Like a recently privatised public utility, seeking to persuade its customers (at their own expense) of its management skills, the Church of England establishment has faced up to the present crisis by closing ranks and reaching for its publicity agent. Every parsonage in the land has echoed (at Bishop Turnbull’s behest) to the sound of Big Ben and the weary political cliché “that it is time for a change”. But despite extravagant claims (“the most dramatic shake-up in the history of the Church of England”) change, it seems, is not actually on offer.
The Turnbull Commission purports to offer streamlined structures, renewed vision and greater accountability. But can it deliver? Three factors render that extremely unlikely, for in three key areas this supposedly hard-headed business plan enters the realms of fantasy.
The first is in its assessment of the status and role of the Church of England in today’s world – the very nature of the Church for which new structures are being recommended.
“The Archbishop of Canterbury…” says the Report, “is…the highest ranking national figure after senior members of the Royal Family. He crowns the Monarch, has a special relationship with the Royal Family, and is a member of the House of Lords. He is regarded as ‘a Vicar to the nation’, articulating spiritual and moral guidance to the nation as a whole…He is one of the world’s prominent religious leaders”.
All this is quaintly old-fashioned. The truth is that the monarchy is increasingly irrelevant to the life of the nation, and that the vast majority of English men and women have considered what the Church of England has to say and have voted with their feet. Dis-establishment (to which the current establishment is not surprisingly opposed) has largely come about through lack of interest.
Nor is Anglicanism the influence on the world stage that Dr Carey would have it be. In a speech in New York recently he offered his services as an honest broker in the Bosnian crisis; but no one can seriously suppose that the offer will be taken up. The truth that a structural reorganization of the Church needs to address is that its senior management is seriously out of touch with reality and has ideas far above its station.
The Report goes on to give a new role to the House of Bishops as forgers of the ‘vision’ which the new National Council will put into action.
Now the bishops are for the most part decent chaps. Their general uniformity of social and educational background gives them cohesion as a group. As individuals they run their dioceses with varying degrees of proficiency (but without scandal), and some of them put up a reasonable performance on Radio Four. What they are not is men of vision – and it would be absurd to suppose that they were. Absurder still to expect vision from a committee; absurder still to expect it from a committee with over fifty members!
The Report’s proudest boast is that it will increase accountability. “The buck stops here” is the slogan of the moment. But closer inspection reveals that all this is mere illusion. The National Council and its agencies, it is true, will be accountable to the Archbishops (who are to be its chairmen), and after a fashion to the proposed Secretary-General (whom they will appoint). But a curious feature of the present Synodical system is the extent to which the Archbishops themselves are unaccountable.
The Synod has an understandable reticence in bringing them to the bar (there is no synodical equivalent of Prime Minster’s question time, for example) for the very good reason that nothing could be gained by it. The Archbishops are appointed by an arcane process and enjoy a job for life (or in the case of the present incumbents, until 2010 and 2015 respectively). The Synod is faced in the person of the Archbishops with precisely the problem it faced with the Church Commissioners: it did not appoint them and it has no means of bringing their stewardship to an end. Indeed the Synod, which can be cringingly deferential at times, would experience a strange frisson at the very idea that they might be replaced.
Those who have recently prepared their election addresses for the forthcoming synod elections will have by now appreciated the subtlety of timing which dictated the date of the Turnbull Report’s launch. The glossy brochures and the audio tape arrived in time to influence the elections – but not to feature in the hustings. The hope at Lambeth Palace is no doubt that these proposals – which, under the guise of decentralisation, put the Church of England firmly in the hands of the Archbishop; and under the guise of change offer more of the same – can be brought speedily before a new Synod before its finds its feet and its voice.