Martyn Percy offers further reflections on the deficiencies of Turnbull
THERE IS AN OLD JOKE about the Church of England. How many Anglicans does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: five. One to put in the new one, and four to admire the old one. The ‘joke is parody of Anglicanism and its respect for the past (and its mistrust of the new). So, a new report on the Church of England that calls itself a ‘reformation’ may well be treated with suspicion by some. Like many people, I have a variety of misgivings about a report like Working As One Body, that seems to have come ‘out of the blue’. However, there are three main areas of concern for discussion here.
First, the way ecclesial power is handled as the basis for the report is at serious fault. The membership of the Commission was almost exclusively male and middle-class, and the proposed National Council is similar (pp. 118ff). This is socially unjust, and quite startling when one considers the good work of Reports such as Faith in the City, and their efforts to consult with a wide cross-section of society. As such, Working As One Body is not reflective of society, and signals a retreat from the Anglican faith in comprehensiveness and its capacity to reflect the diversity of God’s people, and for those same people to reflect God, and so help society transcend itself. Working As One Body also proposes the concentration of ecclesial power in the hands of the Bishops (or just a few of them?) and a small power elite (p.47ff). Whilst this might make the church ‘sharper’ it may also make it narrower, since the guiding philosophy seems to be ‘let the managers manage’. There is an irony here for Anglicans: it is not quite congregational enough in its polity to ‘let the people manage the people’, because it is an Episcopal church. At the same time however, it is not Episcopal enough to devolve power to just a few: the via media rules. Generally, Anglicanism may be said to have an endemically compromising, ecclesial habit.
Second, the vision for episcopacy can be said, in some sense, to be distorted. Working As One Body is littered with phrases such as ‘the Bishop-in-Synod’, ‘leadership’ and ‘authority’. There are serious problems with the way the Episcopate is treated here. For example, by using Hooker in a selective manner, Working As One Body conflates ‘Bishop’ with the (biblical) metaphor ‘Head’ of the body, which is Christ. But Hooker uses ‘head’ mainly to describe the supreme Governor of the Church of England (namely the King or Queen), which he then deliberately conflates with Christ. Students of seventeenth century history will recall that the monarchs enjoyed the privilege of governing by ‘divine right’ and over-ruling an elected and representative Parliament when they saw fit, which partly led to the English Revolution of the 1640’s. The Report’s use of ‘head’ could lead to a form of ‘divine right’ being established in the contemporary episcopate in a similar way to the Stuart monarchs. This may not be the intention of Working As One Body, but it is the likely result. In terms of ecclesiology, one would begin to see a kind of Papal authority being invested in the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the authority of the Curia being invested in the National Council. It needs to be remembered that the Archbishop has never been ‘President’ of a global Anglican federation: Anglicans everywhere are ‘in communion’ with him. There is a subtle, sacramental relationship here, not a form of government.
Third, there are some wider ecelesial perspectives that need deeper consideration. Almost since its inception, Anglicanism has worked with a ’.quadrilateral pattern’ for arriving at provisional theological truth claims. The fourfold relationship between scripture, tradition, reason and experience (or culture) is sacred to the ecology of Anglican identity. Working As One Body would disturb the delicate balance of this ecology by adding a fifth dimension namely enhanced Episcopal authority – or, it would place the Bishops over the quadrilateral as its’ presiders. Ironically, either of these positions could allow the Church to become hostage to congregational or ultra-catholic forces. It is a path leading to a capitulation to conservatism, that would likely be suspicious of the ‘prophetic’ edge (and appointments) a nationally established church should have.
In response to this, and following Hooker, it should be stated that Primacy ought to be mutual and consensual. The erosion of clergy and laity rights implicit in Working As One Body – Bishops or Council as ‘head’, the rest the subservient body – transforms the Church of England into an Episcopalian denomination. Different metaphors for ‘church’ – such as salt, light, yeast or vine – might help counter this distortion. But without these, the Church of England is set on a course to being a church in England. If this vision becomes reality, English Anglicans risk marginalisation and the loss of their (often unarticulated) socio-ecclesial horizons. More serious however, is what the combination of marginalisation under the governance of a small power elite might bring. Schism is certainly one option, over a range of theological, moral or personal issues, which in turn could lead to the break-up of the National Church Service (p. 105).
One of the issues that the Report seems to miss is Hooker’s broader vision of the ‘body of Christ’, which extended beyond the gathered congregation. The ‘commonwealth’ model was his preferred mode of socially describing the mystical nature of the church. Working As One Body works with a limited notion of ‘body’, and a distorted notion of how the parts of the body or commonwealth relate to each other. Who defines the ‘head’, and in what sense is that part of the body superior to the others? Can the ‘commonwealth’ be presided over by the weak and powerless, with the Bishops as ‘nominal heads’, mirroring the British Commonwealth? Thus, there is an inversion of Paul’s vision in I Corinthians 12 in the Report as a whole, which is very curious, given its title.
The irony of Working As One Body is that its bold vision necessitates a restriction of ecclesial horizons in the interests of concentrating and managing resources. Moreover, it seems to assume it can transfer the model of monarchical power from the monarch to the Archbishop. Yet the present discontent with the monarchy, which must at least be acknowledged, is not just about its personal failings. Many people are now questioning, deeply, whether monarchical power is appropriate at all at the end of the millennium. It would be highly ironic, would it not, to have a monarchical, established church, in a post-monarchical State?
In spite of this, I think the Report may be right to deconstruct the history of Synod (pp.61fl), and question the working arrangements for Boards, Dioceses and Deaneries: but the basis of the document still feels aggressively dialectical, failing to comprehend the mystical, dispersed nature of Christ’s body on earth. Thus, although a rationalising document, it is not a document of faith: this is no Lumen Gentium, but a bourgeoisie-management-led bid for the centralisation and control of power. Laity, parish clergy and those beyond the ‘body’ (but who are served by it) ought to be deeply concerned about the implications of the Report if it is implemented. In Working As One Body, we are perhaps witnessing the first steps in disestablishment, the actual break-up of the National Church Service, and a collapse into systems of ecclesial management that borrow their ethos from out-moded views of monarchical power, mixed with a culture of privatisation. Thus we have local (and often non-accountable) ‘Trusts’ (e.g., p.105, which proposes ‘regionalisation’ of dioceses), and a small, supreme central authority that can govern at whim or will. The Report is justly concerned about financial costs and managerial effectiveness; but the counter-costs in terms of ethos should also be weighed – more may be lost than gained. If there is to be a new kind of ‘head’, shouldn’t the price be fully costed? Everyone agrees on the need for change, but is this the right kind of reformation? Or will Anglicans be left admiring the old lightbulb, cursing the new.
Martyn Percy is Chaplain of Christ’s College Cambridge