Bishops Behaving Badly

IT IS THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND itself, rather than the learning of its clergy which is now ‘stupor mundi’. It is essentially a synodical church (as we are so often told); but one whose bishops, nevertheless, seem hell-bent on taking prelacy beyond all previously recorded norms.

Among the clergy of the Church of England, for example, who knows his diocesan bishop? – or is known by him? Every clergy-person, however, certainly knows the annual embarrassment when the card arrives (from Dick and Cynthia, Tom and Phyllis or Dave and Margery). Who are they? Did we send them a card? Only after much thought can it confidently be concluded (since no one in the family knows who they are) that they must be a bishop and his long suffering wife.

One bishop, now retired, had an extensive postcard ministry. Cards for various occasions – birthdays, ordination anniversaries, etc. – were printed in the bishop’s hand-writing in a suitable blue ink, and then dispatched by a minion when the date in question came up on the screen. On receipt of the missive, clergy of the diocese would moisten their index fingers, rub the card, and come to their own conclusions.

Automated pastoralia, however, has its difficulties. Another bishop addicted to cards sent a birthday card to an Archdeacon on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday. At the diocesan staff-meeting following the happy event the Archdeacon was warmly congratulated by all and sundry. ‘Have you had a birthday, Jack?’ interposed the genial Bishop, as they do. ‘Indeed, and a significant one at that’, replied the Archdeacon, ‘ but you should know; you sent me a card only yesterday.’

I often entertain dinner parties with the account of my summoning before a diocesan to answer for what misdemeanours I knew not. As the fellow berated me from behind his carefully intimidating desk it became increasingly obvious that he had got the wrong man. Dependent for identification of the chosen victim on his personal staff – and never having clapped eyes on either me or the miscreant in question – I had to wait (some considerable time) for him to take breath before I could apprise him of his predicament. The predicament, not surprisingly turned out, in the end, to be mine; for on discovery of my real identity I was unceremonious dispatched from the house, with neither an apology nor my taxi fare home.

Contrary to popular rumour, the Head-magisterial approach to episcopacy did not die with Geoffrey Fisher. When the Forward in Faith Executive gave evidence to the Blackburn Commission the assembled worthies occupied thirty two minutes of an interview lasting about seventy, complaining of the ‘tone’ of New Directions. Even the most generous reading of the terms of reference of the committee must have ruled out such an exercise. It was not at all surprising, therefore, to find that the appendix to the official Report of the Commission did not even mention a formal submission by Forward in Faith.

Perhaps the most flagrant examples of pervasive and persistent prelacy, however, are those involving the Act of Synod. The Act, be it remembered, was the love-child of the bishops in Manchester assembled. Some, it is reliably recorded, wept with joy when at last agreement was concluded. The House put up John Hapgood (a simultaneous look-alike for Wackford Squeers and Mr Chips) to bring the lower fifth into line with school policy; which he did.

But no sooner had unanimity broken out, with all its tearful expostulations, than bishops, here and there, began to feel unloved (or at least disrespected). They protested that they were hurt and offended when parishes exercised the very rights which they themselves had freely conceded. Other bishops began to say that because they had been consecrated after the passing of the Act they were not bound by its provisions. [Exodus 1:8]

The Forward in Faith Office receives, from time to time, circumstantial accounts of such encounters. Even allowing for the understandable anger and exaggeration of priests who have been belittled or ignored throughout their entire ministry, these are sad tales. They are tales of bullies oppressing honest men. One poignant example will suffice.

A multi-racial inner city parish (numerically perhaps the most successful in its area) voted both the resolutions under the 1993 Measure and the resolution for Extended Episcopal Care under the Act of Synod. All the requirements of the Measure and the Act were satisfied. The Diocesan wrote to the parish priest demanding evidence of due process, and suggesting in any case that the proposals of the Blackburn Commission for wide consultation in the parish by means of a special parochial meeting ought to have applied. (The parish priest in question is not a recipient of Synodical Papers, did not know of any such recommendation and was in any case not bound by mere suggestions of a Commission which did not have the unanimous support of the House of Bishops itself, and was pointedly rejected by the Synod). A lengthy interview with the Area Bishop ensued (note the delegation – including, of course the implied threat to be even more cross, when the matter reaches the head-master’s study!).

The pastoral pretext for all this establishment sabre-rattling was an accusation by the white minority of a largely black PCC that the black members had been unduly influenced in their voting by the Parish Priest.

That there is institutional racism in the diocese in question we certainly know – an expensive and extensive Report recently confirmed the fact. But how deep-rooted is it, and how high does it reach? Those are questions which black parishioners in every parish will be asking before long. And needlessly so. The parish priest in question is not far from retirement. If the bishop is right, all he has to do is wait. When the Vicar’s supposedly malign influence wanes, the voting will change. Only pique, pastoral insensitivity and amour propre would risk hardening attitudes at this stage, thus, at the same time, courting open confrontation and possible humiliation.

Or could it be that the Area Bishop, who spoke in the interview of the inevitable demise of a ‘tiny minority’, is in the unhappy position of doubting his own rhetoric?

What fun it all is; so much so that a woman priest friend of mine (who has herself recently been mauled by episcopal pastoral care) suggested that this column set up a competition, in the style of Radio Four’s Today Programme, to hail the most badly behaved bishop in Britain. But I am not so sure that we could deal with the weight of correspondence. One thing, however, is certain – that the results would make a better sitcom than a Church.

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