Church of England

Would the appointment of Bishop Martyn Percy offer remedy against Justin Welby’s asserted theological ignorance?

Here follows Adrian Hilton’s response to Martyn Percy’s second letter on ‘Renewal & Reform’ (R&R) and the ministry and leadership of Justin Welby:

Dear Martyn,

Thank you for your letter.

You essentially believe that ++Justin’s “refusal to birth his proposed reforms in any good theology” is akin to the “mere pragmatism and expedient managerialism” of a politician; that the Archbishop and his team are somehow ‘spinning’ the Church of England like Blair/Mandelson/Campbell did New Labour, thereby neglecting centuries of spiritual depth, which is now subsumed to a “populist” Welby “personality cult” which is plunging poor parishes into greater poverty while reinforcing rich, successful ones. If all this were true, it would be really quite shocking.

You know I share some of your concerns over the Green Report, but, as theologically deficient as it may be, it is a distortion to view ++Justin’s entire mission through this one lens, omitting its theological progeny (eg Senior Church Leadership: a resource for reflection [Faith & Order Commission, 2015]; Developing Discipleship [General Synod, 2015]). Theological reflection flows from it, if not through it.

Your reference to the lack of “good theology” is curious when you also say “there is no engagement with theology at all” (and then, “ruthlessly excluded”). Do you dismiss what you deem to be “poor theology” as no theology at all? I note a cogent R&R theological background paper by the Rev’d Dr Sam Wells (A Future that’s Bigger than the Past [undated]). On the internal obstacles to reform, he observes (p3):

The challenge of leadership in the Church of England is that almost every key concept – salvation, church, faith, mission – is disputed, and almost every notion of purpose – conversion, worship, holiness, prophecy, prayer, eternal life – is subject to multiple interpretations. This is true of many organisations and institutions; but it is particularly so of the church, and, given the cosmic context and eternal horizon of the church’s activities, those diverging interpretations are always liable to appear as fundamental, even irreconcilable, differences.

Isn’t that the issue? It isn’t that there is no “good theology”; it’s just that you view the R&R theology much the way I view most of the ‘socialist God’ sociology-theology which I was fed during my years at Oxford. It is what, in part, spurred me to write my MTh thesis on the theology of Conservatism (which, sadly, seems to be a conceptual oxymoron to many clergy and ordinands).

Bishops are, as you say, supposed to be teachers of the faith, but there’s no point teaching if no-one is listening. You may repudiate ++Justin’s approach, but people are listening. You call it “populism” on a par with the Blair’s “cherry-picking socialism”: I can’t help hearing a few Pharisees accuse Christ of cherry-picking the Torah. There are certainly many Roman Catholics who hurl ‘cherry-picking Catholicism’ at the Church of England. Isn’t one person’s cherry-picking another’s reformation (/renewal)? Some may say (and I may be one of them) that much of what passes for episcopal theology is sociology, if not socialism: the Archbishop of York is certainly unashamed (“That sounds extremely left wing doesn’t it? The truth is it is the theology of where I am coming from” [Telegraph, 14th Jan 2015]). ++Justin’s theology may not be sufficiently Anglican to Oxonians, but it is Koine to the Greeks.

The media reports of Gove on ‘experts’ need some context. It was all wrapped up in decades of contending against a particular sort of expert, whom you categorise as “the liberal elite” (or assume Gove does?), and this, by extension, offers insight into ++Justin’s modus operandi (indeed, not just insight, but “proof”, you say).

Setting aside the fact that Gove is himself a signed-up member of the liberal elite, according to the Mosca/Pareto theory of elites, they circulate: one elite is replaced with another, who then becomes the new ‘expert’. Thus when Gove says (or, as you aver, Green/Welby/Spence imply) “we have had enough of experts” (Telegraph 10th June 2016), it is more to do with the struggle against assertions of inviolable truth or a certain teleological infallibility. As Harold Macmillan framed it: “We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts” (Council of Europe, 16th Aug 1950). Gove never denied that ‘the Blob’ in state education (or the pro-EU economic/political consensus of the past 40 years) included experts: he just didn’t accept the technocratic narrowness of their expertise. Theologians like Sam Wells theologise well, I think. And ++Justin happens to prefer his expertise over that of (say) Linda Woodhead, but it isn’t lacking theology or expertise per se.

A hierarchy of experts is the NT pattern for leadership (1Tim 5:17; 1Thess 5:12f cf 1Tim 3:1). Of course, all are to be equally honoured (Mk 10:35-45), but the eye cannot say to the hand, etc., etc. Whether ++Justin is the eye and you the hand is moot: spurned experts tend to rail against the expertise of those experts they consider ignorant. Take this expert theologian, for example:

Seriously, it is appalling if we leave an organisation the EU that Eastern countries are longing to join. Brexit should still be halted (John Milbank, Twitter, 19th September 2016).

I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent listening to eminent Oxford theologians laud Milbank’s genius, but I hold no truck for his theo-political thesis (though to him, of course, I would have ‘poor theology’ and be no kind of expert). In his imperative EU attitude he is joined by hundreds of Christian leaders and theological experts, including (pace +Mark of Shrewsbury) the House of Bishops: the people simply didn’t understand what they were asked, so ‘theologian-guardians’ are needed to guide them in the right path.

This is more or less what you’re saying: that ++Justin needs theologian-bishops (like you?), because you understand the Church of England in ways he simply doesn’t. The problem, Martyn, isn’t that what you say is untrue or lacks validity: it’s that it makes appeal to the self-perpetuating expertois which ++Justin (like Gove) is convinced is in need of reform. Would the appointment of Bishop Martyn Percy offer remedy against ++Justin’s (“hierarchy’s”) asserted theological ignorance? Is there a need to ensure that theologically right-thinking (ie, socially left-thinking) bishops are properly advanced?

The parenthesis isn’t a dig: it is simply that your own (reported/actual) missional priorities (on, for example, women bishops and same-sex marriage) are, for you, fundamental issues of Christian justice. Those who demur are perpetuating injustice (or ‘hate’, as I discovered a few weeks ago when the police were informed about my orthodox Anglican approach to priestly vocation). Would it be unfair to characterise your view on this as a need for “ruthless pragmatism” over “thinking and reflection”? Or is it that you think we’ve done so much thinking and reflecting that only by ruthless imposition can the church now be ‘progressive’ for justice? Where is Anglican “breadth and complexity” if (so I’m told) some dioceses are no longer appointing incumbents who favour gender complementarity?

I might half agree with you on all of this – even more than half. And the approximate half of me that doesn’t balks at the formation of an episcopal preferment (‘talent pool’) committee which can weed out the heretics (as the Conservative Party does, and Corbyn’s Labour Party surely will), which over-simplifies the challenges and demoralises the people/members by nullifying localism. You may well ask where this leave the prophets, deviants, dissenters or “ideological dinosaurs”.

Isn’t the answer to be found in Scripture (Mk 6:4)? A prophet-bishop is not welcome in the House of Bishops, but there’s no reason at all he can’t find honour in an Oxford college. Of course, deviants and heretics aren’t even honoured in Oxford colleges: they tend to get torched on Broad Street – or become exiles in the Blogosphere.

God bless,

Adrian