered good sport to decry the choral world as elitist. Maybe it is: but rather than moaning, couldn’t we replenish our churches’ now-barren musical landscapes by restoring these opportunities, and leaving aside snobbish assumptions (surely disproven, anyway, by the glorious work of St John the Divine Kennington) that poorer, more diverse parishes have nothing to gain?

Many churches bemoan the depletion of their choir, but struggle to scrutinise their offer to prospective singers. A weekly evening practice and five hymns on a Sunday may not attract the ex-choral scholar who rents in your parish for a few years; but a monthly ‘come-and-sing’ Evensong might. Can we reverse a vicious cycle of diminished responsibility, diminished satisfaction, diminished recruitment and diminished capability? Might we stop blaming others – “he moved away”, “there’s not the commitment there was” – and reach out again to newcomers, particularly at a time when church music-making is generally less restricted than secular activity?

It’s interesting to consider that much Anglican liturgy doesn’t specifically call for hymnody. John Betjeman’s Undenominational gleefully earmarks hymns as the definition of the non-conformist church. In contrast, many Victorian Eucharistic choral settings provide the Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Gospel responses and more, implying an absolute minimum of congregational singing – or even speaking. The assumption that engagement with a service comes down to ‘joining in’ rather than quiet appreciation has the paw-prints of an arch-extrovert all over it. Some consider choir-led services cliquey; but finding that nobody expects you to know anything or join in is, to some, a dream welcome. Might this time attract those whose preference is to imbibe rather than to star?

By now, I may have elicited protest. There is more to a successful choir than thinking it would be nice! Isn’t it sensible to cut your coat to fit your cloth? Don’t you know that our only tenor can’t come every week? Where do we find the money to spend on music? We’re not St Martin-in-the-Fields, you know!

Pragmatic is good. Pigeon steps can lead to organic growth. What if, during the new lockdown, an unloved choir somewhere recorded a simple online Evensong? What if it recorded some favourite hymns with clear harmony and renewed attention to phrasing and meaning? When it returns to services – doubtless before congregational singing – what if it sang a choral Agnus Dei once per month? What if it sang a motet at the Gradual, illustrating the day’s Gospel? What if starved singers from the local area could be enticed to join once a month? A church near mine now live-streams Compline, chanted by only the Priest and a Minister. I doubt they even know who’s watching.‘Slow’ doesn’t freak out congregations or volunteers, but introduces new rhythms and responsibilities gently. More rehearsal can be devoted to doing fewer things better: “more of less”, to quote W1A.

There is no worthier target of suspicion in church life than somebody with shiny, easy answers. I don’t presume to herald musical revolution in five easy steps. But as larger foundations face financial hardship and bog-standard parish choirs find themselves newly emboldened, a half-remembered phrase springs to mind about exalting the humble and meek. I merely ask whether, through the gloom and misery, a renaissance for the Parish Choir could just lie ahead.

Jonathan Pease is Director of Music at St Peter’s London Docks and founder of the East London Evensong Choir.

In defence of the clerical antiquary

Francis Young takes a new look at the clerical antiquarianism of yesteryear. Has the Church lost something in the demise of learned clergy with active academic interests and scholarly knowledge of local history and lore? Is the scholar antiquarian a priestly stereotype from a bygone era, or the representative of a tradition of learning from which the modern Church can gain much?

The clerical antiquary is a dying species. There are plenty of contemporary clergy with degrees in Church History, and some notable academic church historians in holy orders, but there are few parochial clergy who devote themselves to local antiquarian pursuits in the manner of so many of their forebears.

To many – perhaps most – in the contemporary Church, it is self-evident that a member of the clergy spending a large proportion of their time researching local history and archaeology is deserting their duty. This is not what the clergy are for, we are told (although the clergy are increasingly pressed into roles their predecessors would never have dreamed were part of their ministry). Indeed, the stereotyped Georgian or Victorian clergyman who spent all his time in ‘secular’ pursuits such as collecting fossils or directing excavations is something of a figure of fun – people snigger at the thought of clergy who essentially used the ‘leisure’ afforded by their position to spend their time in research and study, rather than looking after their parishioners.

Yet is it time to reconsider this stereotype, and ask whether clerical antiquaries really were the workshy examples of ecclesiastical decadence they are so often taken to be?

