Church of England

Bishop of Burnley: CofE’s agenda is set by academia, moneyed elites, and sections of the secular media

The Rt Rev’d Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, decided to celebrate his 50th birthday with a splash in the Church Times, which has become a veritable flash in the Daily Mail, and justifiably so. ‘Heeding the voices of the popular revolution‘ is a donnish headline: far better to go with the demotic jugular: ‘Bishop accuses “elitist” Church of England of being embarrassed by patriotism and failing to understand “frozen out” Brexit voters‘. Yes, that’s much better. Sometimes you just can’t beat calling a spade a shovel.

And shovel it he does:

For the most part, the Church of England has reacted to the election of Donald Trump (News, 11 November) and the UK’s vote to leave the EU (News, 1 July) (the “Trump-Brexit phenomenon”) by jumping on to the middle-class Est­abl­­ishment bandwagon of outrage and horror. As if set to auto-pilot, the C of E has joined in with those who are decrying the collapse of the liberal consensus and bemoaning a new mood of division in our public life.

And so he urges his fellow bishops “to pay proper attention to the voices of those whose votes have caused this revolution, whether or not we like what we hear”. Pace the Bishop of Shrewsbury, the bishops generally don’t much like what they hear, which is why they’re not paying proper attention. Indeed, when they tweet about Trump-Brexit “hate” and “nightmare scenarios”, they convey a certain disdain for the laity, which the Rev’d Marcus Walker summarises with a question: “Can Guardian-reading clergy minister to Mail-reading laity?”

That’s a good question: the ministry/mission tensions of the theme will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. Rather too many clergy look down their noses at those (of us) who hold ‘unacceptable’ views: it’s one thing to be a ‘racist’ Tory (according to Fr Simon Rundell, they are synonymous), but God forbid one might be a Brexiteer, for that way lies all manner of evil (O, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes). No wonder some sections of society feel “dispossessed and mar­­­­­­­­ginalised”, as Bishop Philip observes, especially perhaps readers of the (“fascist”) Mail, Sun and Express

Such people feel frozen out of the post-crash economy, their wages shrinking in real terms while the rich get ever richer. They are routinely accused of xenophobia, or worse, when they express concerns about changes imposed on their com­munities by those who live far away. In the UK, they feel abandoned by the institutions that were formed to represent them: austerity-stricken local government, the Labour Party, and the demutualised building soc­i­eties.

And he hits on a possible remedy:

If the C of E was still adequately present in areas of deprivation, it would not have been surprised at the revolution in popular politics that this anger caused (Comment, 1 July). But it has become so discon­nected from many of these communities that it no longer hears what they are saying, let alone amplifies their voices to the nation. And, until the Church re-invests in urban ministry, places the best leaders in the most deprived parishes, and returns to the estates it has abandoned, these voices will continue to go un­­heard.

And then comes a gnash at the jugular:

THE Church’s agenda is being set not by the poor, but by academia, the moneyed elites, and certain sections of the secular media. It is their preoccupations that dictate the terms of the Church’s debate, and that pose the questions that it expends its energy on answering. We then listen to the poor on condition that what they say backs up our own pre-conceived argu­ments. They have become for us an illustration, or a theological idea — anything other than people.


An example is the debate on human sexuality. This is indeed an important debate, but it has come to dominate the Church’s agenda to an extraordinary extent, pushing almost everything else to the bottom of the list. By prioritising this one issue to such an extent, we risk failing to hear other cries of pain.

There is a tension here, of course: the CofE talks about an awful lot more, but the media tend to amplify this particular debate to the exclusion of all else because, well.. it’s sex, innit. And the church then pussyfoots around notions of ‘family’ for fear of offending or alienating single mothers or gay couples or happily-cohabiting threesomes – all of whom constitute ‘family’ because the term now means basically whatever you want it to mean: the notion of a mother being married to a father and this being optimal for the raising of children is distinctly passé, if not forbidden to express by public servants. Bishop Philip laments this sorry state of affairs:

Across many communities, ex­­tended family life remains very strong. For all its frustrations, it is where most people find support, self-identity, and purpose. But too many Anglicans seem embarrassed to stand up for the sanctity of the family. This is often motivated by a laudable desire not to exclude minorities. But the danger is that the Church is failing to address or uphold an area of life that is a core preoccupation for the majority of people.

And failing it is. Have you heard even one bishop stand up to defend Christian ex-magistrate Richard Page, who was not only sacked as a JP after 15 years of diligent and loyal service, but removed as a non-executive director on the board of Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust, just for stating that it is preferable for children to be brought up by a mother and a father – you know, like in a family. Such beliefs and comments may apparently offend to the extent of summary dismissal, and it’s left to Christian Concern to do all the defending. Or have you heard even one bishop defend Daniel McArthur? What’s that? No? well, there’s a surprise. There is a marked reluctance to engage in such crucial matters of liberty: far easier to extol food-banks, bless solar panels or berate the government for the paucity of house-building.

On Brexit, Philip North identifies a chronic injustice:

..It is dangerous to read too many detailed conclusions from the EU referen­dum, but a constant refrain of the Leave campaign which re­­sonated with voters was the need to “take back control of our country”. It was less an anti-immigration vote than a patriotic vote from people who were fed up with having pride in their nation, its flag, and its armed forces misrepresented as intolerance or racism.

This is sound stuff, so why didn’t he speak in defence of Bishop Mark Rylands or the Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser when they were mocked and vilified for supporting Brexit? Far better for a bishop to lead boldly than to ruminate retrospectively. Ultimately, this is all about the proclamation of the gospel and the efficacy of the church’s mission:

There is no doubting the genuine grief and dismay of those who, in recent months, have found that democratic systems have delivered results with which they profoundly disagree, and the mere fact that they have lost the vote does not mean that they should change their minds. For example, listening hard to why someone voted for Brexit, and seeking to understand the complex range of factors behind his or her decision, does not mean that one auto­matically has to agree with Brexit.

But, at the same time, it is vital that we stop condemning, and instead listen to the voices of those who have used their democratic right to express a deep-seated frust­ra­tion at structures and institu­tions that have abandoned them, and at a middle-class culture that misun­derstands or misrepresents their heart­felt concerns.

If, as Christians, we can re-engage, listen to the questions, and offer some answers, we will not just be playing our part in re-unifying a nation. We may find that people also start listening afresh to the gospel that we pro­claim.

Engage.. listen.. offer.. This is elemental ministry and basic missiology. It is indeed vital that clergy stop condemning with leitmotifs of ‘hate’, ‘racism’, ‘xenophobia’ and ‘nightmare scenarios’. They won’t, of course. Not least because they believe in the God who affirms their socialist or pro-EU politics, which is the path to moral responsibility and peace and reconciliation. It is ultimately “the theology of where they are coming from“… empirically unassailable and epistemologically irrefutable. Those who demur may phone the Bishop of Burnley, who will listen sympathetically and seek to understand. But don’t expect him to change.