The stupid and ungodly culture of the Church of England

I’ve been pondering two things – the failure of the Anglican Covenant process in the Church of England, and the fate of Rowan Williams. It seems to me that both are evidence that the culture of the Church of England is incredibly stupid and ungodly. As that will doubtless come across as needlessly confrontational, I had better explain what I mean.

Take the Covenant process first. Why were the Bishops so out of touch? Why was so much effort invested – in a frankly morally dubious fashion – by the institutional establishment in pushing through a measure where there was clearly no consensus? The disconnect between the hierarchy and the rank and file – and especially, the disconnect between the episcopacy and the clergy – should really be a wake-up call to the hierarchy to carry out a fundamental review of how Bishops work. As Bishop Alan has put it, the failure is at least an “opportunity to grow up, to take stock, and to get real. It’s very sad that a large number of bishops were out of touch on this one”.

With Rowan the situation is rather different. My question here is – how can someone so widely acknowledged to have remarkable intellectual gifts and personal holiness be so distorted by the pressures of the office that his ministry is considered to be a failure? (I don’t believe that it has been – I’m not even competent to begin the assessment – but it is the fact that it seems to be regarded so that I find significant. That is, why is it that holiness is not valued and celebrated? It is a symptom of our profound spiritual sickness.) It seems to me that a significant part of this is the culture inhabited by the hierarchy which prevents a genuine and honest conversation from taking place – homosexuality is the presenting issue but the issues go much deeper than that. Put simply I don’t believe that it is possible to be a Bishop and to tell the truth (with some honourable exceptions).

The roots of this are manifold, but I want to draw attention to one in particular – and that is the cult of overwork that has taken hold in the Church, in mimicry of the surrounding culture. It is this cult of overwork and ‘busyness’ that I see as stupid and ungodly. It is this cult that has radically diminished the capacity of the bench of bishops to exercise holy discernment. After all, how many Bishops do you know that are not absurdly overworked? The research is pretty clear that overwork leads to a significant decrease in productivity and is self-destructive – but appreciating that requires the application of wisdom, and it is precisely that wisdom that flies out of the window when a person is exhausted. We cannot expect our Bishops to exercise holy discernment and godly leadership if at the same time we are also expecting them to work 70 and 80 hour weeks (the same thing applies to clergy of course).

Of course, as Christians we are more than usually vulnerable to this cult of overwork because it appeals to our co-dependent culture and masochistic minister syndrome – if we are not suffering then we are not being properly godly. This is pernicious nonsense, and rooted in some very bad theology (not least the doctrine of penal substitution). It is as if we equate the way of the cross with the decision to mimic the world’s obsessions, when a proper understanding of the cross would lead to precisely the opposite conclusion. The development of the stipend was originally to allow at least one person in a parish to have time for prayer; it is a sad irony that, as with many salaried posts, it has become an excuse to extract the maximum amount of labour for the minimum amount of expenditure.

In Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels there is one character, a thaumaturge, who carries around a small child on his back, called a croyel. The child never grows up but does, periodically die – and is then replaced by another. As the story develops it becomes clear that the thaumaturge is simply siphoning off the life-force of each successive child in order to preserve his own immortality. It’s a frightening image, but one that I feel captures the way that the church treats all those who work for it – full-timers, part-timers, volunteers. What we expect from our bishops and clergy is exactly what happened with Microsoft – use up the resource until it is a dry husk and then discard and replace with another. The needs of the institution – keeping the show on the road – is paramount, and the church continues to sacrifice its children on this idol’s altar. It’s long time past for us to stop.

11 thoughts on “The stupid and ungodly culture of the Church of England

  1. Many thanks, Sam. I think you are penetrating the heart of the mystery. The problem is not gay bishops, the morality of which is complex, but lying about and to ourselves and other people, the morality of which is surprisingly simple!

  2. I think this is not limited to the Church of England. Your description of the culture of overwork rings true with my experience of The Episcopal Church in the US– and not just for bishops & other clergy but also for the lay people involved in keeping the church doors open. It seems like the church always has more to do than time to do it in.

  3. Fr. Sam, as I work at a Lutheran seminary, at a Lutheran candidacy retreat, I just presented and preached on precisely this, our being “very cultural” and captured by busyness as a fundamental problem for us as Church. Thanks for the resonance…

  4. Overworked but not doing the work they were ordained to do. And, of course, this attitude will trickle down to the clergy. When they see their bishops spending most of their time on administration, attending meetings and conferences, and getting honours for their contribution to urban regeneration rather than spiritual regeneration, then the clergy will follow suit. If bishops stopped regarding themselves as CEOs full of Alan Sugar attitude and inhumanity, and started looking after their priests and walking among their people, then they would probably become more in tune with what the grass roots of the Church are thinking and worrying about.

    We have argued about this before, Sam, and I still believe that your view of the priesthood as being an administrative function, is exactly the reason why the priesthood, at all levels, is out of touch with the culture of their local and national cultures and has lost the respect it once, more fully, enjoyed, and which gave it the opportunity to speak out prophetically.

  5. Then what were we arguing about six years ago? Didn’t we get onto a College syllabus because of of our opposing view on the task of the clergy?

  6. Ha! I think we were arguing about what I felt was possible as much as the substance. I’m going to stick up another post in a minute with some updated thoughts on that. But I think it’s a stretch to see me as arguing FOR priesthood as administration…

  7. I was once told by an American Episcopalian/Anglican that God no longer determined the validity of one’s calling but rather that psychologists did! In fact in one diocese a man who was actually ordained in another church was bluntly told to “stop talking about Jesus” by his advocate. I suppose the idea of holiness is suspect at the very least and or defined as a neurosis at the very most. As for bishops here in the Episcopal Church one told his Executive Committee that he simply “could not live on a mere 185 thousand dollar salary” and would require at least 200 thousand. Besides he said as the CEO of the diocese he deserved a salary equal to that position in the “secular” world. Yeah right! The fundamental issue for present day “mainline church” is when you find no or little difference between Oprah Winfrey and “the Chruch” why bother with it!

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