Apart from those clergy who spent much of their time in antiquarian pursuits because their parishes were very small and there was not a lot else to do, many clergy who had been fellows of Oxford and Cambridge colleges saw an incumbency as an opportunity to continue research they had begun at the university. At a time when there was no such thing as a research degree, an incumbency was often the closest Georgian and Victorian England had to a funded opportunity for early career researchers. If we begrudge the fact that clergy used their time for research, we might well ask how else married men could have continued an academic career (at a time when fellows of Oxford and Cambridge colleges were still required to be celibate). For those without private means, virtually the only way to obtain a higher degree was through research undertaken in an ecclesiastical office.

Beyond the opportunities that an incumbency afforded for pursuing research that could not otherwise be supported, clerical antiquaries often made lasting contributions to the survival of their local churches that continue to resonate today. In many cases, churches are still loved and much visited because an earlier incumbent took the trouble to uncover that church’s remarkable past. For every Victorian rector who disfigured his church with a half-baked neogothic ‘restoration’, there was another who uncovered layers of unappreciated architecture and artefacts from beneath whitewash, ungainly box pews and teetering public galleries.

Furthermore, the antiquarian interests of most clerical antiquaries extended far beyond the church building, encompassing the history of the entire parish. Clergy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were often the only person in the parish with the level of education required to understand and make use of the sources of local history. Many made no glamorous discoveries, and their names are not remembered; but by laying the foundations of parish histories they put their communities on the map. They created a powerful sense of local identity, rooted in the historic landscape, in permanent monuments and in properly documented history, that was more lasting than mere civic or parochial pride.

In an age where many clergy are burdened by the care of those historic buildings whose significance the clerical antiquaries uncovered, some may ask with Jesus himself, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’ (Luke 24:5). What does the study of the past have to do with the Gospel and the Christian faith?

We owe much of what we take for granted about England’s parish churches to the clerical antiquaries – including, of course, their dedications, most of which were lost at the Reformation and rediscovered or conjectured by Victorian incumbents with an antiquarian bent. And the parish is, arguably, a community extended across time as well as space; a little corner of the Communion of Saints, both living and dead. The parish owes a duty to the dead as well as the living – or, more accurately, a duty to the living to remind them what they can learn from honouring the dead. This went without saying in the medieval parish, which was steeped in daily performative acts of commemoration, where the boundary between the influence of the living and the long dead became blurred in the demands of chantries, bedehouses and endowed masses.

Clerical antiquarianism arose out of the anxieties of the post-Reformation Church, where high churchmen were eager to demonstrate the rights of the Church against secular power and to show their continuity (albeit appropriately reformed and purified) with the medieval Church. Against the encroaching claims of hostile Puritan or downright irreligious squires, seventeenth-century clergy learnt the importance of knowing local history – especially such details as the extent of Church lands in the parish and the incumbent’s customary rights. In the eighteenth century this utilitarian approach to local history gave way to a broader appreciation of antiquities and the value of recording the past, before the nineteenth century brought its own ideas of revival and architectural (and even liturgical) restoration.

The clergy of today may well resent the clerical antiquaries of yesteryear for the apparently ‘easy’ lives they led as the incumbents of single-parish benefices; they may even feel they bear the burden of the clerical antiquaries’ discoveries about the architectural and historic significance of now cash-strapped churches, not to mention the burden imposed by the poor quality of some antiquarian ‘restorations’. These are not unreasonable complaints.

Yet perhaps there should be more reflection on the place of history and archaeology within Christian mission in the contemporary Church. We need look no further than the prologue to St Luke’s Gospel to find historiography within the pages of Scripture itself, while the rediscovery of the Book of the Law in II Chronicles 34 and the words of God to Isaiah, ‘Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged’ (Isaiah 51:1) might well provide inspiration to Christian antiquaries, archivists and archaeologists. Above all, however, the Acts of the Apostles are the foundation of the discipline of Church History, which is the history of Christian communities. In a sense, every Christian antiquary follows in the footsteps of St Luke – and there is no prima facie reason why the story of the Christian community in Little Snoring should matter less than the story of the Church in Corinth.

