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.