Monday, 30 January 2017

Theresa May and Brexit

The Prime Minister has set out her Brexit stall. In her speech she sounded persuasive, far-sighted and upbeat as she spoke about how we would leave the European Union. It brought some clarity and this is to be welcomed.

We can’t accuse Theresa May of lacking vision. She asks the right question, what kind of country do we want to be? Her answer deploys a panoply of noble ideals: “stronger, fairer, more united, more outward-looking”, “secure, prosperous, tolerant, a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead”. 

No-one will dissent from these aspirations. We all want the best for our country. But why does it need Brexit to bring it about? Misgivings set in as early as the fourth sentence of the speech. The British people, she says, “voted to leave the European Union and embrace the world”. It takes considerable effort to recall where “embracing the world” featured in the Leave campaign. What we remember are attacks on immigration and the populist cry “give us our country back!” It’s hard to spin Brexit as internationalism.

Mrs May wants Britain to be “a great, global, trading nation that is respected around the world”. Those words capture her fundamentally nostalgic ambition for Britain. She draws on a memory coloured by the way Victorian politicians and industrialists spoke about Britain’s role in the world, fuelled by the vast economic opportunities empire had opened up. A post-colonial, not to say Christian, perspective should make us ask whether this kind of grandiose rhetoric belongs in the 21st century or whether a humbler register wouldn’t help make the friends we are going to need in the next few years. 

The Prime Minister acknowledges that the UK must be “the best friend and neighbour to our European partners” as well as reaching out to the wider world. Indeed. But wasn’t this already being achieved by a Britain within the EU? From a Christian point of view, a people’s true greatness lies not in asserting its own independent identity but in its moral and spiritual character. To the founding fathers of the European project, catholic social teaching shaped the idea of a just, peaceable and collaborative partnership of nations in which sovereignty was pooled for the common good. It was as much about giving as receiving, serving as being served, in short loving your neighbour.
 
The historian Nicholas Boyle has argued that it’s the loss of a global imperial role that is partly responsible for Britain’s ambivalence about the EU. He believes that the UK, specifically the English, have got too used to exercising hegemony over others. Being “ordinary” is alien to us because we haven’t had much practice at it. So it’s not surprising that Britain has insisted on its exceptionalism as a “special case” within the EU. If post-imperial Britain had been content to play a more modest role in world affairs like most other nations, we might well have been more convinced Europeans. 

As it is, the rhetoric of Brexit has mostly been driven by self-interest, in David Cameron’s oft-repeated phrase, “what’s best for Britain”. And Mrs May can’t shake it off, for all her commitment to being a good friend to the EU and wanting to see it flourish. Perhaps this is inevitable when trade, the economy, immigration and security dominate the agenda. I am not saying that Mrs May does not care about human rights, social justice, reconciliation, peace-making or the environment. But a Christian response to her statement about Brexit is bound to ask why they are not much more prominent. 

For many in the finance and business sectors, the biggest stumbling block in the Prime Minister’s speech is her resolve that Britain will leave the Single Market. They are right to be worried about the hard, isolationist Brexit this betokens, given the undertakings made by leading Brexiters that this was not a necessary consequence of leaving the EU. It isn’t the only aspect of Brexit where 48% of those who voted are tempted to call “foul” and wonder where they are going to belong in Mrs May’s new Britain. 

Religion is as concerned about the integrity of decision-making as the decision itself. This is at stake in Parliament’s role in the Brexit process. Mrs May has announced that the deal as finally negotiated will be brought before Parliament. But government sources have now disclosed that even if elected members reject it, Brexit will still go ahead. Given the emphasis Leavers laid on UK Parliamentary sovereignty during the referendum, where does that leave our democratic institutions?  

Mrs May’s speech includes a ringing endorsement of the United Kingdom. “It is only by coming together as one great union of nations and people that we can make the most of the opportunities ahead.” This for Remainers is precisely the argument for the European Union and Britain’s membership of it. Not for the only time, the logic of her argument leads in completely the opposite direction to the one she takes. Does that sentence, so telling, unmask the emperor’s new clothes?

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Bishops' Report on Same-Sex Relationships

What can I say about the House of Bishops' long awaited report published yesterday, Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations?

I share the sense of disappointment expressed by many (not only gay Christians) who have taken to social media in the past hours. We had dared to hope that the bishops would be more courageous, less risk averse. After the careful shared conversations about human sexuality across the country, after all the emphasis on listening to the experience of gay people, we had glimpsed the possibility of genuine progress in the theological and ethical understanding of same-sex relationships. We had looked for a new liturgical and pastoral practice that would recognise our LGBT friends and colleagues as beloved sisters and brothers. We had longed to celebrate their full participation as clergy and laity in the life of the church.

We hoped for these things, not as a matter of expediency or political correctness, but because we believed they were right in principle. That's to say, right as a matter of good biblical interpretation, good theology, good science, good morality and good pastoral awareness, not to mention a sense of history, an awareness of culture and a longing for justice. I've argued the case for committed, covenanted same-sex relationships in a number of blogs here, here, here and here. I don't know that I have much to add. 

So why blog yet again on this subject? With feelings running high and the prospect of a febrile debate in the General Synod next month, I don't want to raise the temperature. But here are some thoughts on where we are as a national church just now.

It's clear that the bishops were not agreed about what line the statement should take. Whatever reservations we have about the report, it's refreshing to see this recognised. (It's tempting to infer that the debate may have been sharp at times: the online text of the report I have in front of me speaks of "the conclusion of the Shard Conversations" (para 26).) So because there was a spectrum of views in the House of Bishops, their approach is described as "provisional". 

Nevertheless there is nothing provisional in the principal recommendation for the way forward. This is that there should be "no change to ecclesiastical law or the C of E's existing doctrinal position on marriage and sexual relationships". The status quo is unambiguously retained. So many hopes dashed at a stroke. Is it worth reading any further? Well yes, out of fairness to the bishops who ask that their report is read as an entirety. So even if it's with a heavy heart, let's proceed. 

The Bishops want to commission new work in four areas: (a) establishing "a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support" for LGBT people; (b) producing "a substantial new Teaching Document on marriage and relationships"; (c) giving clear "guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision  for same sex couples" and (d) providing new guidance "about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle". These are the themes they particularly draw to the attention of the General Synod when it debates the report in February. I want to comment on them in reverse order, for reasons that will become clear.

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(a) Questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle (paras 44-55)
This may seem a small point compared to the first three, but it isn't. It betrays an attitude in the church that should seriously worry us. I mean the prurience that needs to scrutinise the mores and sexual habits of the church's office-holders. It's true, as the bishops argue, that the clergy by virtue of their public role are "exemplary disciples". The ordinal does indeed spell this out. But there is a very Anglican reticence about probing too deeply into personal lives, in Elizabeth I's great phrase, "making windows on to men's souls". In any other profession such scrutiny would be both unacceptable and illegal. It makes no difference that this will now be applied to all ministers, not just gay clergy. When I was ordained, my bishop and I spoke candidly during the retreat. But while he stressed how essential it was for a priest to live in a morally responsible way, there was nothing like this. If I were contemplating ordination today, I'm not sure I'd want to go through with it if it meant this degree of intrusion into matters that belonged to the bedroom. 

There is a real risk, I think, to the affection, warmth and trust that ought to exist between bishops and their clergy. Trust especially. In a grown up community, especially a Christian one, there should be a presumption that office holders are behaving responsibly and ethically until there is evidence to the contrary. Trust creates confidence; suspicion erodes it. No-one should be subject to this embarrassing process. Statutory safeguarding checks are all that should be necessary if we want to build up humane, spiritual capital in our relationships within the church. The last thing we should be doing is sowing the seeds of suspicion or defensiveness that micro-management and excessive scrutiny always lead to.

(b) Guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples (paras 36-43) 
At present clergy "may pray informally with same-sex couples" but there is no authorised or commended form of worship to follow a civil partnership or marriage. In practice, what clergy may offer such couples is far from clear. It is similar to the position thirty years ago with regard to prayer following civil marriages where a partner had been divorced. At that stage the church was not clear, in the light of its teaching that marriage is a permanent relationship, what it believed about the remarriage of divorced people. It then seemed odd to imply through a public act of liturgical prayer that the relationship was, after all, one that God could at least live with. But faith can be paradoxical at times. The law of the church was later revised to permit the solemnisation of such marriages in church (though not all clergy are willing to preside at them). 

The position with regard to same-sex relationships is precisely the same and the bishops recognise this. But this time they are not proposing services that are authorised or commended. This implies a high degree of ambivalence. Certainly, guidance is essential if the clergy are not to find themselves breaking the law. But since the traditional teaching of the church is that both remarriage after divorce and same-sex relationships are disallowed, why are the bishops so much more wary this time than they were before?
 There seems to me to be a clear precedent in issuing public prayers that can be used with those who ask for them while the church takes the time it needs to work out a new moral framework for its pastoral practice. As we know, liturgy and prayer inform how we think and believe and what we do. I'd say this was important not just in our ministry to LGBT people but also to help the church itself reflect on its own spiritual and liturgical practice.

