Press: Citizens’ assembly raises stakes for C of E

30 August 2019

Church Times

The story on the front page of The Times, on Tuesday

The story on the front page of The Times, on Tuesday

IT IS always gratifying to see the Church following the advice of The Guardian, which decided in December last year that a citizens’ assembly was the only way out of the Brexit quagmire. This has been the official leader line ever since. The difference, I suspect, is that The Guardian does not really expect the country to follow the advice of its leader columns on most subjects, whereas Archbishops find it easier to believe that the world is waiting for their advice. The Times appears to have uncovered a plan that the Archbishop of Canterbury really wanted to put into action.

It reported on its front page on Tuesday: “The Most Rev Justin Welby is in talks with a cross-party group of senior MPs to chair a series of public meetings in which alternatives to leaving the EU without an agreement would be put forward.”

The reason that the paper did not believe in a citizens’ assembly, although it is a solution that has much to commend it, is that it comes about two years too late. The Irish one took a year to reach its conclusion, and in that time the participants reflected, and, in some instances, changed their minds: it was a slow, deliberative process. The timescale was an essential part of the process, as I understand it.

To hold an assembly would have been clearly the right thing to do immediately after the referendum, when no one knew what the result was supposed to mean. It is not that they know now, but this ignorance has not stopped opinions’ congealing. If the idea was too late nine months ago, it is hard to see what good it will do now — unless, of course, the Archbishop is envisioning a further delay to the process, some kind of parliamentary handbrake-turn on the edge of the abyss.

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Either way, this looks to me like a gamble on the credibility of the Church’s establishment, which is to say, its importance to national life, with very high stakes. If it comes off, there will be a huge boost to the idea that the Church of England matters; if it fails, the Church will have demonstrated its own irrelevance, just as the country is entering a period of huge constitutional change.

 

THE other domestic story was the reinstatement of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy. The initial coverage was entirely deadpan, recording only that he would return to duty. This may have been because the announcement was slipped out too late for most deadlines. As time went by, the stories hardened. In The Times: “An Oxford college is engulfed in a row over the treatment of its dean after he was cleared of ‘immoral, scandalous or disgraceful’ conduct at a tribunal.

“Christ Church, which also houses the cathedral for the diocese of Oxford, spent almost a year and more than £500,000 investigating the Very Rev Martyn Percy, 57, after he requested a pay rise and queried the college’s pay structure. It is thought that this prompted internal complaints, including an allegation that he had been rude.”

Two days later, the College’s legal bills had nearly doubled in The Mail on Sunday: “An Oxford college is facing an investigation by the charity watchdog over the ‘eye-watering’ sums of money spent by squabbling academics on a doomed legal battle to force its dean from his job.

“Christ Church college is believed to have forked out close to £1 million on legal fees during an extraordinary battle between its dons and the dean, the Very Reverend Martyn Percy.”

 

NONE of this can compare to the way in which the Orthodox Churches feud; nor, indeed, to the riches available to bishops who get close to Putin. The Financial Times had a wonderful account of the schism that has followed Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and the marriage of Russian Orthodoxy with nationalism which preceded it.

Admire the footwork of this passage: “[Patriach Kirill] finished studying theology in 1970, by which point the church was proving useful to the state in another way: KGB files from the time reveal large-scale infiltration of the Moscow patriarchate, with some priests acting as spies. Kirill quickly rose through the church’s external relations department, which allowed him to make frequent trips abroad.”

The piece brought into focus, for me, the extent to which Russian Orthodoxy now self-consciously sacralises nationalism. “Under President Putin, Kremlin mandarins, security service officials and oligarchs alike turned to priests for spiritual advice. The church courted them by soliciting donations and even adjusting church doctrine, particularly after Kirill became patriarch in 2009.

“The state’s military ambitions took on sacred overtones. Fyodor Ushakov, a legendary 18th-century admiral, was canonised in 2000, then made patron saint of Russia’s strategic nuclear bomber fleet. ”

This is reminiscent of the giant United States flags that take the place of the cross above the altar in some American megachurches — and, perhaps, of the regimental battle honours hanging in Ely Cathedral. It makes me think better of Archbishop Welby’s plan to hold his citizens’ assembly in Coventry Cathedral — a place that promotes a different view of war.

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