Nicholas Coulton questions the theology of Turnbull

FEW WILL QUARREL with the Turnbull Commission’s analysis of the shortcomings of the Church of England’s central structures. At many points we lack coherence, a sense of strategy and the ability to agree priorities. As the Bishop of Guildford said in New Directions in September, none of us is exempt from having to think afresh. There must be better ways of working. Simplifying Board structures and bringing spending elements together are obvious steps.

However, alarm bells are set ringing by the language with which the Commission describes the proposed National Council which would bring coherence and co-ordination. Changing its name to ‘Archbishops’ Council’ increases the alarm. It is said that it will be “the consistent, coherent, driving force the Church needs if it is to work as one body”, “capable of analysing what is happening in the life of the Church, of listening to concerns, of consulting and of proposing ways forward, and of providing the leadership to pursue those ways”. “It would be responsible for planning ahead and getting things done, and would have the capacity, commitment and ‘clout’ to do so”. This is more than being a coordinator or facilitator. And it raises questions about the model of Church to which we are working.

Turnbull works with the model of the Body of Christ. It is not the only model available. In the New Testament the Head of the Body is Christ. Turnbull sees this headship exercised in a representative and managerial way by the Archbishop….or preferably by both Archbishops. But this assumes that the limbs and organs of the Body can be brought to work together simply by the command of the head. It ignores the contribution which the limbs and organs themselves can bring and the ways in which they develop mutual relationships.

Placing so much emphasis on the Archbishop of Canterbury and on the Council is a too-hasty response to the media-driven world with its headlines calling the Archbishop to “get a grip on the Church” or describing the Archbishop as “the man who runs the Church of England”. That sort of leadership has no place in Anglican ecclesiology and in our understanding of dispersed authority, shared between bishops, clergy and laity. In Anglican polity the Archbishop of Canterbury is not the person who ‘runs’ us (and certainly not in the Northern Province!) He is the person with whom we are to be in communion – as he is across the worldwide Anglican Communion. To make him the person who runs us introduces a regrettable confusion between authority and oversight.

It was unfortunate that the Bishop of Birmingham in the Synod debate last November proposed the substitute title ‘Archbishop’s Council’ for it raises the same kind of confused expectations. The functions which Turnbull proposes for the new Council are not akin to those of a diocesan Bishop’s Council (despite GS1188), managing Synod business and advising the bishop on such matters as he may refer to it. Turnbull’s functions for the new Council do not include advising the Archbishops. Many of them are necessary tasks, co-ordinating policies, managing resources, overseeing Boards and submitting national budgets. But the first function Turnbull sets out is of a quite different character: “helping the Church to develop a clearer sense of direction”. We need to make sure that it is from the Church at large that that clearer sense of direction must come.

In Newcastle, as no doubt in other dioceses, in recent years we have been busy working at priorities and strategies. But these were not dictated by the diocese (in the sense of bishop or synod), let alone by Bishop’s Council. They came truly from the diocese, that is from the parishes and deaneries. Their priorities reflected their different, disparate situations. It has been the task of Bishop’s Council to discern emerging patterns, to propose ways of mutual support, above all to reflect back to the parishes and deaneries what is being seen, and to ensure that bright ideas from isolated parishes are not swamped by consensus elsewhere. That is a long process. The vision may shift as it goes forward. I wish I could detect in the Turnbull proposals a similar patience. There are dangers that the leadership will be ‘top-down’ and that a small elite may be too protective of the status quo. The stirrings of the Spirit are usually to be found in unexpected places.

I am not arguing for the large unwieldy, politically balanced body which seems to have ham-strung the present Standing Committee of the General Synod. I support the need for a Council able to travel fairly light of baggage, free for quick executive response. But I do believe that they must be clear from the outset on what model of Church they are working. And I do not believe that the model of the Body of Christ alone will suffice.

My worry about Turnbull is that it thinks of the Church of England in such narrow organisational terms. And it pays not much more than lip-service to ecumenism. Perhaps that is where its brief led it. But the largest part of the Church is always to be found, not in parochial or national organisation, but out on the boundaries where Christian men and women spend their daily lives. Few of them have much time to give to synodical life. But it is to their experiences that the Church needs to listen. The Turnbull Framework document gives a nod in their direction, defending itself against criticism that it thinks leadership is solely focused in bishops, when it says “one of the tasks of bishops is precisely to encourage and recognise the manifestation of leadership in other Church members (clergy or lay)”. I think that still misses the point. It is thinking too small, too centrally. ‘The task of bishops’ is surely not only to encourage and recognise the manifestation of leadership in particular people – it is to encourage the whole Church to rise to the responsibilities of leadership. Leadership exercised in a servant way encourages others to share responsibility: it has a readiness to share. In rising to media calls for ‘leadership by Bishops’, we risk disabling the leadership we desperately need from laity on the boundaries where the Church meets the world (for instance, in genetics) – and that leaves us with a very centrist view of Church affairs.

If we were to follow a different model, say ‘the People of God’, ‘the New Creation’, or ‘Salt (or yeast) in the world’, we should find ourselves looking at Church organisation in a different way. Must we choose? On the one hand, we work with the concept of a Church standing separate from the world, acting over against it; on the other hand, our concept would be of a Church enmeshed in the world, touching it, often subtly, at many different points. If the latter were our starting-point, Turnbull’s detailed proposals might not be greatly different – but the Spirit within which they would work would differ considerably. Perhaps it’s not a matter of choosing but of holding both approaches together. Turnbull’s danger is that it could be seduced into the first approach alone.

As Bishop John Gladwin says in his article, “we have to go on thinking about the adequacy of the models of church we are using and about their rooting in what we understand of God”. The two approaches I have outlined are characteristic of the traditional diversity and balance within the Church of England. We see the same balance at work at diocesan level where bishops have two ways of relating to their diocese: one is through the synodical structures where membership is precise and defined and increasingly separate from the world; the other is through their cathedrals, primarily expressive of their teaching role held open to meet the voices of the secular city. In recent decades institutional pressures on the Church have swung the balance towards the western, post-Roman model of separated sect, but cathedrals continue to hold the classical Anglican (and eastern) model of immersion in society where sacred and secular are not so sharply separated. At worst, this can breed rivalry between cathedral and diocese, but at best they challenge and enrich each other, held together in the bishop’s own person as focus of unity, as two equally legitimate but distinct models of the Church’s relationship with the world. Turnbull’s theology of gracious gift needs to be broad enough to embrace the doctrine of creation as well as the doctrine of redemption, if the National Council is to deliver what is needed.

Nicholas Coulton is Provost of Newcastle.