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Press: C of E is not to blame for all the splashes

22 March 2024


DOES the Church really need to devote so much money and energy to making itself look foolish when there are so many outsiders ready to do the job for free? The most ridiculous lead came from the Daily Express: “A Church of England whistleblower stunned MPs this morning after revealing the widespread abuse of baptisms by asylum seekers in Britain.”

Stunned? They’d have been absolutely gobsmacked if the Revd Matthew Firth had not stuck to his script when he appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee last week (News, 15 March). They knew perfectly well what he was purporting to reveal. The whole point of summoning him — who, remember, baptised something like seven people in his three-years incumbency — was so that he could repeat his well-rehearsed story of a “conveyor belt” of fake baptisms (News, 16 February).

The Express story went on: “Lee Anderson pressed the former vicar over whether the Archbishop of Canterbury is responsible for setting the failing policy direction of the Church, blasting Justin Welby for failing to give evidence to the Committee.” From this, it seems clear that the Reform Party will fight the election on a platform nearly as hostile to the Church of England as it will be to Islam. Now, you can’t blame the Church for that story. It was an entirely cynical and dishonest piece of political theatre.

YOU can, however, blame the Church for Thursday’s splash in The Times: “The Church of England’s £1 billion slavery reparation fund is ‘almost like bribery’, the government’s former race tsar said, as he said that Britain was much less racist than 40 years ago.”

Here, again, the fund is treated as if it were an established fact. A few paragraphs down, there is an explanation of the fact that it is, instead, a fairly pious fantasy, but by now the damage has been done. Lord Sewell’s actual remarks on the subject are scathing but hardly unfair: “We need to have a conversation with the Archbishop [of Canterbury] and ask what he is doing. It would be so much better to focus on bringing people back to a time when the church was packed. They need to repair their base but they are doing something political, for show, giving away this cash. It’s a strangely materialistic way for a spiritual organisation to work, almost like bribery. The church needs to rethink its purpose and stop using the race element as a mechanism to solve their own uncertainty in the world.”

Of course, none of these stories would appear if the Church was the kind of organisation that it pretends to be, or even if it wasn’t pretending in the first place. The idea of reparations first appeared in the preparatory papers for the Lambeth Conference — over which the national Church has no control. There, it looked like a pretty straightforward bribe to get some of the black-led Churches to overcome their distaste for gay people enough to show up in Canterbury.

The Commissioners then made it plain that they thought it was a bad idea. Perhaps the silliest moment, though, came with the idea of setting up an independent commission. First, because if the Church is not in the business of making reliable moral judgements for itself, there’s not much point in listening to anything else that it has to say; second, because a commission charged with spending other people’s money in a virtuous cause is always going to get carried away. This is why the survivors’ campaign for a fully independent safeguarding mechanism is such a bad idea.

All this mess is the consequence of a disorganisational structure in which the parts can make decisions binding on the whole, but the whole can make no decisions binding on the parts. That is how the Anglican Communion failed. I don’t think it’s the future that anyone is planning for the Church of England, but it’s quite inevitable, unless things change fast.

ACROSS the Atlantic, there was a wonderfully illuminating piece in The New Yorker about the ravening emptiness at the heart of a real demagogue. “Hitler was impossible to discourage, not because he ran an efficient machine but because he was immune to the normal human impediments to absolute power: shame, calculation, or even a desire to see a particular political program put in place. . . He ran on the hydrogen fuel of pure hatred. He did not want power in order to implement a program; he wanted power in order to realize his pain.”

Any resemblance to Donald Trump, the candidate of white Evangelicals in this year’s election, is entirely intended. But they matter less and less: the website the Free Press ran an extract from a new study of Latinos by an Episcopalian woman: “In fact, since 2006, white evangelical churches have experienced a precipitous drop in their numbers, shrinking from 23 percent of the American population in 2006 to 14 percent in 2020.”

Her punchline is a quote from an Evangelical pastor: “We Latinos are not extending our hand to primarily white denominations and asking, ‘Can you help us plant churches?’” he says. “We’re going to them, saying, ‘You all need our help.’ This is a flipping of the script.”

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