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Press: Weeklies get theological; dailies theoretical  

02 July 2021

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AS THE Church retreats from mainstream news coverage, more nuanced and sympathetic pieces start to appear in places where, 20 years ago, it would have seemed absurd to take Christianity seriously. The most obvious example of this was the recruitment of Rowan Williams as one of the New Statesman’s lead book reviewers, and the Statesman keeps on taking Christianity fairly seriously, even if it largely ignores the Churches.

So, last week’s issue had a long appreciation of Sydney Smith by Matthew Engel, which points out that his Christianity was an important part of his moral excellences: “He farmed, imaginatively, built a rectory which became a home filled with laughter, and set about infusing the village with his own practical version of Christianity. This meant renting land to the poor very cheaply, feeding them in hard times and learning enough medicine to cure some of their maladies. He also became a magistrate, infuriating his colleagues with his leniency to poachers.”

There was also a long discussion of Christina Rossetti’s apocalyptic Tractarianism — I didn’t know about it either — in the London Review of Books. I do not think that the magazine would have devoted such space to non-Marxist theology 20 years ago, when all the newspapers still had religious affairs correspondents.

 

THE contrast with the week’s Church stories could not be greater. The one that stuck in my mind — and, indeed craw — was Steve Doughty’s Mail scoop about what the subs called a “rev-olution”: “The Church of England is to consider dropping the title ‘Reverend’ for its clergy as part of efforts to stop child abuse.

“The form of address, used for more than 500 years, must go because it encourages deference to clergy and helps abusers cover up their crimes, the Church’s parliament is to be told” — except that it’s not. This is a private member’s motion which is not going to be debated. The General Synod is never going to hear this call. But never mind the facts, feel the narrative: this motion, if it were debated, as it won’t be, “would be the latest radical move in culture wars that have seized the CofE in recent months.” And off we trot with slavery and statues.

I can hardly imagine the delight with which Harriet Sherwood, on The Guardian, received an instruction to follow up this non-story. In any case, her version wasted less time getting to the point and made it more forcefully: “The motion, submitted by James Dudley-Smith, the vicar of St John’s in Yeovil, Somerset, is unlikely to pass the threshold of 100 supporting signatures to be debated at next month’s General Synod.

“A C of E spokesperson said: “This is a private member’s motion tabled in February which is not due to be discussed at synod.”

Just as the coverage of the Church has moved out of the mainstream, the coverage of the Synod has moved away from the motions which will actually be debated to those which won’t. Perhaps this would matter if the ones that are, in fact, debated made any difference to the world outside.

 

THE Mail did have a go at a real story: the uprising in Winchester (News, Comment, 28 May). There was a distinct shortage of named sources, but that may have something to do with lawyers. What was left was remarkably straightforward and damning. “The calls for him [the Bishop of Winchester] to go have been sparked by a financial crisis and the sacking of more than 20 clergy and other staff.

“Before getting pay-offs they were first required to sign legally binding ‘confidentiality clauses’ banning them from making ‘adverse or derogatory comments’ about the bishop or the diocese.

“Some were in senior posts but left after clashing with the 63-year-old bishop, according to their colleagues. The payouts amount to £800,000, diocese sources say.”

The Dakin case does not fit at all well into the “culture wars” narrative from the Mail’s viewpoint. Imagine the story had it been the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who treated his clergy as Bishop Dakin did. The other point is that the strategy that Dakin pursued with such disastrous results is exactly the one on which it seems that the leadership of the Church has bet the firm: to shut down the underperforming branches of the franchise and invest where the traffic is. This may work for McDonald’s, but the eucharist is not a hamburger.

Of course, the moral that will be drawn from this fiasco is not that the strategy itself is wrong but that its implementation was flawed. To a certain kind of mind, it will be obvious that, if the problem is that some bishops can’t cut back the workforce without fuss and friction, the solution must be fresh reforms that make it easier to sack underperforming bishops as well as their clergy.

The great problem with that is how to measure or judge the performance of bishops. Most people in the system seem to see this almost entirely in terms of factional advantage.

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