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Can the Archbishops convince The Spectator’s readers?

11 February 2021

Andrew Brown looks at the article that seeks to still the ‘rascally voices’

A screenshot of the article heading in The Spectator

A screenshot of the article heading in The Spectator

“THERE are rascally voices around who want to undermine the church,” the Archbishops of Canterbury and York write in a joint article for The Spectator.

Who can they have in mind, if not the magazine itself? It has run a series of attacks on the Archbishops and members of their staff over the past few months, culminating in an inaccurate and unchecked piece last week, which claimed that there was a plan to shut down large number of churches and sack their clergy as a result of collapsing incomes during the pandemic.

The Archbishops’ article represents an extraordinary turnaround in the Church’s media strategy. The traditional response when archbishops are attacked has been public silence and private counter-briefings.

It seems, though, that Lambeth Palace judges that The Spectator is a more powerful enemy than most of the papers, because of its deep links with elements of the Conservative Party. Mary Wakefield, the magazine’s commissioning editor, is also Mrs Dominic Cummings; Johnson himself is a former editor of the paper. In the 1980s and ’90s, it took a vigorous part in the struggle over women priests. And it has always had a role in setting the agenda for the daily papers.

The Archbishops write: “There are no plans to dismantle the parish network. We are committed to our calling to be a Christian presence in every community. . . the suggestion that all we do is cut back clergy numbers is not only untrue and unhelpful, it creates unnecessary anxiety. We need more clergy and they are coming forward in record numbers. And where dioceses are saving posts, it is usually through retirements.

“This year, we have seen the biggest rise in ordained and lay vocations for a quarter of a century. To fund this, the church commissioners’ strategic ministry fund is channelling £1.6 million to support curacies for dioceses that would otherwise not have been able to afford them. In total, £33.7 million is formally committed to dioceses by the end of 2025. This is to help ensure each new priest has a future ministry.

“Yes, there are hard decisions currently being made across many dioceses. Overall some stipendiary posts will be lost. But that isn’t the same as making clergy redundant.

“There is no central plan for all of this. How could there be? Each diocese is its own legal and charitable entity and makes its own decisions. But there is a central and local vision. It is to be centred on Jesus Christ and flowing from that to encourage the Church of England to embrace new ways of serving the nation — not to dismantle what we have inherited, but to build upon its proud and treasured foundations.”

This is true as far as it goes, of course, but it doesn’t entirely hang together. The Archbishops also write: “The aim is to make each parish and each Christian community sustainable. If that doesn’t happen, there really will be no Church of England. And to do it requires generosity and sacrifice.”

But this aim is, of course, completely incompatible with the way in which the Church is presently organised, many of the poorest parishes having an income of less than £5000 a year. The generosity and sacrifice to which the Archbishops appeal is going to have to come from somewhere outside the Church, as well as from within it. To put the matter at its crudest, someone is going to have to pay for all those medieval and Victorian churches, and it can’t for very much longer be the parishioners or most of the dioceses.

That is where The Spectator becomes important. The only realistic way of dealing with the Church’s function as a custodian of the nation’s architectural heritage is to get the nation to pay for it. For that to happen, the Conservative Party must be kept on side. This is going to be difficult, because the model of the Church to which Tory nostalgists are attached is financially completely unworkable, and they feel no loyalty whatsoever to anything that has a chance of success. The Archbishops are playing for very high stakes here, but I don’t think that they have any choice.

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