welby covid rule of six centralising centralisation
Mission

Covid-centralising Archbishop excoriates Government – for Covid centralising

The Archbishop of Canterbury has excoriated the Government’s ‘Rule of Six‘, the latest anti-Covid-19 policy which restricts almost the whole of society to gatherings of no more than six. Writing in the Telegraph, Justin Welby said such decisions need to be made locally rather than by national diktat: “With a vaccine still far from certain, infection rates rising and winter on the horizon, the new normal of living with Covid-19 will only be sustainable – or even endurable – if we challenge our addiction to centralisation and go back to an age-old principle: only do centrally what must be done centrally.”

And he exhorted the Government to follow the Church of England’s example:

As a country, this principle is in our DNA. In the Church of England, we have been committed to localism for centuries. Every inch of the country is part of an Anglican parish, and parish churches are woven into the fabric of their communities. Meanwhile, local councils are full of people who care about street lighting that does not work, speed limits that need to be in place, and paving stones that could trip people up. It might not seem exciting, but it is essential and we should be very grateful.

This is answered prayer (from Monday): “Is it too much to pray that a bishop might arise to confront this Government’s rule of fear, and implore ministers to permit us to get on with the family function and friendly business of loving and laughing..?”

Arise Justin Welby, the most senior bishop in England.

Or perhaps His (present) Grace is an avid reader of His (former) Grace’s blog?

“A source close to the Archbishop” told the Telegraph‘s Camilla Tominey that he was “deeply concerned about Christmas and the impact of the ‘rule of six’ on the vulnerable, the needy, the poor and the elderly”.

The intervention is welcome, because it reminds the Government that the Church of England is parish-based, local, and ready to serve its communities: “The heart of the Christian faith is to love thy neighbour, which is increasingly difficult when strict rules are imposed by the centre”, the source added. It is indeed hard to love via Zoom and serve through Facebook: digital church is no substitution for the warm touch of peace.

The Archbishop returned to a favoured theme of his – subsidiarity: only do centrally what must be done centrally. He explained:

We have our own hierarchies in the Church of England, but ultimately it is our churches and our clergy on the ground that are its lifeblood. In the last six months, it has been them to whom we owe our deep gratitude.

So here’s our challenge for the next phase of this complex, painful and hugely challenging time: let’s place our trust in the local, and make sure it is resourced, trained, informed and empowered. Some places will get things wrong – but that is true of central leadership too.

It’s a challenge for government, and it’s one we also accept in the Church of England. Where some have felt we have made too many decisions from the centre, we recommit to empowering clergy and parishes, which are and have always been the foundation of the Church.

It is heartening to hear that the Archbishop of Canterbury prefers a localised approach rather than blanket national restrictions. “We are not immune to the temptation to pull more decisions into the centre, to feel that ‘something is being done’,” he warned. “But it is a temptation that should be resisted. Often that ‘something’ might not be as effective as what could be done locally.”

Which raises the question of why he issued a blanket national restriction during the three-month national Coronavirus lockdown, when he decreed that all church doors should be bolted and padlocked for the first time since 1208. Priests weren’t permitted to enter their parish churches to celebrate the Eucharist, read the Book of Common Prayer, or even to pray privately. Why didn’t he resist the temptation to pull that decision to the centre, and instead empower clergy, parishes and dioceses to make decisions locally? Why did he threaten clergy with disciplinary proceedings if they disobeyed his papal decree? Why did he prohibit the Easter Eucharist being celebrated for the first time in the history of the English Church? Why did he end worship in churches while sacrificial clergy were longing to serve and weeping for the care and cure of souls?

And why, when it comes to the essential ministry and mission of evangelism, are innovative projects initiated from the centre and resourced by the centre, while parishes are told there’s no money for a priest?

Does evangelism need a centralised strategy? Does Church growth need central management? Do ministry and mission need centralised communications? Of course that which is best done by the centre should be done by the centre (not least to save scarce resources, cut bureaucracy and mitigate wasteful replication), but Justin Welby is, by personal instinct and theological disposition, a centraliser. The Church of England may be dispersed and local, but when it comes to managing the national institution, his default is the hierarchy: ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits.