THE Archbishops of Canterbury and York have once again decried recent criticism of the Church of England, and insist that there is no plan to abolish the parish system.
Speaking on Saturday morning during their presidential “reflection” at an informal online meeting of General Synod, Archbishop Welby said that one of the key tasks for the Church in responding to the pandemic was to remain in the national debate, and “not to lose our nerve”.
Of all the negative press coverage, what had hurt the most was the suggestion that the parish system would be dismantled, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, said. “We need to expand and reimagine and revitalise the parish system, not dismantle it,” he told Synod members. “I want to pledge myself again to trying to ensure that we can have a viable, sustainable, flourishing Christian presence in every community in this land, with a much greater bias to the poor.”
The remarks followed a joint article in The Spectator earlier this month, in which the Archbishops wrote that there were “rascally voices around who want to undermine the Church” — a pointed reference to several pieces from the same magazine which had attacked the Bishops over their response to the coronavirus crisis (News, 4 February; Comment, 11 February).
Contrary to speculation that a collapse in church income would lead to the firing of many clergy and the dismantling of the parish system, parochial priesthood was “precious and central to the Church of England”, Archbishop Cottrell said: it was a historic vocation to serve every inch of the nation and every person in it.
Archbishop Welby said: “We’ve both been parish priests, for goodness’ sake. We’ve spent years of our lives serving in the parish system; so the idea we’d want to ditch it. . . It’s just rubbish.”
The Archbishops also regretted the tenor of debate in the Church, especially when conducted online. “I do worry about our discourse with each other, and I do wonder what other people think when they see that,” Archbishop Cottrell said. Assume everyone is speaking with the best of intentions, and be kind to each other, he urged.
Archbishop Welby concurred, deploring the “cruelty and savagery” of the way in which Christians spoke to one another online. He reminded the hundreds of Synod members watching on Zoom that, when they wrote anything on Twitter, “you’re not speaking to a person, but to the whole blinking world.”
Forgiveness must become an everyday part of Christian debate, he concluded. He, like all Christians, would continue regularly to “mess up. . . We’re a bunch of sinners who need the grace of God; so let’s be merciful and forgiving to one another. Let’s love one another.”
Archbishop Cottrell ended the session by quoting a prayer attributed to St Teresa of Calcutta: “People are often unreasonable, irrational and self-centred. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.”
The session included archiepiscopal interviews with a psychiatrist specialising in treating mental ill-health in the clergy, Dr Gary Bell, and the chief executive of Bradford City Council, a lay canon of the city’s cathedral, Kersten England.
Dr Bell spoke with Archbishop Welby — who said that he was one of the psychiatrist’s patients — about the way that the pandemic had prompted an increase in anxiety and depression, especially among the clergy. At St Luke’s Healthcare for the Clergy, where Dr Bell often worked, referrals had gone up two or three times compared with normal numbers, but this was still only the “tip of the iceberg”, he warned.
Archbishop Cottrell then interviewed Ms England, who said that the past 12 months had been a “sober and shocking moment for our nation”. Despite being the sixth richest country on earth, the UK had experienced one of the highest death rates anywhere, as well as a highly disproportionate impact among poorer communities and ethnic minorities. Youth unemployment had doubled to 15 per cent in the district of Bradford: the second-highest in the country, Ms England said. “We have to stop and think: what kind of country are we now?”
Churches had played a part in combating this, but too many of the deprived estates had no Christian presence at all, she said; and she challenged the Church to make a recommitment to these poorest communities.