Surprisingly enough, despite the abuse scandal in which it is mired I have much sympathy for the Church of England in 2018. Its priests are overall diligent and honest, even if the majority are academically mediocre and intellectually idle, and therefore over-attracted to easy-listening sub-Marxism. They struggle to serve a community as a whole which increasingly could not care less about the church they represent; and they remain astonishingly in demand (and effective) whenever someone is born, marries or dies. Furthermore, a lot of the church’s detractors are, as a moment’s thought will show, correspondingly unattractive. Cue smug London N1 atheists who know they understand the world better than everyone else, politicians out for undemanding publicity, second-rate academics and (of course) armies of self-appointed ‘abuse law specialists’ with a vested interest in raking over memories of long-past abuse for reasons which are obvious. (Search for these latter, and Google immediately takes you here, not to mention to this firm with which readers will already be familiar).
But the real reason for my sympathy is that the foot-soldiers of the church increasingly do good in spite of, rather than because of, the people at the top. With rare exceptions (names would be invidious), few of us can think of an inspiring C of E bishop. And, I regret, there is cause for further depression in the latest foray of the Archbishop in charge of the whole operation into public life in the shape of the inquiry into sex abuse.
When it comes to abuse, the church needs what any other large charitable organisation requires: a simple, low-key approach aimed at isolating a relatively small-scale though individually serious problem and allowing it to get on with more important matters, such as evangelisation, sound belief and the slow bringing of God’s kingdom to earth. Instructions to bishops on the ground to deal efficiently and decisively with abuse allegations, coupled with a small central group to deal with difficult cases, would be one way forward.
By contrast, what we have from Justin Welby in his response to the inquiry is a confused mess: a combination of ostentatious self-abasement, modish psychobabble and corporate cliché. It is as if some malicious underworld imp had set up a meeting between Uriah Heep, Peter Simple’s Dr Heinz Kiosk (whose catchphrase was ‘We are all guilty’) and the CEO of some fashionable international quango, and then sat back to watch the fun. Reading about it makes one wonder at times whether what we see can indeed be coming from a prince of the church.
We must, his Grace says, be ashamed of the Church of England, of the respect paid to its bishops, and, more prosaically, of its failure to keep meticulous statistics of abuse. What we need is to suppress misuses of power inherent in sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse (I’d be interested to see him define the latter two, but we’ll let that go). It is vital, he continues, that we recognise complete equality between those accused of abuse and survivors (note: not ‘alleged survivors’) – this latter being something which he believes justifies and requires the hounding from the grave of Bishop Bell of Chichester sixty years after his death. Safeguarding, moreover, must clearly be central to the whole thing. You might not know that £7million annually raised from your church plate, or nearly £600 per parish, is already being spent on this: no doubt this will rise.
And for the future? Managerialism on steroids. Bishops must face performance reviews, for all the world as if they were not propagators of the Word but simply some weird variety of ecclesiastical corporate vice-president. Of course, quite how you measure the performance of a bishop is an interesting question: but no doubt Justin Welby has an objective, transparent bureaucrat’s answer. And indeed archbishops too: he himself is, he assures us, currently being appraised by 43 bishops; I can already see the minds of TCW readers busily boggling. And the same goes at the bottom. Would-be clergymen should face psychosocial or psychometric assessments; after all, it might ‘be helpful in identifying pathologies that are likely to lead to behaviours’. Oh, and there’s one thing we missed out. In response to a question from counsel to the inquiry, the appropriately-named Fiona Scolding QC, his Grace added that the church had grievously missed out on gender equality, and that measures to appoint more women at the top might also come in useful to prevent problems of this kind arising in the future (no, me neither).
Perhaps this penchant for managerialism – the building of the Kingdom of God according to the corporatist ethos of Carillion Construction – shouldn’t surprise us. Justin Welby, after all, spent 11 years as an oil executive. But it doesn’t seem a very effective way to run a church. The old political jibes against the national church (the Tory party at prayer, a nest of socialist fellow-travellers, or whatever) have gone. Unfortunately another one immediately comes to mind. Today there is an awful temptation to think of the infantry of the Church of England – priests, lay readers, churchwarden, and other Christian soldiers marching as to war – in much the same way as German general Erich Ludendorff is said 100 years ago to have described the British infantry of the First World War: lions led by donkeys.