Church Times bars Tory cricket umpire because his great-great grandfather was a bishop

Michael Claughton is a dedicated member (and, indeed, the current President) of Bethersden Cricket Club, near Ashford in Kent. He is, by all accounts, a fair, professional and gentlemanly umpire of 18 years experience, . He also happens to be Deputy Leader of Ashford Borough Council (Conservative) who believes in God.

He offered his services (gratis) to the Church Times which was organising a friendly cricket match between the Archbishop of Canterbury’s XI and the Vatican XI, to raise awareness of slavery across the world and raise funds for the Global Freedom Network. The match is scheduled to be played on the Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence, Canterbury – the home of Kent County Cricket Club – at 4pm on Friday 19th September. But, despite Mr Claughton’s manifest qualifications and experience, he was informed by a very nice lady at the Church Times that he could not possibly umpire this match because his great-great grandfather was Bishop of Rochester and then of St Albans, and so he could not be “theologically neutral”.

This must be the first example in modern times of religious discrimination by fault of ancestry. Thomas Legh Claughton was indeed an 19th-century Church of England bishop (and, incidentally, the son of Tory MP Thomas Claughton). But quite why this might render the great-great grandson anti-Catholic is something of a mystery. Setting aside the fact that the Church Times has effectively introduced a Test Act for umpiring (they clearly wish to employ an umpire who is neither Anglican nor Roman Catholic), what precisely do they mean by “theologically neutral”?

Church Times managing editor Paul Handley said: “Kent County Cricket Club offered to find us umpires some months ago. We thought it would be a cheerful gesture, in the first-ever match between a side from the Vatican and the Church of England, to seek umpires from other denominations.”

Does Mr Handley think Methodists may not be anti-Catholic? Or anti-Anglican, for that matter? Does he think being a Baptist is a guarantee of “theological neutrality”? What Christian denomination is “theologically neutral” in the ecclesiastical chasm that exists between the Church of Rome and the Church of England? Is Mr Handley barring all post-Reformation (and so ‘anti-Catholic’) expressions of Christianity, or would he accept a Nestorian umpire?

Mr Claughton commented: “It sets a worrying precedent. Do they only want atheists? Where do you stop?”

Well, that’s a good question. If Jezebel’s Trumpet believes that all denominations between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism may be “theologically neutral”, they understand neither applied theology nor reified neutrality.

What theology liberates individuals from their inherited roles and unchosen ties? Which distinctive moral vision or conception of the good life may be neutral?

Theological neutrality is not a coherent concept: it is simply another expression of liberalism that the state now inclines to take in regard to the personal faith and beliefs of its citizens. It is evident, from the 18th century onwards, that the thinking of Locke has influenced the political, religious and social order, in particular his assertion that toleration and the rights of private conscience are themselves hallmarks of Christianity. Neutrality is one of the principal goals of the liberal state, principally because society has become increasingly plural, each competing faction having its own aims, interests, and conceptions of the good. Neutrality is proposed as the best arrangement in order to mitigate bias toward any particular conception of the good.

Theological neutrality does not exist any more than political or academic neutrality. It is simply not possible for man to perceive, understand or act independently of his particular worldview. There is an evident dilemma in seeking neutrality of effect because intrinsic to the pursuit of any policy is the likelihood that it will have a detrimental effect on at least one party to the manifest benefit of another. We may only be talking here about cricket umpiring, but by its decision to bar a man because his great-great grandfather happened to be an Anglican bishop, the Church Times is repudiating the traditional via media of the Church of England, which has long sought (and established) a “neutral” theological path between the competing extremes.

There are circumstances in which it is unfair to act neutrally, namely where there are not even prima facie reasons to be neutral. Theological neutrality is a conceptual impossibility because the condition of theology being neutral is unrealisable. What the theologically illiterate Church Times doesn’t grasp is that a theory of neutrality is itself subject to a particular conception of the good which makes very specific demands of both church and cricket. There is no neutrality to be had because neutrality needs as much justification as any other position. If a state seeks to be neutral in the effect of its policies then it requires a greater level of state intervention to ensure that inequalities are negated. It also requires that the effect of all policies is balanced for all conceptions of the good. The alternative is that the government is neutral with regards to the justification of its actions, and this demands either the disestablishment of the Church of England or the establishment of the Mosque of England, along with the Gurdwara, Mandir, Vihara, and state recognition for the multiplicity of competing religions (including atheism) which are a feature of the fragmented postmodern context.

Faced with the absurdity of this “theologically neutral” scenario, the Church Times might prefer to admit the great-great grandson of the former Bishop of Rochester (and St Albans) to the cricket field. Or are they actually biased against a Conservative councillor who happens to be the great-great-great grandson of a Tory MP?

Whatever the reason for their anti-Anglican assertion of neutrality, it’s just not cricket.

UPDATE (2.30pm):

His Grace has received a couple of missives from CT editor, Paul Handley. He writes:

Can I give your readers a bit of perspective? Some weeks ago, Kent County Cricket Ground suggested that they looked through their pool of umpires for a couple from another denomination. This seemed a cheerful, humorous suggestion, which we mentioned to Mr Claughton when he phoned last week. We didn’t talk about bias or anything like that to him, nor would we promote such a concept as ‘theological neutrality’, whatever that is.

There is all sorts of spin that could be put on this match, the first-ever, as far as we know, between the Vatican and an official Anglican side, but I have to admit that I didn’t see this one coming up on the leg side. (US readers might need a translation.) I’m happy to reassure your readers that this match is thoroughly good. It’s an exciting, novel way to express the closeness of the two communions – an antidote, if you like, to the serious, wordy, theological debate when everybody has to watch every phrase they use in case it’s misinterpreted by another party.

And it’s all for a good cause: the match is free (4 p.m. Friday 19 September, at the Kent ground in Canterbury: please come); a collection will be taken for the Global Freedom Network, the joint RC/Anglican anti-trafficking charity.

Paul Handley
Church Times

To which His Grace responded:

Dear Mr Handley,

His Grace is appreciative, and has done all he can to promote the worthiness of the ecumenical cricket match by highlighting the fixture and linking to Global Freedom Network.

But, respectfully, this adds no “perspective” to the matter beyond that already reported. Unless you are saying that Mr Claughton has misquoted / misremembered / misled those to whom he has recounted that a “nice lady” at the Church Times said (or even suggested) that the faith of his great-great grandfather was a reason he could not be “theologically neutral” in his umpiring.

It is not even clear (and apparently not reported) that Mr Claughton is himself a communicant of the Church of England. But even were he so, to discount his sporting neutrality on account of a perceived ecclesial bias is mind-boggling.

On the sunny side, this inter-church fixture has received a level of national publicity which would ordinarily cost £10,000s. All things work together for good..


To which Mr Handley responded further:

Thanks for taking notice, and, as you point out, for advertising the match. What is not coming across is the tone of all this: it was a humorous suggestion that we went along with. Taken seriously, we’d have to examine the religious affiliation – and, let’s face it, the church attendance records, since who knows how sincere they were? – of several generations of every match official. We have a team working on it right now.

In point of fact, I heard a while ago that the umpiring is to be done by the head of umpires at Kent plus another of his choosing, and that no religious test was applied. But how dull, compared with the Telegraph story.

One thing was right: my colleague Rachel is a ‘nice lady’ – though sometimes the antics of the Anglican Communion push her towards unladylike expressions.

Paul Handley

So, there you have it. Rachel is indeed a “nice lady”, and that is an indisputable truth. But all of this “theologically neutral” stuff, if it were ever discussed or even implied at all, was “cheerful” and “humorous”, to which Mr Handley bears witness, and to which Rachel will never again subscribe without deploying a covert recording device.