synod bishops social political diversity

General Synod: social and political diversity among Bishops

Quite a few interesting questions have been tabled for the imminent virtual General Synod of the Church of England, ranging from Bishops’ Twitter usage (Qs 69-70) to Safeguarding abusage (Qs 17-29), but the most interesting episcopal answers relate to two questions asked by lay member Tom Hatton concerning social and political diversity among the Bishops:

This elicited the answer:

And then this:

Which elicited this response:

The Bishop to the Armed Forces simply didn’t address the elephant in the room; namely, that the entire machinery of the Church of England was mobilised to advocate for Remain in the EU Referendum. Institutionally, of course, the church professed ‘neutrality’, but in reality, after both Archbishops and dozens of Bishops (bar one) wrote and preached that a vote for Remain was essentially the Christian thing to do, the media machinery of Lambeth Palace and Bishopthorpe Palace conveyed to the nation that the Church of England backed ‘Remain’. For Justin Welby, Brexit raised the haunting spectre of war; for John Sentamu, it would be an act of betrayal: “My conscience tells me that I must vote to Remain in the European Union”, he wrote. And so a chasm opened between the Bishops and the people of England (if not between them and the peoples of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, since 26 Lords Spiritual legislate for the whole United Kingdom), and that epistemic distance persists: there is little meeting of minds, hearts or (quite often) spirits when it comes to matters of temporal politics.

The Lords Spiritual may have a record of holding the government of the day to account in the House of Lords, but there’s a discernible difference in both substance and tone when it comes their pronouncements via Twitter, where the contempt some Bishops feel toward Tories (and previously Ukip) is palpable. They simply never express themselves in such a way toward Labour or the Liberal Democrats (or those who vote for them), hence Tom Hatton’s references to their apparent lack of empathy and, quite often, active hostility.

The Archbishop of York’s reply is altogether more revealing, insofar as he avoids the question and answers a different one. Since Gordon Brown reduced No.10 to a postbox to the Queen, the CNC is now the committee which determines the ‘talent pool‘ from which bishops arise. An inevitable consequence of removing the role of the Prime Minister in episcopal appointments has been a diminution in the left-right political balance of the House (and College) of Bishops. Previously, as the Conservatives and Labour (or Liberals) held power, a steady stream of candidates put to No.10 and selected by alternating prime ministers provided a kind of socio-political via media among those who were finally recommended to the Supreme Governor. Now that this check on political balance has been removed, the CNC is free to mould the Established Church in its image.

As for the assertion that personal political affiliations are not known, one has to wonder how deeply they look. Any Twitter account of an aspirant bishop will give considerable clues, for surely they don’t only provide evidence of affiliation once they’ve been enthroned, do they? Bishop Pete Broadbent is candid enough, and so was Archbishop Sentamu. Of course there are clergy (who may aspire to the Episcopate) who give one or two clues as to their political affiliation; and one doesn’t need a degree in PPE to discern an overwhelming socialist economic and political outlook: it isn’t only bishops who flaunt their Socialism but shroud their Conservatism.

In the context of mission, which is Tom Hatton’s concern, this matters. Increasingly, as the Church of England delves into politics, it conveys a ‘Christ of culture’ model of mission in respect of socialist aspirations (and UK membership of the EU); that is, these temporal models of organising society (and ‘Europe’) are essentially Christian, or more Christian, and so Christ works in and with the culture they engender, instead of working in tension (‘Christ in paradox’) or seeking to change (‘Christ the transformer of culture’).

By conveying essential fraternity with socialist and liberal philosophies (and politicians), and active hostility toward conservative philosophy (and politicians [/advisors]), the Church of England inflicts a wound upon its own mediating body, and so impedes its prophetic function in the spiritual life of the nation. By backing ‘Remain’ in the 2016 EU Referendum; and by calling the Prime Minister an “amoral liar“; and by calling for the sacking of Dominic Cummings, it makes both a temporal and spiritual error. When half the people of England feel that their Established Church offers them no welcome because they voted ‘Leave’, or because they rather like Boris Johnson, or because they absolutely understood Dominic Cummings’ motives for driving to Durham, the alienation is palpable.

The church’s missional vocation to foster national unity is hindered by bishops who assert a visceral partisanship, indeed contempt for things which C/conservatives hold sincerely and believe deeply. The present focus is on diversity of ethnicity and sex (if not sexuality) in the Episcopate. If no way is found to restore social, political and intellectual diversity, and people feel increasingly alienated as they cease to feel that their political aspirations and social perspectives are reflected (or at least treated with respect) at the highest levels, the Church of England will simply decline further: people will leave, if they haven’t already left.