Talking of ‘new vision,’ status, money and prayer.

I enjoyed listening to Archbishop Justin’s interview with the BBC on Sunday evening. I think that he is quite correct in calling for a renewed focus on mental health and for a new post COVID vision for a fairer, more equitable society; one in which each and every citizen feels that they have a legitimate stake.

However, as I have this week been musing on the notion of the ‘new vision,’ I have felt increasingly unsettled for surely the church must also be the embodiment, incarnation and ‘first fruits,’ of the ‘new vision?’

If the church wants, and is prophetically calling for, a ‘bias to the poor,’ alongside a spirit of ‘radical new inclusivity,’ in society as a whole (to borrow two phrases) then this is surely what the church must simultaneously model, and crucially, be seen to model. Our legitimacy to talk prophetically into the big debates of our time is, I reckon, contingent on out willingness to simultaneously look inwardly with a commitment to being a very different church. The church, just like society, indeed needs rebuilding. We should all be Franciscans now!

Rebuilding the church, and relegitimising the church, in the eyes of a public which may well regard us (for the church is the people as well as the building let us not forget!) as an irrelevance, an historical legacy from a bygone age, will take courage, and a commitment to go way beyond the cosmetic, although the cosmetic will, in fact, be very important for as a friend once reminded me ‘real change always starts with the optics.’

So what optics could we start with to get ourselves, the insiders, believing that change is really underway, that a ‘new vision’ really is being crafted? The first place I would be tempted to start would be General Synod, with the removal of the special seats reserved for the bishops. This might seem a small, perhaps even pedantic, but surely if we want to model a sense of equality and stress that all have an equal stake then having only one, standard class, seating plan may well have a significant democratising, and freeing, effect.

I do also think we need to think very carefully about the episcopacy, and optics around the episcopacy. Are purple shirts really necessary and what message do they convey? What is the effect of differential stipends, on the bishops themselves? (I have never understood the rationale for differential stipends). Have supererogatory titles outlived their use, with their tendency to talk to preferment and status as opposed to healthy functionality? Could it be that titles such as ‘The Most,’ ‘The Right’ ‘The Very’ and ‘The Venerable’ should be dispensed with? What do such self-descriptions say about the church, to society? Are they the language of the visionary?

Sorting out the optics will help change the culture, of that, I think, there can be little doubt. But, we clearly need to go further, far further. In particular we need to head to the north, both east and west. It is an inescapable fact that there is a bias, in all of our structures, and all of our finances to the south, or southern province (which is not to say that south equals rich and north equals poor, for there are also real structural imbalances within the southern province). If the Church of England is to model – incarnate – any form of new vision then now is the time to start redistributing assets: money and people. Put simply: we need to put our money and our people where our mouth is.

One of my frustrations is that the need to redistribute is frequently discussed at General Synod, with resolutions calling for ‘every diocese,’ or ‘every parish’ to do X,Y or Z, and then the conversation stalls. We need to move beyond talk and into action if we truly desire to be a prophetic and visionary church. If we are to be taken seriously we need to be the vision we demand to see.

There are no short cuts, or easy solutions to rebuilding the church, to becoming a truly visionary church, even a fit and proper and prophetic church. It will take courage and decisiveness (and the church is not very good at being decisive) and it will mean that the ‘mighty’ may need to voluntarily climb down from their ‘thrones,’ relinquishing power, status, and, yes, cash. If we are going to talk truth to power with integrity, alongside ‘filling the hungry with good things,’ through acts of loving service, then change must start, and be seen to start, from within.

Fashioning a new vision for the church must, or course, be underpinned by prayer. But, what we mustn’t do is to allow prayer to become a stalling tactic, for in reality we perhaps already know what needs to be done. We need to not only pray the Magnificat but be the Magnificat.

Let me finish with a prayer by Percy Dearmer, called New Vision:

O God our Shepherd, give to the Church a new vision and a new charity, new wisdom and fresh understanding, the revival of her brightness and the renewal of her unity; that the eternal message of the Son, undefiled by the traditions of men, may be hailed as the good news of the new age. Through him who maketh all things new, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

3 thoughts on “Talking of ‘new vision,’ status, money and prayer.

  1. Thank you for this: your posts are consistently apt and useful. I have remarked previously about differential stipends, and the markedly higher rates of pay and superannuation than those prevailing in France (where on a balance sheet basis alone priests provide relatively better value for money than their English counterparts). Dramatically pruning entitlements under the CEFPS would be a very good place to start demonstrating solidarity with the laity and those outside the Church, most of whom are on defined contribution schemes (schemes which are now buying gilts with negative yields).

    In addition to abolishing diocesan bureaucracies and consolidating them in Church House (to remove the pointless duplication across 40+ diocesan fiefdoms) why not vacate Church House and move to home working and/or shift to another part of the country (Birmingham? Sheffield?). Heavily discounted office space will be everywhere for the asking, and landlords will be chancing their luck with upwards only rent reviews (as the Commissioners will now know only too well). We have heard clergy celebrating online worship, so why not have a permanent online Synod instead of the expensive meetings in Westminster and York (so reminiscent of the European Parliament migrating pointlessly between Strasbourg and Brussels)? Indeed, instead of selecting representatives to Synod in the manner of district/oblast Soviets to the Supreme Soviet, why not allow anyone on an electoral roll or perhaps any confirmed member of the Church to make representations and to cast votes online?

    Why not ditch Black Rock, who are now being described as the fourth or fifth arm of government, so powerful have they become?

    Why not start using parliamentary representation in the Lords (now scarcely justifiable) to promote practical policies to protect vulnerable people: (i) ban usury and cap interest; (ii) scrap or modify the ‘equity of redemption’ to help vulnerable mortgagors; (iii) scrap the Landlord and Tenant Act 1989 and introduce meaningful protection and security for tenants (who need it so desperately, and whom the government has signally failed to help); (iv) have new laws drastically circumscribing the powers of bailiffs; (v) introduce a levy – which should be extended to pensioners enjoying an income over a certain limit – to establish a proper funded national care service. And so on. What is the point of having bishops in parliament if not for these purposes? What is the point in the Commissioners having a Legal Office if not to prepare such private bills which can be introduced in the Lords by the bishops or in the Commons by the second commissioner? The Church has a golden opportunity to help mould our political economy which has, of a sudden, become malleable and plastic (e.g., a Tory government applying variants of war socialism). Let the Church not allow this crisis to go to waste!

  2. I agree with you completely – and love the Percy Dearmer prayer… I had come across it before. But does this mean it’s time to ditch the Institution and go for disestablishment? I think it is. But then I was ordained in Wales and I know that establishment is more of a hindrance than a missionally useful arrangement. This has to be root and branch.

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