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Angela Tilby: Centralising power leads to conflict

24 November 2023

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Members of the Synod are asked for a show of hands during the meeting in Church House, Westminster, last week

Members of the Synod are asked for a show of hands during the meeting in Church House, Westminster, last week

THE recent meeting of the General Synod, with its debate on the blessing of same-sex couples, was one of the most bitterly divisive of recent years (News, 17 November). The resignation of that doughty campaigner Jayne Ozanne, after she had earlier called on the Archbishop of Canterbury to resign, was one of several indications that the Church of England may be lurching towards cancel culture. Only one side can stay in this divided house.

Archbishop Welby has done his best. He has, after all, wide experience of negotiation and reconciliation. But, looking at his track record, it seems to me that he, along with some of his predecessors, has made one fundamental error. This is in the attempt to centralise power.

As a national Church founded in bitter controversy, the Church of England evolved different and sometimes competing centres of power. There were bishops, but there were also cathedrals, colleges, and royal foundations that maintained their independence. The laity exercised power through patronage, and through churchwardens and, eventually, PCCs. Bishops were not appointed because they agreed with one another, but because the representatives of the Monarch, advised by the Prime Minister, thought that they would be good spiritual leaders for dioceses and for wider society. Parish priests had a level of security through freehold, which freed them to interpret the gospel in their local context.

What held this ramshackle national Church together was not top-down command and control, but a patient acceptance of subsidiarity. This requires a recognition that power flows upwards as well as downwards, and that the unity of the Church is ensured only by the continuity of the threefold order of ministry and the tradition of common prayer, which could be interpreted and performed in a variety of ways. In recent years, these unifying threads have been undermined, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has come to be seen more like a Prime Minister, with the Bishops as his government and the Archbishops’ Council as his cabinet. The move of many staff from Church House to the Archbishop’s office at Lambeth Palace has added to the impression of a centralising trend.

The result of these endeavours has not been greater unity, or, as was hoped, a more Christ-like, Jesus-centred Church. It has been the exhausting conflict that we saw at the last meeting of the Synod. The recent revolt of 12 members of the House of Bishops, whatever one thinks of their cause, is an indication that even those bishops who do dissent do not feel heard (News, 20 October).

The truth is that different elements in the Church of England have always interpreted the gospel in wildly different ways, and the institution can hold together only if power is distributed. There is a place for argumentative dissidents: Jayne Ozanne will be missed. When people feel powerless, unheard, and impotent, they won’t knuckle under. They simply leave.

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