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Actions speak louder than words

01 April 2009

The Church is in danger of undermining its own message, says Jonathan Bartley

WITH increasing frequency, it seems, some within the Church are complaining that those who have an opinion on religious matters — whether individual columnists, lobby and campaign groups, or think tanks — are getting too much media exposure.

The charge is often levelled that such people are unrepresentative and have no constituency of any significance; so they should not be considered as having anything important to say.

The subtext of course is: “Why is no one listening to us?” And the frustration is under­stand­able. The Church of England is a national organisation, with hundreds of thousands of adherents. Yet many of its notable figures get fewer column-inches than a host of religious commentators.

But the concept of authority found in biblical texts has little to do with size. Membership mandates, voting blocks, or historical privilege did not count for much. If anything, those with power or status seemed to have a habit of for­feiting their authority. Indeed, the complaints from members of the Church are resonant of the kings of Israel when faced with the Hebrew prophets — or, for that matter, the religious leaders of Jesus’s day.

But, in the context of a religiously plural society, this is something that the Church of England has to face up to. People will not give the Church airtime simply because it is the Church. What it says is being questioned with increasing vigour, and, if it is found wanting, summarily ignored.

As the Financial Times pointed out recently, if the Church Commissioners are seeking to profit from hedge funds and oil companies, few will take its critique of short-selling or its campaigning against climate change seriously. Similarly, comments about issues of democracy and fairness are undermined by unelected, exclusively male bishops who sit in Parliament’s second chamber; and by schools which, although funded by the whole working population of the country, prioritise the children of just a small proportion.

The Church clearly has its work cut out for it. And if it wants to be heard — let alone take a moral lead — it needs to think in very different terms. An obsession with size reveals only a sense of inadequacy. It must drop its claims about quantity, and concentrate on quality. It must focus on its witness. Not only is this expedient, it is far more theologically desirable.

But the good news is that there are plenty of opportunities to do so. How about, for example, exploring ways of using more of its £5 billion in investments to boost alternative economic models such as co-operatives and credit unions? Or why not work to make church schools models of best practice in peacemaking, inclusion, and integration? Such initiatives would not only provide reasons why people should listen, but would demonstrate in a practical way that the Church has something hopeful to offer when it comes to the big questions of our age.

The possibilities are there for those who want to take them. The only problem is that, in order for many in the Church to accord such ideas any authority, a bishop will probably have to suggest them.

Jonathan Bartley is director of the theological think tank Ekklesia.

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