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,


  • Jon Sorensen

    Can someone please explain the theological differences between these two gentlemen?

    • len

      There is something called’ the fog of theology ‘and these two gentlemen are groping around in this fog looking for answers which only Jesus Christ can give them.
      Lot simpler to go to Christ in the first instance.

    • The Explorer

      You aska da qvestions!

    • IanCad

      A simple question with a simple answer: NO! That is, if the essentials of faith is the criterion.
      Jesus lived. He died that we may be saved. He will come again. His judgement will be just.
      Theology is a timid craft and can scarcely stand alone. It invariably recruits to its cause the arms of sociology and political philosophy as the middle parts of the OP so clearly shows.
      It would be profitable if the CofE would, as a condition for spending time in such a generally fruitless occupation, require of those participants an equal number of hours to be spent with ladders, scrapers, paintbrushes and other tools of maintenance, in an effort to halt the decay of our magnificent monuments to faith; Our neglected and empty churches.

    • Anton

      No difference in theology (they both believe that Jesus of Nazareth has identical personality and power to the Creator of all things), but some differences in ecclesiology (ie, how churches should be run). In fairness to you, though, many Christians use the word “theology” in the same wider sense as you.

      As for the differences in their ecclesiology, this reflects a tension within the Established (ie State-linked) church within England. Because the New Testament portrays the church as persecuted by the authorities, there is no biblical guide to the issues involved. Some would say that theology is to be lived, rather than discussed endlessly among ordained philosopher-academics (which is not a description of both men involved in this exchange), and that committed Christians have generally been persecuted by the authorities – including by Established churches. Others would say that this exchange is about whether secular styles of business management can be successfully imported into churches, and in particular the Church of England. I’d add that leadership is a personal quality which can be recognised but not codified (although one of the Bible chapters mentioned above, 1 Timothy 3, gives some necessary criteria); that leadership is important in all organisations, whether commercial or the church; and that any church system neglects the New Testament at its spiritual peril.

    • chefofsinners

      One of them has a beard.

  • dannybhoy

    “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.”

    And therein lies the problem. The Church of England believes (more than ever before) that it must be an inclusive Church. Inclusivity is mistaken for unity.
    So in order to achieve inclusivity the Church must and will stand for pretty much any movement which proclaims itself “Christian” regardless of what they actually stand for!
    Thus the Church of England tolerates Freemasonry, the LGBT agenda, equality of faiths and those who deny the essential truths of the faith.
    There are key concepts of the Christian faith we should all be able to unite around. Whether out of fear of loss of influence and numbers, or perhaps an assertion of God’s love and compassion at the expense of His holiness and judgement; the Church of England is in serious trouble. The boat is leaking, the boat is sinking, and the current captain is floundering..

    • Notforinfants

      Dannyboy. Good comment and I think accurate of the C of E and indeed the greater majority of what we might call the “institutional” churches.
      Nearly 60 years ago a prominent and respected Anglican theologian and thinker – Jim Packer wrote an incisive critique of Evangelicalism as he saw it in the UK at the time. The gospel of “inclusivity” you so rightly pinpoint was present but not so advanced then as it is today.
      Packer’s comment is more centered more on the subjectivism and “man-centeredness” of so many of our churches, mainly as he perceived it, the C of E. His comments ring as true today as when he wrote:
      For the benefit of those who may be unfamiliar with Packer’s wonderful contributions to evangelical theological insights I quote a little of what he said then:
      “Evangelicalism is in a state of perplexity and unsettlement (gw – when has it never been so?) In such matters as the practice of evangelism, the teaching of holiness, the building up of the local church life, the pastor’s dealings with souls and the exercise of discipline, ther is evidence of widespread uncertainty as to the road ahead……
      We have lost our grip on the biblical gospel. Without realising it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing.
      Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in past days proved itself so mighty.
      The new gospel conspicuously fails to produce deep reverence, deep humility, a spirit of worship, a concern for the church. Why?
      The reason lies in its own character and content. It fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying to do.
      One way of stating the difference between it and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be “helpful” to man, to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction, and too little concerned to glorify God. It was always and essentially a proclamation of Divine sovereignty in mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for all good, in both nature and grace. But in the new gospel the centre of reference is man….. the whole perspective and emphasis of gospel preaching has changed”
      There is more in this vein but space forbids further comment from this this discerning man (quoted from his Introductory essay to a work by John Owen -‘The Death of death in the death of Christ’)
      But I think you get the drift – and how true his charges are today.
      Much more could be said, but for another post.

      • Anton

        It all comes down to the de-emphasis of repentance. “Repent and be changed” is what one wise bishop summarised it as.

        • David

          I agree. By being timid about God’s condemnation of our sins, and by glossing over the deep need for repentance, Christ’s work and victory on the cross, and then rising from the grave, is devalued. Returning to an undiluted, simple theology – the unchanging gospel, is the only way forward under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

      • dannybhoy

        We attend a rural Anglican church, we are members of our PCC and local Churches Together group. I have no time for all the paraphenalia and hierarchical convolutions of the Anglican Church. However what I will say (as an evangelical and mildly charismatic Christian), is that there are many sound, devoted clergy out there serving their parishes and seeking to spread the Gospel.
        Further, if it gets its act together the CofE is best placed to speak up for our Lord and His Gospel on a national level; best placed to call believers to prayer, repentance and discipleship.
        There is an innate stability in the Anglican Church which could spearhead a more united and coordinated movement of Christianity in this nation. That is why the enemy of our souls wants to keep it weak and confused, and that is why I shall continue to pray for the Anglican Church and Justin Welby.

  • David

    Far too many words here but far too little guidance from Scripture.
    Just read what the Bible says, especially Jesus, understand it in the context of its time, and then see how it guides us now and for always.
    “I am the way, the truth and the life”.

  • Inspector General

    Percy angling for a bishop’s mitre is he?

    Looks like Cranmer has put paid to that then! It came as rather a surprise when our man announced he was to publish correspondence. To what ends, wondered an Inspector. It’s all taking form now. Cranmer is making an example of treachery in the ranks. None of Green’s Royal Jelly now or at any other time for the rogue. He will not be fattened for a role among the episcopals.

    By the way Percy, when you say your prayers tonight, try not to miss out the bit about forgiving others ’who trespass against us’. There’s a good fellow!

    All in, splendid stuff. Well done Cranmer, you arch assassin, you!!

    • I thought HG was a Christian!

      • Inspector General

        He is, Marie. He is fighting the good fight with all his might. The last thing the CoE needs is another card carrying Red as a bishop. What’s a mere priest doing aliening himself with that which is not of God’s kingdom anyway? He needs to be about his flock, not alienating them with socialist bullshit aplenty…

  • chefofsinners

    Not so sure about the characterisation of ++Justin as the church’s Gove. The trail of destruction at Education and Justice augur badly for the CoE.
    And the thought of +Percy? +*?!
    Is Percy an MTh or a DTh? He seems to doctor theology more than he has mastered it.

    • Anton

      I loved the way Gove stuck the knife into Boris like a panto baddie. Precedent for Justin Cantuar and the liberals, we may pray…

      • len

        Boris was unaffected by Gove’ s treachery.Gove was the loser by his backstabbing.

        • Anton

          Boris was not unaffected. He was forced to withdraw from the race to be Conservative leader and PM.

          I loved it because I regard politics as pantomime nowadays.

  • len

    ‘A theological scrap’ .Roll up, roll up, watch the mighty theologians fight it out .Best of three falls the winner?.
    Of course God didn`t give us ‘a theology’ .He gave us Christ.