Change and Decay

THE Church of England, as everybody knows, has sunk beyond parody. And here is a piece to prove it.

`2003 was a year of change for the Diocese of Southwark. We were delighted to welcome a new Bishop of Croydon, as Bishop Nicholas Baines moved from being Archdeacon of Lambeth and was consecrated in St Paul’s Cathedral. 2003 also saw the appointment of a new Archdeacon of Lambeth, the Ven Christopher Skilton, who moved from being Team Rector of All Saints’ in Sanderstead.

`However, there is always sadness as well as joy and in 2003 we also said farewell to the Archdeacon of Southwark, the Ven Douglas Bartles-Smith. Douglas came to Southwark in 1968, to St Michael’s, Camberwell, moving from there to St Luke’s, Battersea, and from there he became Arch-deacon of Southwark in 1985. In addition, Douglas exercised an outstanding civic and ecumenical ministry in his time as Arch-deacon. As Chair of the Board for Church in Society he oversaw the diocese’s mission and social outreach, work which we will look at carefully to see how it should best be taken forward. Canon Richard Truss and Captain Terry Drummond, CA, are ensuring that nothing is lost while new arrangements emerge, and I am delighted that Douglas has agreed to become an Archdeacon Emeritus of the Diocese. We shall rejoice in the continued connection while missing all that he contributed.

It cannot be said that the life of the Anglican Communion was uncomplicated in 2003, with decisions about appointments in the Dioceses of Oxford and New Hampshire coinciding to the pain of all concerned, not least here in Southwark. Our prayers will be for a right way forward to emerge from these sad events.

The Cathedral entered 2003 with a vacancy in the post of Canon Pastor which we were very pleased to see filled by Canon Bruce Saunders. Bruce moved from being Canon Missioner and chief executive of the Board for Church in Society. Parish boundaries were re-examined and the Cathedral took on responsibility for St Hugh’s (Charterhouse) in Bermondsey; where, under Bruce’s excel-lent leadership and pastoral care, the congregation is growing.

In other aspects of Diocesan life, thanks are due to the Chair of the Diocesan Board of Finance for the Stewardship Roadshows and to all the parishes whose parish share is paid so faithfully. The generosity and commitment is remarkable and I am extremely grateful to you all for the hard work which produces such excellent results.

There were changes within the Diocesan offices as Patrick Olivier retired as Press Officer. Although he has agreed to come back when we need him, I would like to express my thanks for all his wisdom over the years. He, too, will be much missed.

Change is always difficult, but without change no progress is possible. As Ethnic Minority Roadshows work their way around the diocese and our numbers of black ordinands increase, I am sure that progress is here to stay in Southwark and I look forward to the years ahead working with you in the service of God and Church here in South London and Surrey’ (‘Bishop Tom Writes’, Foreword to Diocese of Southwark Annual Review 2003).

As it staggers from cliché to cliché to politically correct bathos, no satiric pen, even that of the late great Bernard Levin, could do justice to the prose style of Tom (‘the Manager’) Butler. Indeed one has known butlers who could have done better.

It is hard to say what is most offensive about such an attempt at communication.

Is it the self-absorption — the apparent conviction that the whole life of a diocese can be summarized in terms of the career moves of a group of the author’s own appointees? Is it the total failure to refer, even obliquely, to the work of the parish clergy — the poor bloody foot-soldiers? Is it the assertion that the gospel of racial equality takes precedence over all other activities in teaching the Catholic faith? Is it the (scarcely tacit) assumption that parishes exist merely to pay the diocesan quota which makes all this self-satisfaction possible? Is it the blindness of mind, heart and sentiment which allows an author to give such extensive and gratuitous offence without the mortification which should result from self-knowledge? Who can say?

`The Diocese’, as every attentive observer will have concluded, has, in the last thirty years, changed from being a geographical area to a collective noun for a group of people. The glossy brochure which I have in my hand exists exclusively to sing the praises of those people. They are, of course, episcopal appointees. They are the Versailles which surrounds le Roi Soleil. Note, for example, in the piece above, how many appointments were made from within the existing coterie, and how many of those who were not already the beneficiaries of patronage had previously served in the Diocese of Leicester.

`The Diocese’, it will also have been noted, is the place where socialism and absolutism meet. Glossy pamphlets like the Southwark Diocese’s Annual Review remind one of nothing so much as the endless publicity handouts which arrive on one’s door-mat from left-wing local authorities. (In this Borough such literature has approached the blasphemous with punning titles which ape The Guardian of a generation ago: `Faith in Lewisham’, with its implied subordination of religious faith to the agendas of the Council and its officers.)

Those diocesan pamphlets (and the freebie diocesan newspaper which overarches them, and reports on them) are sadly the vehicles of a personality cult of the diocesan. Thackeray’s lampoon of Louis XVI comes irresistibly to mind.

I make these observations not out of any conviction that the Diocese of Southwark is peculiarly corrupt, nepotistic and self-approving. I very much fear that it is not. Probably it is (as it has always boasted) in the forefront of everything. But you will know others which could give it a run for its money.

I do so because the patronage in our dioceses and in the Church at large is now in so few hands (and those diminishing) that (with an increase in the suspension of livings and the probable demise of freehold) there will soon be no-one left to cry shame. Those of us who do not care a fig for `career structures’, but who long, like the good Arch-bishop of York, merely to be simple parish priests, have a duty to use the license which our un-ambition gives us.

So I agree wholeheartedly with Bishop Tom – as who indeed could not? — `Change is difficult, but without change no progress is possible.’

Geoffrey Kirk, parish priest of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, has ministered under four Bishops of Southwark, four Bishops of Woolwich, and five Archdeacons of Lewisham.