There’s a move afoot to create a Cabinet of Bishops to shadow government departments, with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding like a Prime Minister Spiritual, and those around him holding various political briefs, such as the Bishop for Brexit, the Bishop for Covid, the Bishop for Levelling Up, and the Bishop for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Perhaps there could be a Suffragan Bishop for Women’s Cricket? You might think the idea quite daft, but it would be a fundamental matter of gender justice and sex equality, and it wasn’t so long ago that the prospect of a Bishop for Brexit was an April Fool.
Before you roll your eyes, it’s worth noting that the Church of England already has spokes-bishops (or ‘lead bishops’) for specific sectors, political issues or groups of people. Indeed, you’d expect a national church to have lead bishops for specific missionary priorities or pastoral ministries, such as, for example, Urban Life and Faith, which is led by the Bishop of Woolwich, Christopher Chessun; or Religious Communities, which is led by the Bishop of Manchester, David Walker; or Gambling and Addiction, which is led by the Bishop of St Albans, Alan Smith.
But it’s worth noting that some bishops already hold more political ‘ministerial’-sounding lead positions; the Bishop of Gloucester, Rachel Treweek is the Bishop for Prisons; ; the Bishop of Carlisle, James Newcome, is Bishop for Healthcare; the Bishop of Bedford, Richard Atkinson, is Bishop for the Disabled; the Bishop of Norwich, Graham Usher, is Bishop for the Environment; the Bishop of Chelmsford, Guli Francis-Dehqani, is Bishop for Housing; ; and the Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, is the Bishop for Higher and Further Education.
There are others, too, whose particular socio-missional interests or subject knowledge has brought them to the episcopal forefront: the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, for example, has wide knowledge and considerable expertise on Europe and Foreign Policy, and he became the Church of England’s de facto ‘Bishop for Brexit’ during and after the EU Referendum.
Except, of course, he wasn’t for Brexit at all, and therein lies a fairly large problem with this proposal.
Where Bishops have a formal spokesperson role, they are invariably concerned with matters of what are now termed ‘social justice’; with peace, reconciliation, mercy and compassion, which tend to unify. And so they speak in the House of Lords and lobby the Government for legislative reforms which might, for example, enhance community cohesion, improve interfaith relations, ameliorate mental well-being in prisons, or ‘level up’ communities by alleviating poverty or mitigating chronic educational underachievement.
The reason there is isn’t a Bishop for Levelling Up shadowing Michael Gove is primarily because it is (or ought to be) the vocation of every diocesan and suffragan bishop to ‘level up’ their communities in terms of security, prosperity and opportunity. What bishop isn’t passionate about ending homelessness, rough sleeping and drug addiction, or improving living standards or facilitating social regeneration?
So when Kaya Burgess writes in The Times that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London are intending to forge a church which “models itself on politics”, this is primarily because a church which isn’t involved in politics isn’t really being the Church or doing what Christians are exhorted (time and again) to do. The Church of England is in Parliament, and the Lords Spiritual don’t just read a prayer every day: they speak in debates, interrogate ministers, scrutinise legislation, and propose amendments. You may cavil at the model of that political involvement, but on the principle that the foot-bishop may know far more about healthcare than the hand-bishop, and the big-toe-bishop may know more about Brexit than the pinkie-bishop, it rather makes sense for specialist spokes-bishops to be put before the media (and Parliament and Synod) to permit their subject specialism to add to the sum total of spiritual and political enlightenment.
Clearly, if, for example, the Bishop of St Albans is personally burdened with the appalling social consequences of gambling and addiction, and he reads and researches and immerses himself in the myriad of complexities and personal tragedies of those who are harmed – sometimes to the point of suicide – is it not preferable for his manifest knowledge, expertise and passion to speak prophetically into both Church and State?
So when this initiative is portrayed as an emerging spiritual “shadow government”, it isn’t entirely helpful. But we listen to the eminent Professor Linda Woodhead: “The Archbishop of Canterbury would become a prime minister with a cabinet of people. That’s not just unfortunate, that’s wrong. That’s making the church into a shadow government.” And also to the equally eminent Rev’d Marcus Walker: “The church doesn’t need bishops acting as shadow government ministers, it needs bishops who are being pastors to their flocks.”
Both are right, and yet also partly wrong. The Erastian Settlement determines that the Church of England should be a shadow government, always holding ministers to account, fearlessly intervening to bring the mind of Christ to political policy, and prophetically speaking truth to power. And the more bishops do that, the better shepherds they are likely to be to their flocks. There’s simply no point trying to feed your lambs if you aren’t allowed to own or rent pasture, construct secure pens, or can’t afford food and veterinary care.
And yet we return to the Bishop for Brexit.
How can there be a Bishop for a policy which they all (bar one) deemed to be unneighbourly and anti-Christian, if not evil?
This Cabinet of Bishops would no doubt be appointed to ensure sex equality and racial justice, so you could expect six of the 12 to be female, and three (at least) to be bishops of colour. But what of theological and political diversity? A church which claims identity with England must be composed of people of markedly different opinions. We may talk of a vision of unity, but the Church of England is composed of many societies, or ‘factions’ within. We know that Bishops tends to flaunt their Socialism and shroud their Conservatism, and the one Bishop who was in favour of Brexit could never have been appointed as Bishop for Brexit simply because the entire machinery of the Church of England opposed the policy, despite the majority of laity supporting it. So if the Bishop for Brexit were to be Nick Baines, for example, for all his manifest knowledge, reason and expertise, it becomes hard to see how the Church of England could avoid being partisan, or at least being perceived as being party political, which would be just as damaging to its essential mission to the whole nation.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was plagued by Bishops who opposed her policies. Her Prime Minister Spiritual was Robert Runcie, who effectively presided over the ‘Cabinet’ which produced ‘Faith in the City‘, denouncing the economic injustices and national inequalites which her policies caused or exacerbated. “I wasn’t wholly convinced she was wrong,” said Lord Runcie shortly before he died, “but I was convinced something had to be done about the effects of her policies that turned me into a wet, someone who was wobbly.”
Does the Church of England really think its gospel witness to the nation would be enhanced by a Cabinet of political, theological and spiritual ‘wets’?