Robbie Low argues the necessity of passing resolutions A, B & C
WHEN THE CHURCH Commissioners temporarily misplaced between a quarter and third of the Church of England’s historic assets in the hectic comings and goings of their representative’s transatlantic cruises and the smoke filled boardrooms of enthusiastic property speculators, the press cried “scandal”.
The establishment knew better. Almost half a century of largely unopposed centralisation of assets had rendered it seemingly immune to the charge of the odd maverick clergyman who drew attention to the accumulation of this wealth as one of the greatest institutional thefts of modern times. The ransacking of parish assets and the ruthless policy of sell, sell, sell, had given enormous power to a highly ambitious and deeply politicised central organisation while leaving many formerly rich, rural areas especially, parishes homogenised, reorganised, leaderless and penniless on the eve of the newly announced policy of self sufficiency.
The normal conclusion of liberal Christian bodies used to be, “We are all guilty”. The conclusion of the comforting internal enquiry on this occasion took the more modern view, as so often happens now in matters of ethics, that guilt is an inappropriate concept and the man in the pew was relieved to discover, as he dipped ever deeper into his wallet, that we were so far from prosecuting the matter that it was difficult even to articulate the word “blame”.
Of course a bout of relative poverty need not blunt the cutting edge of a church’s spirituality. Indeed it may well have the opposite effect. Of course those in the “successful” churches who rejoice at the new mood of self sufficiency and an end to “dependency culture” do well to realise that many of the dependants were, once, ‘til their assets were removed, more sustainable than any of the currently booming brand leaders.
They need also to note that success is no guarantee against the central powers, as still solvent rural parishes have discovered. Able to pay for your own parish priest you will not be granted one if it undermines the diocesan pastoral reorganisation plans to sell your vicarage, amalgamate your parish and create another post at the centre for a career clergyman.
It is quite extraordinary to observe, countrywide, the continuing growth of suffragans, archdeacons and diocesan non-jobs in direct proportion to the dramatic decline in numbers of those they are there to serve.
The appointment of a third archdeacon and extra residentiary canon for “clergy training” is a not uncommon response in dioceses facing a 25% cut in front line clergy manpower in the next seven years!
In one of the most rural dioceses in England the diocesan bishop’s stated policy, at a senior staff meeting, is, in the long term, to maintain stipendiary posts only in the industrial areas of the diocese and, of course, at the centre.
As the hidden, and not so hidden, agenda begins to unfold and dawn upon faithful lay folk, the sense of scandal at the theft of assets and parish liberties will increase. The management exercise of the Turnbull Report will dramatically accelerate this centralisation of power and the lesser, but significant measures, like the power for bishops to remove elected church wardens will reduce the ability of the people to legally resist doctrinal carpetbaggers and diocesan plunderers.
Many folk in non-aligned “ordinary” Church of England parishes probably regard this as the inevitable lot of the “losers” in any civil war. While they may regret the unpleasantness there is, they feel, little they can do to protect such parishes. They are, they believe, quite safe from this process themselves by virtue of their loyalty to their diocesan bishops.
The tragic irony is that, parish by parish, they are beginning to discover is that the only parishes which have a hope of being protected from this process are those that have passed Resolutions A, B and C and therefore have to be “honoured” by Act of Synod and will be defended by their Flying Bishop.
A parish I have known well for several years had, quite extraordinarily in view of its Catholic belief and practice, failed to put the votes. Every time I went there I encouraged priest and PCC to do so. They had, it transpired, been assured by the Suffragan that, when their priest retired, their tradition would be honoured.
Finally, and I’m still not sure what triggered it, they acted – and voted. Within days the Archdeacon was round expressing the bishop’s sorrow and disappointment, his feeling of being let down etc. etc. At the provocation of one or two leading questions, he stopped rubbing the onion skins under his eyes and, in a revelatory moment, angrily denounced the decision which had destroyed the, hitherto regularly denied, plan for pastoral reorganisation which would, come the incumbent’s retirement, see the suspension of benefice and amalgamation with the neighbouring liberal parish where the previous Vicar had preached atheism for nearly thirty years.
(The truth is that permissive legislation, as was the Women Priest Measure, should be just that – i.e. liberals should have had to opt into it rather than orthodox go through the extraordinary procedures of opting out. That would have been the honest and honourable route and what a different picture we would now be seeing.)
It has been beyond the power of most ordinary Parish Priests and their people to prevent the depredations, parochial and financial, that have characterised the recent history of our church. It is within the power of all of us to ensure that our parish and every parish knows that its defence begins with the passing of resolutions A, B, and C.
Surely, you will say, that is only for parishes who reject the priesthood of women. Not so.
It is for all who genuinely question the wisdom of Episcopal innovators who have, themselves, introduced this doubt about orders and doubt about sacraments (as well as doubt about doctrine, doubt about financial security and probity, doubt about the future of parish life, doubt about biblical authority and doubt about traditional Christian ethics and morality).
That a church council should wish to avoid such major handicaps to its life and mission and act accordingly is a wholly responsible decision even for a parish that is agnostic or uncertain about the Women Priest issue.
It is open to anyone, any parish, who, in this period of “reception” and discernment, wants certainty and not provisionality in the sacraments. This can only be guaranteed by an Episcopal care and oversight that is characterised by the sacramental certainly, doctrinal soundness, biblical authority and pastoral charity that will come from voting A, B and C.
This is not to be “disloyal” or personally offensive to a diocesan bishop but simply to take the path offered by our church to those whose primary loyalty to Christ and their parish’s ministry cannot any longer take the risk of the establishment’s self proclaimed uncertainties in virtually every area of Christian life.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s