The Crisis in the Episcopate
“I do not suppose there is a single person in the country who finds Justin Welby an inspiring figure. Whether we think of his egotistical gesture of celebrating the Easter liturgy from the kitchen of a dismal flat in Lambeth Palace, or his recent suggestion that centuries-old church monuments, many of great beauty, should be gouged out in order tosatisfy his judgmental reading of history, the Archbishop of Canterbury seems like a prize Charlie.”
So wrote the author and historian A. N. Wilson, in an article entitled “Church shepherds have lost their flocks: in the Times of London on Christmas Day (details below). His acerbic comments were certainly harsh but, unfortunately, they capture an all too common sense of dismay in the United Kingdom about the lamentable performance of the Bishops of the Church of England, through recent times and the COVID crisis in particular. The negligible impact of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York through the course of the greatest crisis since the Second World War has not gone unnoticed and it has been thrown into sharp relief by the way in which Her Majesty the Queen has stepped in to fill the void.
It is hard indeed to see how the Bishops can recover from the collapse in their public standing. This will also further weaken the place of the Church of England in the nation as a whole. However wrong, in terms of the practical role of churches on the ground, the popular perception is of a Church which simply went away in a time of crisis.
As Wilson goes on to write: “It was scandalous that the Archbishop of Canterbury acquiesced in the closure of all the churches for Easter, and pure vanity that he considered a video of himself at his kitchen table would be an adequate substitute for the Sung Eucharist in the Mother Church of the nation.” While his, “perceptions of what constitutes the Christian faith are indistinguishable from those of the fictional Rev JC Flannel in old copies of Private Eye.” as when he was quoted in a Times interview as responding to the Covid crisis by observing “These are the things Jesus talked about— well, not PPE supply, but inequality, treatment of the poor, housing, care.”
It is unlikely to console Archbishop Welby that the Roman Catholic Hierarchy is not judged to be any better:
“it is impossible to think of any period when the country had two such utter chumps in charge of the rival churches.Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, is a man who this year has faced calls from many Catholics to resign. …. Cardinal Nichols would appear to share the Archbishop of Canterbury’s distaste for church buildings and churchworship. Both men went further than the government guidelines for lockdown in March, actually forbidding the clergyto enter their own church buildings. In an interview for The Times last week, Welby acknowledged this was a“mistake” even though, at the time, he was adamant that it was the right thing to do.”
Quoting Stephen Bullivant, a Catholic sociologist of religion, who has forecast in his book Mass Exodus that the decline in church attendance is probably irreversible and that after this year, in which churches have been closed, regular attendance “will nosedive”. Wilson notes that, Welby’s response to the challenge has been to spend an eye-watering £12 million and rising on a scheme called “Renewal and Reform” based on the idea that “if they can’t persuade people to go to church, they should themselves go to the people.” through such innovations as “five “sports ministers”who are hoping, while playing footy with the lads, to insert some God-bothering into the instructions on the offsiderule.”
After asking rhetorically, “Where on earth did those responsible for appointing bishops find these duds?” Welby and Nichols are unlikely to be consoled by Wilson’s closing observation that , despite the commemoration in December of Thomas A Becket “I am not calling for them to be murdered in their cathedrals but some Becket-like display of loyalty to what the church historically stands for would be valued, even by those who no longer go to church.”
Unfortunately, this is all fits into a wider sense of missing leadership across many sectors from business to politics. This surely reflects a long growing cult of mediocrity which rapidly purges those who might have the dangerous potential to think differently and break from the ever more stultifying bonds of consensus.
After years of appointing managerial bishops who project neither spirituality nor learning, and who could all too easily pass for local bank managers, it should be no surprise that when a true crisis hit, requiring strong leadership deeply rooted in the millennia of Christian faith and witness, the bishops of today were simply lost to sight.
This can only be especially damaging when the Church’s place in society as a whole is so very much under attack
“Church shepherds have lost their flocks: The Archbishop of Wokeness, Welby and the equally inept Nichols are not leaders that the faithful deserve”, A.N. Wilson Friday December 25 2020, 6.00pm GMT, The Times of London