Hush Hush Whisper who Dares

THE OBSESSION of the Church of England at all levels with secrecy and confidentiality is a serious matter. In an individual rather than an institution it would undoubtedly merit professional attention from the men in white coats. The gossip it excites, the leaks it generates, and the myths it fosters are all somewhere between the infantile and the downright unhealthy.

Representatives of Forward in Faith recently had a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr Carey was affable enough, and very generous with his time; but he asked (and assumed that we would think it perfectly reasonable for him to ask) that the meeting should be ‘in camera’. So far as I recall nothing was said which would surprise any reader of New Directions. Neither Downing Street nor the Vatican would have been scandalised at the pleasantries we exchanged. Not much heat was generated and virtually no new light was shed. But by virtue of the promise demanded and freely given, I cannot tell you a word of what was spoken, or even relay it to the Council on whose behalf I attended it.

I have recently received a communication from the diocesan secretary with regard to the Vacancy in See Committee in the diocese of Southwark, which met (wisely perhaps) whilst I was on the other side of the world. It contains a list – Strictly Confidential (with capital letters and in bold type) – of clergy whose names have been mentioned in connection with the job. Perhaps as a witty allusion to the forty-stripes save one of which Paul boasted to his Corinthians, there are thirty-nine names on the list.

Why, you will ask yourself, should a list containing the names of nearly every eligible clergyman in a church sadly lacking figures of any real distinction be Strictly Confidential? Would the shock of learning that someone wanted to elevate them to the dizzy heights of 38, Tooting Bec Gardens prove too much for the six Deans, two Archdeacons, seventeen suffragans and nine diocesans who are in the running? Or have they, do you think, soberly contemplated the possibility in the privacy of their own shaving mirror?

(A further absurdity is that the list is confidential even to those who are on it. The fact that the wannabee bishop and his no doubt determined and discriminating wife, may not wish to exchange their spacious apartments, croquet lawn, mulberry trees and view across the close for a pretentious bit of neo-Georgian just round the corner from a recently notorious brothel is simply not taken into account.)

Or is the fact that the list involves a couple of forays behind the Celtic fringe a source of particular sensitivity? Are the committee simply ashamed that only one parish priest was deemed worthy of inclusion? Or is it merely that everyone involved rather enjoys this cloak and dagger charade?

My guess is the latter. They enjoy it and it makes them feel important. (‘Half the harm that is done in this world,’ says Harcourt-Reilly in The Cocktail Party, ‘Is due to people who want to feel important.’)

As numbers shrink and the Church of England is ever more clearly seen to be on the periphery of national life – not even the largest Christian body in the land – its leaders need these arcane little rituals. And not only the leaders, for the gloire trickles down. Every shared secret creates its own freemasonry. By those two words ‘Strictly Confidential’ ordinary clergypersons and layfolk, whose names would never appear on such lists, and who have never so much as contemplated the purchase of a pair of purple socks, are made to feel participants in an act of great moment.

In truth, of course, the process of consultation is hardly earth-shattering, the ‘Strictly Confidential’ list of names exists primarily to be leaked, and the ‘Statement of Needs’ which the Vacancy in See Committee sends to the Crown Appointments Commission is as dreary a set of platitudes as you could imagine. It says virtually nothing; indeed the Anglican superstition that makes comprehensiveness a guiding principle, virtually requires that nothing be said. (‘Thus like a creature of a double kind’, remarked Dryden usefully, ‘In her own labyrinth she lives confined.’)

In the case of Southwark diocese, for example, the CAC will be treated to the following verbiage:

‘Bishop Roy’s Mission Statement ‘Together we Pray for Renewal, Seek the Kingdom, Share the Faith, Seach for Truth, Serve our Neighbour and Follow Jesus in his suffering love for the Salvation of all people’ has provided the focus for diocesan activity throughout his episcopate. Most parishes have adopted this mission statement as their own and are engaged in a common enterprise with the central diocesan organisations in working out its implications for the reality of life in south London and east Surrey’.

Those eighty or so words have communicated nothing of any importance whatsoever.

Of course the implications of ‘Bishop Roy’s Mission Statement’ are probably not far wide of the mark: probably there are Church of England dioceses where prayer for renewal is virtually unknown; where the Kingdom goes unregarded; where profound ignorance of the faith once delivered to the saints has rendered sharing it an impossibility; where no one cares a fig for truth; where sheer unrepentant hedonism has replaced service of neighbour; and where the Lord’s propitiatory sacrifice of suffering love is unpleaded and unimitated.

But here’s the rub: a gathering of the great and the good from such a diocese is hardly likely to write to Tony Sadler to tell him so. Instead they will probably say exactly the opposite; and since ‘mission statements’ are flavour of the decade (or at least of the last one) they will probably couch it in just such terms. The CAC probably has enough of this turgid stuff to wallpaper a decent-sized suburban semi.

And probably is the operative word: for beneath the cosy blanket of confidentiality they have ensured that their nakedness need never be revealed.

It is clear to me that the failure of the appointments system to come up with the goods – so ably demonstrated by Robbie Low, Robert Leach and Gerry O’Brien in the October edition of this paper – is due in no small measure to the culture of secrecy, sycophancy and self-importance with which it is surrounded.

Never has there been a more crying need for fresh air.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St. Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark