Through a Glass Darkly
RECENTLY A FRIEND drew to my attention an interesting juxtaposition of articles in the same edition of the Church Times (30/1/98). One concerned a clergyman who had employed (albeit somewhat irregularly) a man to engage in (as the terms of the Trust Fund paying him require) “the advancement of the Christian religion” in the parish and beyond. The other concerned a church where the Rector had opened his pulpit to all and sundry, including New Age spokesmen, one of whom’s own mother was reported as saying “He thinks he is God.”

Readers in other countries may not be surprised to hear that in one case the clergyman involved was able to say that in the past eighteen years his bishops had “fundamentally supported” his work, whilst in the other case the local Archdeacon and others were making noises about transgressions of Canon law and threats to people’s future career prospects. Readers in this country will, unfortunately, not be surprised to hear that it was the man engaging someone for gospel ministry who was being threatened, whilst the promoter of the New Age was receiving episcopal support.

All this might confirm what some readers have long suspected – that as one approaches the centre of a diocese one passes through a theological ‘looking glass’ whereafter, in the words of the song, “Right becomes wrong and left becomes right”. In a sane world, the Archdeacon would rush to hear the new man preach and, if he was any good, sign him up on the spot like a football ‘scout’ discovering a new talent. Surely his opposition to his presence indicates that some dark forces are at work?

Unfortunately the truth is probably more prosaic, for it seems that in the Church of England you can do or say the most outrageous things provided you don’t threaten the institution. And the biggest threat to the institution is independent financial power. After all, if the vicar of Jesmond (for it is he) were simply rector of some insignificant little parish with a quota of, say £6,000, who would care whether he and his congregation scraped together enough to support a Careforce worker in his year before or after University? But Mr Holloway, as the Church Times was quick to observe, deploys some big bucks – a third of a million pounds going annually through the Trust Fund of which he is one of the trustees. Why, with that sort of money, he could probably buy his own Deanery!

The real problem would thus seem to be that Mr Holloway can afford to opt out of the system when the system cannot afford for him to opt out. Archdeacon Elliot of Northumberland is reported as saying, in reference to Jesmond’s request for alternative episcopal oversight, that “many people in this diocese are deeply ashamed that this is the welcome we afford to a new bishop”. Such shame has not, however, prevented the Diocese attempting to milk Jesmond parish to the tune of some £62,000 annually at the last request. “Afford” indeed seems to be the operative word. Further ire is caused by the fact that last year Jesmond paid only about £38,000 to the Diocese. However, it did give almost a further £100,000 to mission, including in areas where cash reserves amongst Christians are probably nothing like as great as in the Newcastle Diocese as a whole.

Perhaps Messrs Elliot, Wharton et al should consider how their actions appear to the uncommitted outsider. Several years ago, I was tutoring a young Muslim woman. In the way of things, we occasionally talked about our beliefs and one day I happened to mention that many of the bishops in the Church of England did not believe that the Bible was the word of God. (Indeed John Spong has shown that a bishop doesn’t even have to be a Christian in any hitherto accepted sense of the word.) She paused for a moment, and then asked disarmingly, “So why are they bishops?” Why indeed? The answer would seem to be “Because the rest of us do nothing about it.” Jesmond parish, however, might prove to be an exception.