Nigel Atkinson puts Turnbull in context

It used to be a shibboleth amongst young, aspiring ordinands preparing to preach their first sermon that a text without a context is more often than not a pretext for the preacher to give full vent to his idiosyncratic views and personal opinions. Whilst this watchword applies most especially to the exegesis of Scripture it is also a good rule to apply to any text or document that one may happen to be reading. For it is only when one has a full historical grasp of the context in which any text is operating that it is possible to appreciate the full implications of what is being said. And this applies just as much to Turnbull as to any thing else. Read in this light Turnbull can be shown to be the crowning achievement of centralisation and the well nigh absolute concentration of power in the hands of the Episcopate. What Synod will have to decide is whether they want so much power to be so consolidated in so few hands.

Lest anyone thinks that I may be exaggerating, it may be salutary to consider the trend over the past thirty years. As is well known the parishes and the clergy of the Church of England had inherited the privilege of robust, vigorous independence. During the Middle Ages the Church knew what it was like to suffer at the hands of powerful prelates and at the Reformation care was taken to ensure that the Episcopate, shorn of its great wealth, was kept under control primarily by the Monarch but also by the ancient right of the freehold, that was studiously retained and which ensured that the clergy would not be open to the machinations of Machiavellian Bishops.

More recently, however, great changes have been introduced, brought about by legislation initially in the Church Assembly and more latterly in the General Synod. To be sure, some of these changes have been undoubtedly necessary, brought about by the exigency of the times as the Church loses the confidence of the laity and contracts accordingly. But other changes have also been introduced, often on the pretext of necessity but with no real or obvious need being demonstrated. Whatever the case, both types of change had a general tendency to deprive the parish and its incumbent of responsibility and to centre it in the diocese, which effectively means in the Bishop.

The first of these legislative changes was brought about by the Pastoral Measure of 1968, which was revised in 1983. This gave the Bishop wide ranging powers to combine parishes, either under a single incumbent or into a team, as well as the ability to declare churches redundant and to suspend the patron’s right of presentation for a renewable period of up to five years, during which time the Bishop appoints a priest in charge without the security or protection of the freehold. The direct effect of this is to deprive parishioners with any real sense of responsibility for the well being of their parish reducing them to mere pawns and helpless spectators of the ravages taking place in front of their very eyes. Needless to say the diocese has inevitably become to be regarded as the enemy of the local parish.

Eight years later came the second great legislative change. The was the Endowments and Glebe Measure of 1976, which deprived parishes of their accumulated resources in terms of money, land and buildings, given (more often than not) by local benefactors grateful for the ministry (not of the diocese or of the Bishop) but for the resident local parish priest and his resident local people. It must be borne in mind that many parishes resisted their spoliation tooth and nail. In one of my parishes the Churchwarden showed me the red hot correspondence that took place between the parish and the diocese over this very issue and he used to point out to me with great pride and joy the two fields that they had managed to keep under their control and from which they still enjoy an annual return. Whatever the arguments might have been in favour of this Measure (and there were some compelling ones) the important consideration was the effect that this had on the parish. In short this was one more piece of massive centralisation which allowed the diocese to impoverish a parish and then declare it not viable so seeking to make it redundant under the Pastoral Measure already in place. Naturally this was a tremendous breach of trust with local donors, who now are most reluctant to leave anything to their parish in the fear that the money will be seized by the rapacious diocese and be used in less than edifying ways. As Turnbull itself confessed “the present generation of churchgoers is not endowing the Church as past generations did”. Of course not, for once again the diocese had come to be seen as the enemy.

The third piece of legislation came some ten years later in the form of the 1986 Benefices Measure. Having totally dominated the parishes in terms of pastoral care and finance there was still one obstacle in the way that had to be removed. The Benefices Measure was the culmination of a long standing attempt (dating back to the Partners in Ministry proposals of 1967) to virtually abolish the patronage system by centralising all patronage in a diocesan committee, the Chairman of which would have been none other than (you guessed it!!) the Bishop himself. Needless to say many Patrons were not as trusting as many parishes (having no doubt been bloodied in their attempts to keep some semblance of control) and so eventually the Bishops had to content themselves by keeping patronage as it is and simply curbing the patron’s power by a double veto either by the Bishop or by the parish. Inevitably these unnecessarily extended the life of vacancies in those parishes that had not been suspended already, for it must be remembered that patronage had already in effect been abolished in suspended parishes. All this effort went into gaining control of the patronage of those parishes that had not already been crippled by suspension; so it gives some indication of the determination that exists to reduce the independence of the parishes, curbing it under the hands of a powerful Episcopate.

Ten years down the road and we are confronted by Turnbull and it is in this overall historical context that Turnbull must be read. For Turnbull is nothing if not the climax of the trend towards centralisation that we have been tracing over the past thirty years. And yet it seems as if even the hierarchy are dimly aware that they are taking a brazen and unprecedented step for, in self-justification, it is pathetically proclaimed that this one piece of massive reorganisation (that would cause all other the other pieces of legislative reorganisation to pale into insignificance) would enable the House of Bishops to give a proper lead. But, one has to ask, what would the effect of this be on the parishes and on the laity?

As we have seen each piece of legislation that we have been looking at has had the effect of reducing the influence of the laity in the Church and Turnbull is no exception. For example, although there is no doubt that the Church Commissioners needed to be reduced in size it must not be forgotten that they did valuable work in settling quasi-judicial disputes between parish, patron, parishioners and diocese. It was widely recognised that this work was done impartially and parishioners always felt that they had a friend in the Church Commissioners would could block any attempt to reorganise a parish if enough parishioners kicked up a fuss. But now Turnbull (naturally) wants these functions transferred to the National Council which has already been stuffed full with unallocated nominees so these quasi-judicial functions can now be forced through an already castrated Synod. Of course this is just in keeping with the whole thrust and tone of Turnbull. It really beggars belief that voice of the laity is being so arrogantly marginalised. Does the present Synod really believe that it would be good for the Church for its voice to be silenced? For, make no mistake, the will of the Synod, under Turnbull, would be subordinated to the proposed National Council which can form policy without hearing so much as a squeak from 99% of the Church. As has already been said, the role of the laity is being reduced to “turn up, pay up and shut up”.

Never has a report more patronised and insulted the laity of the Church of England. It must be looked at again. It took fifty years from the setting up of the old Church Assembly to the inauguration of the first General Synod. Massive structural changes like this need to be carefully considered and already a plethora of voices have been raised expressing concern. As the judicious Richard Hooker wrote “the change of lawes, especially concerning matter of Religion, must be warily proceeded in. Lawes, as all other things humaine, are many times full of imperfection, and that which is supposed behooful unto men, proveth often times most pernicious.” It is my conviction that Turnbull will prove to be “most pernicious”.

Nigel Atkinson is Warden of Latimer House Oxford.