Church of England

Martyn Percy: the Church of England is being “reformed by bankers.. theology is ruthlessly excluded.. populism and narcissism are in the ascendancy”

Following Martyn Percy’s first letter and Adrian Hilton’s response, here is Martyn Percy’s response to Adrian Hilton’s first letter:

Dear Adrian,

Thanks for your letter, which gave me plenty to think about. Let me respond to one of your points at the outset. There is no sense in which I am arguing or wishing for ++Justin to be something he is not. He is not a ‘philosopher-king’, or an academic, and I am not criticising him for this fact. Nor do I think that theologians have any special pre-eminence in governing and shaping the church. They do have a role, however, and a very real contribution to make. In that regard, I guess one of the disappointing and alarming features of ++Justin’s primacy is his refusal to birth his proposed reforms in any good theology. If the changes he is augmenting don’t have a theological root and depth, then the risk is that the change is one of mere pragmatism and expedient managerialism.

++Justin’s refusal to engage in theology was manifest in the Green Report – a document that fundamentally re-shaped the selection and training of (so-called) ‘senior leaders’ in the church: our Bishops, Deans, Archdeacons, etc. The Green Report – in over eighty pages – mentioned God just twice. The Green Report did not call on any known theologians to help its work, or even consult prominent scholars in the field of leadership studies.

There are shades of Michael Gove’s assertion backing the campaign to Vote Leave (on the EU), and refuting the government: ‘we have had enough of experts’, he said (Daily Telegraph 10th June 2016). In other words, we’re just going to get on with the job. We all know what the people really want. The experts are part of the liberal elite who get in the way of the peoples’ will. They just overcomplicate things. They deconstruct the demagogues, and must be resisted.

If proof were needed of this, I need only recount a conversation with one of ++Justin’s most trusted lieutenants, John Spence. Spence runs the finances of the Archbishops’ Council, and I asked him why his report on reforming the whole of the CofE’s theological training for clergy made no reference to any previous reports that covered the ground, or to any academic literature on the subject. His reply was that we – the ‘we’ here is ++Justin’s hierarchy, speaking and acting for the whole church – ‘could not be expected to wade through pages of theology before getting to main meat of the change-agenda’. I asked why, in the case of the Green Report, I had to wade through eighty pages of passé managerial tosh? Was that any better than a few dozen pages of theology? There was no comment.

Bishops are supposed to be teachers of the faith. That is one their primary vocations and responsibilities. That is what their throne represents in a cathedral: it is basically a chair in theology (for teaching). So theology is very, very important for bishops. But for ++Justin’s major programme of ‘Reform and Renewal’ – and most of his reforming initiatives, in fact – there is no engagement with theology at all. Indeed, he has adopted a curious anti-intellectualism, with a preference for quite ruthless pragmatism to replace thinking and reflection.

There is the populism of ++Justin. I say ‘populism’ here rather than ‘popularity’, because I think the distinction is the key to understanding this moment in the life of the church. Tony Blair made the Labour Party electable again by cherry-picking socialism, and playing down the breadth and complexity of the Labour movement. From a platform of over-simplification he was able to project simplistic sentiments into the media, which galvanised support from a wider public, and, for a while, many elements from within the Labour Party.

But this modus operandi, although it gained initial popularity, also marginalised dissenters and more cautious reflectors. Such people were demonised as deviants (not ‘on message’), or as ‘ideological dinosaurs’. They quickly become exiles and aliens within their own Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s populism is ironically built on precisely the same foundations – they’re just different political agendas. From ‘Vote Blair’ to ‘Jez We Can’, Labour has lost its soul to both forms of populism: ultimately, demagogues despise democracy.

The same danger is there for the Church of England and ++Justin. To be sure, locking the Archbishop into some reflective, broad and thoughtful theological conversations would bring about slower progress. It would lead to more reflection and far less pragmatism. But it would achieve a broader buy-in, and deeper consensus. The danger of populism is that it forms a personality cult, and eventually a culture of narcissism: ‘demagogue-danger’. Cultures of narcissism and populism have a nasty habit of becoming bullying and sectarian.

For that reason alone, I think ++Justin needs to take theology much more seriously than he does, and allow his ideas and agenda to be challenged by robust intellectual debates. That said, what troubles me most about his ‘Reform and Renewal’ agenda is the near-total-absence of God. The church finds itself being reformed by bankers (i.e., John Spence and Lord Green, etc.), neither of whom have any expertise in the fields they are wielding power in – theological education and leadership studies respectively. Theology should be a key foundation in these initiatives.

Instead, theology is treated as a potential encumbrance, and ruthlessly excluded. That gifts an open, defenceless road for one proposed initiative of the ‘Reform and Renewal’ agenda: namely to divert funds away from needy and over-stretched rural parishes, and hand the money over to successful, ‘growing’ suburban parishes. This all makes sense to the bankers running ++Justin’s strategy. But what this does to the identity and mission of a national church is utterly despicable. And, frankly, how this reflects the gospel is (theologically) incomprehensible.

But if populism and narcissism are in the ascendancy, some ‘quick wins’ and ‘success’ further perpetuate the aura of the righteous reformers. Let’s face it: no-one has the patience or time to develop saintliness and wisdom these days – even in the church. Decisive demagogues are championed; we laud the new winners and heroes. Just make sure those theologians don’t stick an oar in with their complex objections.

Adrian, I know you cite ++Justin’s ‘priorities’ for his arch-episcopacy, and that these are prayer and the religious life; reconciliation; evangelism and witness. Yet the very fact that these emerge as ‘priorities’ at all ought to alert us to the populism being propagated here. For example, why is ‘evangelism’ preferred to that much broader and richer term, ‘mission’? If ‘reconciliation’ is a priority, then why was it expedient to demonise and marginalise the American Episcopal Church?

There is a real gap between the rhetoric and the reality. And it is growing all the time. The priorities and slogans are the politics and pragmatics of populism. They belong with ‘Brexit means Brexit’; ‘I am anti-austerity’; or ‘Read my lips – our priorities are education, education, education…’. These phrases, as we now know, held some sway at the time of utterance – in a kind of bread-and-circus manner – and they please and placate the masses, to whom they are directed. They are high on impact; but low on detail and delivery.

In short, none of this is a substitute for substance. And we need an Archbishop who has some theological substance, and is unafraid – and possibly not embarrassed? – of deploying some rich theology into our discourse to help to shape public life, drawing broadly on the traditions and breadth of the church’s wisdom, in order to speak up in times of national crises and angst. Skilful populism won’t do as a substitute for this.

So my main concern in this is ++Justin’s bewildering reluctance to talk about God. Our calling is not to heroically rescue the church, or to save the world. God, in Christ, has already done both of these. It is this God we need to hear more about – and less about how people currently claim to be operating in his name.

Yours faithfully,

Martyn