Monday, 19 January 2009

How the State kept the Church of England 'moderate'

A fascinating insight into the workings of the appointment of Church of England bishops in the postwar years can be gleaned from a letter, reproduced here in the Church Times, from the then Prime Minister's Appointments Secretary to Harold MacMillan.

This was before James Callaghan introduced the changes which led to the present system of the Crown Nominations Commission, so the system itself was very different. However one suspects, on present performance, that the underlying ethos of 'moderation' and 'balance' has not changed very much at all.

Most revealing, perhaps, are the Secretary, David Stephens', remarks about Donald Coggan, then Bishop of Bradford, and widely regarded, with affection, as an evangelical Archbishop of Canterbury in his day. Stephens writes in positive terms:
The Bishop of Bradford, Donald Coggan, is much younger [than Michael Ramsey, then Archbishop of York] (51 in October) but is coming on fast, and is about the only member of the Bishops’ Bench who earns unqualified praise from all quarters.
Nevertheless, part of his thinking is the concern for balance:
He [Coggan] would make an excellent Archbishop of York, if it were decided to move Ramsey to Canterbury.
Coggan's later preferment is also contemplated at this stage:
He would also make a possible Archbishop of Canterbury if it were decided to leave Ramsey at York.
On Coggan's evangelicalism, however, Stephens has this to say:
He is too big a man to have any definitive party allegiance, and has grown from an evangelical background into a central churchman.
Nevertheless, Coggan's churchmanship is still useful:
His evangelical back ground would provide a balance to Ramsey’s tendencies in the opposite direction, and together they would be a truly representative pair of Archbishops.
Those of us with any great familiarity with the Church of England's hierarchy will groan at a scenario familiar in announcements of preferments over the years: "The new Bishop of So-and-So comes from an evangelical background ..." That may be so, but promotion to the higher echelons of the Church of England has generally been dependent on evidence that the individual in question has, in Stephens' words, "grown from" such a "background", rather than retaining "any definitive party allegiance". (It matters not, incidentally, whether Coggan was evangelical - what matters, in the case of him and others, is that he was perceived by those in charge of the process, as not being too evangelical.)

Indeed, it sometimes seems preferable to those making the appointments that no-one on the bench of bishops should have anything too "definitive" about them at all. The result, however, is that the one thing definitely promoted is liberalism, for reasons identified by the recently-deceased Richard John Neuhaus, when he wrote of 'The Unhappy Fate of Optional Orthodoxy':
When orthodoxy is optional, it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false. It is therefore a conditional admission, depending upon orthodoxy’s good behavior. The orthodox may be permitted to believe this or that and to do this or that as a matter of sufferance, allowing them to indulge their inclination, preference, or personal taste. But it is an intolerable violation of the etiquette by which one is tolerated if one has the effrontery to propose that this or that is normative for others.

A well-mannered church can put up with a few orthodox eccentrics, and can even take pride in being so very inclusive. “Oh, poor Johnson thinks we’re all heretics,” says the bishop, chuckling between sips of his sherry. The bishop is manifestly pleased that there is somebody, even if it is only poor old Johnson, who thinks he is so adventuresome as to be a heretic. And he is pleased with himself for keeping Johnson around to make him pleased with himself. If, however, Johnson’s views had the slightest chance of prevailing and thereby threatening the bishop’s general sense of security and well-being, well, then it would be an entirely different matter.

So it was that some church bodies muddled through for a long time with leaderships that trimmed doctrine to the dictates of academic fashion and popular prejudice (the two, more often than not, being the same) while permitting the orthodox option as a kindness to those so inclined, and as testimony to the “balance” so cherished by placeholders radically devoted to the middle way.
How true that clearly was for the 'placeholders' in the Church of England of the 1950s and 60s. But it would be foolish to imagine things are very different today. The process has moved on from the day when Crown Appointments really were appointments by the Crown. However, even though the Church itself has a much larger say in the matter, the policy towards churchmanship remains the same: Quieta non movere. Or in simpler terms, Don't rock the boat.

Revd John P Richardson
19 January 2009 

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  1. You can sympathetically see why people don't want Bishops to rock the boat. The problem is if the boat is actually slowly capsizing, whilst not doing anything.

    The "From an evangelical" background always amuses me. Same as "Some Evangelicals believe x, because I do and I'm an Evangelical". We wouldn't do that in another sphere of life. E.g. I'm thin, at least I was when I went to University, I'm at least from a thin background. Or even Christianly - I always claimed to be a Christian, selectivly believed in some Catholic bits, dabbled in astrology, denied the Trinity, thought Hinduism was 'cool' - but I describe myself as Christian, not as "From a confused idolatrous background". Although if I did would I be considered for 'elevation'?

    Darren Moore

  2. This is of course what happens when the church, originally as represented by Cranmer, submits itself to the secular authority instead of to God. Unfortunately the rot has gone too deep to be undone easily by tinkering with the appointments system or even by complete disestablishment. But at least there is a chance that over many decades or even a few centuries after disestablishment the C of E might be able to shake off this disease.

  3. Just occasionally a conservative evangelical has slipped under the radar - but overwhelmingly it is the 'open evangelicals' who are chosen, even though few of them are distinguished as leaders or growers of large churches. How would it be if each diocese appointed its own bishop, for a fixed term of 5-7 years?