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Angela Tilby: Why I have doubts about the C of E’s review of trust

05 July 2024

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TWO years ago, I was at a meeting addressed by Dr David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus at Cambridge, author of a recent commentary on St John’s Gospel (Books, 18 March 2022), and an old Cambridge friend. He explained that he was working on issues to do with “trust” in the Church of England, and invited us to write a few lines on the subject.

I duly submitted mine, which I have now forgotten, and lo, two years on, a review has been published in the form of a preliminary paper for this weekend’s meeting of the General Synod: Trust and trustworthiness within the Church of England (GS Misc. 2354) (News, 28 June).

The bulk of the review is based on research to identify what processes, procedures, and decisions might help to repair and re-establish trust in the C of E. There are obvious areas in which trust is low: in particular, racism, abuse, and the issues raised by Living in Love and Faith; but there are also wider concerns.

History, though, suggests that there has never been a high level of trust in the Church of England. It has always been a leaky tent, covering widely different allegiances. The review assumes that this is a bad thing, and quotes extensively from scripture to demonstrate that, since we are saved by faith, i.e. trust, we should therefore both be trustworthy ourselves and trust others. Our lack of trust is judged by scripture and found wanting. At this point, I found myself losing faith in the drift of the review. Scepticism is in our blood for a reason; our trust is in God alone.

In the past, the C of E has held to­­gether in its ramshackle way not by feelings of trust, but by common habits of prayer, the threefold min­­istry, and a commitment to place embodied by the parish system.

It is no secret that these have been eroded in recent years: liturgy has become optional, the distinctions between clergy and laity are being eroded, and the parish system is undermined by plants and mergers. The Church’s senior leadership may urge us to emulate the Early Church, but the Early Church did not run on business lines, nor was it obsessed by numbers, growth, and money.

The review refers to Baroness O’ Neill’s analysis, in her 2002 Reith Lectures, of the breakdown of trust across all institutions. (It isn’t just the Church that has a problem.) But the review leaves out one of her most important insights: that setting up “procedures and processes” designed to iron out bad behaviour and avoid errors of judgement does not always help, and sometimes makes things worse.

Putting our trust in processes is no substitute for a realistic trust in one another, by which I mean a trust that is both provisional and sceptical. Above all, as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four taught us, we should always doubt pronouncements that come from the so-called Ministry of Love.

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