COMMENT MARCH 2000

 

When the Church Commissioners lost one-third of the Church of England's assets a few years back, there was no public inquiry, no sackings, and no convincing account of the whereabouts of much of the vanished treasure.

The disaster, at national level, was taken, not as a reason for root and branch reform but rather as an excuse for enhancing the power of the executive, and for further centralisation.

The parishes, whose historic monies had gone missing, were exhorted to belt-tightening, radically greater giving, and a rapid move towards self supporting finance. Indeed, they were asked to provide of all future pensions for currently serving clergy.

Since then several things have happened. The recovery, and indeed boom, of the stock market has led some spokespersons to claim that much of that loss was "a paper loss" which has now been recovered. But, curiously, in no way has this reduced the demands on the parishes.

The parishes have achieved a remarkable increase in average weekly giving from the faithful, albeit from declining numbers.

The number of stipendiary parish clergy has continued to fall - in some diocese by as much as 20 per cent. Where these reductions in front line troops have taken place, they have seldom been met by a similar reductions in Central Office posts. Indeed, in many cases, the number of dignitaries has been increased.

Alongside this, many dioceses have issued figures for the cost of a parish priest, at best misleading and at worst downright dishonest. At the same time successive diocesan budgets have been presented which have depended on highly creative accounting, further desperate selling of the remaining family silver, and a use of rolling "contingency" funds which depend, ever-more urgently, on regular defaulters paying off their accumulated "overdrafts" (a wholly unrealistic prospect). That these budgets have been accepted, largely without question or call for reform, is a testament to the composition and quiescent nature of most diocesan synods

Much of the above has been reported and predicted, piecemeal and wholesale, in many issues of New Directions since 1993.

This year, once again, quotas have been a racked up and (sotto voce) some of the bishops have begun to notice, in public and private gatherings, that all is far from well. Some parishes will not pay - many simply cannot. Several diocesans have expressed the view that this is the greatest and most disturbing crisis of their episcopate. Two bishops have claimed that their dioceses only ever have three month's clergy pay in reserve; and several others have described this as considerably more comfortable than their own positions. Many dioceses are privately assessing how many vacancies can be left open at any one at time (an old trick beloved of poorer rural dioceses); how many need never be filled; how many non-stipendiary ministers can take over within the next two financial years; and how many Central Office posts (lay people mainly) can be scrapped without the wheels coming off.

One diocese is known to be considering the abolition of all central advisory and board posts, while another has been talking of coping with an accumulated deficit of several million pounds by 2003, if dramatic cuts are not made. They are not alone.

But the problem that we have, in all of this, is a persistent lack of clarity and transparency in the church's financial dealings with her people; and the consistent and erroneous belief that the Church can be revived by centralisation. If the bishops insist on pursuing the failed secular management model of a command economy, and the concomitant propaganda required to preserve the illusion, it is true that no one can vote them off the board; but the prospects are pretty grim for the workers.

As we write the Nicene Creed fiasco is entering upon its final stage. The House of Bishops (once so confident in its endorsement of the phrase 'of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary' - with only one dissentient voice!) went on, after the last session, to revise its position and to recommend to the Synod a 'compromise' solution replacing 'of' with 'from'

By the time this edition is published, the matter will have been decided. Regardless of that decision three points need to be made.

First: that a Church whose principle journal of record and comment (The Church Times) opined, at the height of the debate, that 'ek' is a conjunction and not a preposition, is a Church which needs a considerable process of education before it can responsibly consider such issues.

Second: that the House of Bishops itself, if it is ever to be taken seriously in its recommendations on such matters (and there is no reason, based on the academic standing of its members, why it should be) will need to give a more convincing statement of its case than was recently given.

Third: that decisions about the translation into an international language (and English is now the International Language) of a universal creed ought no more to be the sole concern of an individual province than universal order itself.

But (as Anglicans used to complain of papal authority) there operates a principle of 'creeping infallibility'. What has been done once with impunity will assuredly be repeated; and what one Anglican Province has effected will eventually come to haunt them all (if only because there is a perverse and uncanny compulsion to pursue the very catholic unity which in practice they all subvert).

In the matter of prepositions language is at its most complex and subtle. Anyone who wants to size up that complexity can do so quite simply by consulting Liddell and Scott, Lewis and Short and the Oxford English Dictionary on 'ek', 'ex', 'de', 'from' and 'of ' respectively. Together with a consideration of the cases associated in Latin and Greek with verbs of generation and birth, this will give them some idea of the size and nature of the problem which (in the absurdity of Synodical government) is supposed conclusively to be decided on the floor of the chamber.

 

The single ecclesiological principle which is emerging from current challenges to the unity of the Anglican association of churches, especially the Singapore consecrations (see pages 17-19), is that of the territorial integrity of provinces and dioceses. Appeal is made (as by the ABC, page 18) to the dictum of Canon VIII of Nicea 'that there may not be two bishops in the city'. But the most casual reader can determine that the purpose of the Nicaean precept was to ensure doctrinal orthodoxy in the course of a conflict with Cathari and Novatianists.

How long, we are bound to ask, can that same principle of territorial integrity be allowed to be abused in the defence of pluriform heterodoxies within the Church? What might provoke the Primates to action? Denial of the Trinity? Atheism? Polytheism?

All already exist, in one form or another, unrebuked, in the Episcopal Church. We therefore confidently expect that the Oporto meeting at the end of this month will recommend business as usual.

We end this editorial with a note of caution. On page thirteen of this edition readers will find a letter purporting to be from Bishop Neville Chamberlain (of the Flagship Diocese of Brechin, in the Scottish Episcopal Church) to his clergy and people, explaining the reasoning behind a recent trip which he and the provost of his cathedral took to the United States.

From its hyperbolic style and bathotic self-importance many might conclude that the piece in question is a spoof of the kind familiar to readers of this paper.

Sadly that is not the case.

 

 

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