The Church Times, through its editorial, letters and various articles has attempted to interpret what went wrong from the perspective of the Church of England during the referendum campaign.
The Bishop of Manchester has received some flak in the editorial:
‘We are unconvinced by the Bishop of Manchester’s argument that it was necessary to remain neutral during the campaign in order to help with reconciliation afterwards.’
However, what I found interesting is that the Bishop of Manchester doesn’t, in building his model of reconciliation, limit himself to ‘there, there,’ platitudes and promises of prayer. Instead he has sought to speak the truth, as he sees it, to leading advocates of both leave and remain.
‘Sadly, too much of what I have read from the Remain constituency during these past few days feels engulfed in and paralyzed by a bereavement that most U.K. voters do not share, and for whom even the present turmoil in our political parties and financial markets may be a sign that for once they have stood up and been counted…………….the challenge for Leave voters is perhaps even more urgent; to join in with and even lead immediate moves to isolate those who are trying to use the referendum decision as a building-block for a resurgence of racist aggression.’
The language underpinning Bishop David’s focus on reconciliation is both robust and critical. It is also objective.
The former Dean of Wells, the Very Rev’d Richard Lewis, in a letter, suggests that the C of E ‘contribution’ to the national debate ‘has been, in one word, pathetic.’ He asks:
‘Who then has the authority to speak for us?…….Is there any backbone in the House of Bishops, or any spine in the forest of deans?’
He criticizes senior leaders for failing to ‘have spoken about the soul of Europe, of history, of duty, of responsibility, of sacrifice,’ before asking ‘isn’t it that which is at stake?’
Like Bishop David his language is robust. But, unlike Bishop David he (alongside the ‘we’ at the Church Times) believes that the Church of England should, through its senior leadership, been in the midst of things.
So who is right?
Both of them I suggest!
It is of course right that people of faith should seek to be ‘peacemakers,’ and agents of post event reconciliation. In recent times Desmond Tutu has reminded us of this imperative.
But, it is also right that the prophetic voice warns and chides; speaking truth into a given situation, without waiting for the situation to unfold. Don’t the Old Testament prophets teach us this?
So the editorial is both correct and, simultaneously incorrect. Public theology (for this is the discipline that we are talking about) cannot be ‘either-or’, it must be ‘and-both.’ And, an Established Church must take public theology seriously. Speaking truth into highly charged debate and, pursuing all that leads to peace and reconciliation should both be characteristic of an established church that takes public theology seriously.
So here lies the real problem:
Large swathes of the population don’t give a stuff about what the Church of England, as part of the ‘establishment,’ thinks. Any rejection of the Church of England’s authority by the population at large to speak about matters of national importance cannot, however, simply be explained away by anti establishment rhetoric.
If the C of E wishes to inhabit an ‘and-both’ world of public theology it must wake up to three facts (or at least facts as I see them!):
First, there is a real legitimacy in seeing the senior leadership as representing the metropolitan, establishment elite.Until we have far, far, greater diversity in the House of Bishops, we will continue to be regarded as part of the establishment, the consequence of which is we won’t be heard.
Secondly, we need to recognise that many, because of the debates we have had, and continue to have, around gender and sexuality regard the Church of England as overly conservative and reactionary, some would even say ‘fundamental.’ The Church of England might be reluctant to accept it but there are a large number of people who would seriously question whether the church has the credentials to act as a ‘moral agent.’ We can’t simply ignore this fact, or claim that the role of the church is to set itself against the prevailing culture. The Church of England doesn’t need to bow to all aspects of culture, or collapse into the excesses of moral relativism but it does need to learn the art of speaking about morality into, and on behalf of, a progressive liberal culture, without simply saying ‘you are wrong.’
At present there isn’t much evidence that it either has the confidence, or language, to do so.
Thirdly, the ‘dominance’ of the C of E, and in particular its senior leadership, by the evangelical wing of the Church has resulted in a narrowing of outlook. Personal faith, discipleship and evangelism are rightly promoted, but has this been at the expense of public theology? I for one think so. The Church of England, as the established church, has a duty, to always promote the notion of the common good and to seek to be a blessing for all. The Church of England must always be a ‘and-both,’ not simply an ‘either-or,’ church.
If we are to take both aspects of public theology seriously, as we must for the healing of the nation, we first need to get our own house in order, and we need to do it fast, starting with an honest appraisal of the diversity and skills among the church’s ‘senior leaders;’ it’s bishops.