Christianity is a historical faith, rooted in a narrative about past events (even if those events are, in some sense, occurring in eternity). The Church of England, perhaps more than any other part of Christ’s Church, is compelled by its complex history to negotiate a narrative that requires a sophisticated understanding of Church History and its methodologies. Few dispute the value of Church History to the training of the clergy as a general principle; but perhaps it is time we examined more closely the role that the local antiquarianism of the parochial clergy played (and, in a handful of cases, still plays) in building up Christian communities.

Dr Francis Young is a historian specialising in the history of religion and supernatural belief, with a particular interest in the history of England.

People first, then priests

Fr Andreas Wenzel considers the question of alternative ways of receiving Holy Communion recently suggested by the Archbishops and wonders whether they prompt more practical and theological problems than they solve.

“God himself could not sink this ship!” These are the famous last words of Captain Edward J. Smith who trusted too much in the sophisticated engineering of his vessel, the Titanic. What he got right, though, was to follow the maritime expectation of his day and abandon the sinking ship last.

This image of a humble captain or leader, putting himself last, is what inspires some to think priests should receive Holy Communion last, and not first, at a celebration of the Eucharist. It may feel difficult in our egalitarian culture to justify the traditional Christian practice of the minister receiving first before distributing Holy Communion to others. But there are practical and theological reasons, which I wish to lay out in this article, that might convince us to stick with tradition and wait for the iceberg COVID-19 to pass.

A letter was published recently by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York with attached liturgical guidance (from a working group commissioned by the House of Bishops) for the safe reception of Holy Communion under both kinds. (1) The other diocesan bishops, as many of them later stated on social media, were clearly not consulted before the paper was released. The document suggests a change in traditional practice, that the people receive before the celebrant: ‘The president communicates last and must not drink from the chalice until this point.’ There are, in fact, two main suggestions in the guidance, as it stands, that need unpicking: the question of when the priest should receive Communion, and the way in which the faithful could safely receive under both kinds.

The guidance for the priest to be the final recipient of the chalice after all the hosts / morsels of bread have been dipped into the precious blood during ‘simultaneous administration’ follows purely practical considerations. It is of course permissible to give practical considerations more weight in times of pandemic. However, as practical considerations they do not convince, nor do they offer a safer way of receiving from the chalice.

Unlike a captain waiting to disembark the ship last, the priest, on behalf of the people of God, receives the Sacrament when it is confected so as to be charged with the Bread of Life before offering the Body of Christ to the gathered community. We insist that priests who hear confessions regularly make their own confession, before they give advice to others. In the same way, it follows the logic of the celebration that the celebrant of the Eucharist receives first. That could easily be included in the recommendations, by adding an additional sanitising of the priest’s hands after receiving the intincted sacred host.

Those in favour of the suggested COVID-compliant ‘simultaneous administration’ or alternative arrangements like individual cups, argue that the Reformation principle of Communion in both kinds is at stake. One commentator on Thinking Anglicans writes ‘we are… just Anglicans wanting to be faithful to our Reformation roots.’ I agree with the importance of all the faithful being able to receive from the chalice. However, none of the suggested alternatives solves the problem that we cannot safely, during these challenging times, obey the Lord’s command: ‘Drink ye all of this.’

S. Gregory Agrigentinus, a 6th century bishop, speaks of the spiritual joy of receiving the Sacrament in both kinds: “They who eat this bread and drink this mystical wine are indeed gladdened and exult and can cry out, ‘You have given joy to our hearts.’” And the great interpreter of the liturgy, William Durandus, compares the eucharistic wine to that spiritual exultation which can dispel the enemy (Rationale Divinorum Officium I.7.8) But, let’s be honest, the complicated, undignified and potentially unhygienic intinction of wafers or pieces of bread by the priest, that then dissolve in the hands of the communicants, does not express that Eucharistic joy to which we are called and invited. It seems far more sensible to celebrate with simplified ritual and receive under one kind, for the time being. Let us look forward with expectant hope and Advent joy for better times when the faithful again receive from the chalice.

Let’s not abandon ship. We all care for this shared space, the good ship Church of England. Let us instead be patient and hopeful that soon the joy of celebrating the Eucharist together will again allow for the Common Cup to be shared. But until then, let us stick with known tradition and avoid trying to solve problems with methods that simply create more.

The Rev’d Andreas Wenzel, Vice Principal and Director of Pastoral Studies, St Stephen’s House, Oxford


1) COVID-19 Receiving Holy Communion in both kinds by simultaneous administration

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started