(c) New teaching document on marriage and relationships (paras 34-35)
No-one is going to question the need for this. The bishops set out a list of issues to be covered, including "the significance of community and relationships of all kinds in human flourishing", the role of single people, a theological exploration of friendship, and the meaning of marriage in society, family and the church. But then we hit a clear constraint. The penultimate entry in the list is to "reaffirm our current doctrine of marriage as between one man and one woman, faithfully, for life". 

In an agenda of exploration and enquiry, this statement is disappointing. It begs the very question that has given rise to this report in the first place, and that is crying out for theologians, ethicists and church leaders to give attention to. The final item is "to explore the distinction that has opened up between the state's conception of 'equal marriage' and the Church's doctrine of Holy Matrimony". Might the document be open to the discovery that as a covenanted relationship between two persons before God, the state's conception and the church's doctrine might turn out to be the same? 

(d) Establishing a Fresh Tone and Culture (paras 29-33)
It's good that the church's welcome to and support for those in same-sex relationships is placed first. The bishops recognise the importance of asking how LGBT people experience the church. I don't doubt the sincerity of everyone (well, almost everyone) who says that they want the C of E to be a generous, inclusive place, whatever they believe about same-sex relationships. The problem is, as the bishops acknowledge, that acceptance and welcome can sit uneasily alongside judgmental attitudes which, if not expressed, are still present. 

I wanted to invert the order of these four themes because that way round shows that despite their best intentions, the bishops fall right into this trap. Whatever they say about the goodness of LGBT relationships, there is always a big "but", stated or implied. When you read their priorities starting at the other end, it's hard to see how the text reads as anything other than this "but" in the cautious attitude it takes towards LGBT people. Questions about lifestyle, guidelines for the clergy, a new teaching document all imply that gay people are a problem that needs to be solved rather than adult responsible men and women who are flourishing in relationships they are asking the church both to affirm and celebrate. Of course we all look for "a fresh tone and culture", but only complete acceptance and mutuality in the church will achieve this. This is precisely what is missing in this document. It's not surprising that so many LGBT friends and colleagues are angry. 

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The bishops have an important section devoted to theological method (paras 56-66). To reflect on this would double the length of this blog so it must be for another time. It treads a wary path between two approaches. On the one hand, they want to affirm the fidelity and mutuality of stable same-sex relationships and recognise how the changing social context brings fresh insights. On the other hand, they are clear about the need to uphold the traditional teaching of the church, not least because the unity of the church must always matter to Christian people (and bishops are meant to be the guardians of unity). They recognise the legitimacy of diversity in Anglicanism, and also its ethos of "reserve", not imagining that there can full and certain knowledge of anything this side of the grave. I would have said that these two aspects of our church's self-understanding offer precisely the mandate the bishops are looking for to proceed in a more confident, less hesitant way. 

We have been here before, many times: contraception, remarriage after divorce and the ordination of women were all once regarded as unthinkable departures from the church's teaching. They were all debated vigorously, often with great heat and sometimes with bitterness. But each time, the church's teaching proved to be larger than we had imagined, capable of including within it the new dimensions each development brought. In particular, marriage did not cease to be marriage because the divorced were permitted to remarry. 

The same has been proved true now that the state permits people of the same gender to marry. Far from subverting marriage, it affirms it! History tells me that I can be confident that there will come a time when LGBT relationships are fully accepted, integrated, honoured and celebrated in the sacramental and pastoral life of the church. Then, the great institution of marriage will at last be truly "equal" without discriminating between straight and gay people. I may not live to see it (though I hope I do). But the momentum is unstoppable. And I see in it nothing less than the act of God's Spirit. I'd like to see beyond the timidity of the bishops' report to what I suspect many of them also acknowledge and even welcome. 

One final thing. Since the bishops have told us that they were not all agreed about the position they adopted, may we have a minority report from those who dissented? The bishops have already found that there is nothing to fear from open, candid debate. Why not let it happen publicly? I am sure that the whole church will respect them all the more. Next month's Synod will be a good place to start. 


Meanwhile, as the church goes on talking to itself about sex, the world stops listening and starts burning. 


Sunday, 22 January 2017

Reunion: in memory of the Holocaust

This Friday, 27 January, is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. We now observe it as Holocaust Memorial Day.

I've read scores of books about the Nazi era. It's inevitable when it's part of my own story, for my mother and her parents were Holocaust survivors. (I've preached and blogged about this frequently - those links are just two among many). But there is one book that means as much to me as all the rest put together. It's a slim volume by Fred Uhlman called Reunion. I'm writing about it now in case what I say interests you enough to get hold of it in time to read it this week.

"He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again. More than a quarter of a century has passed since then...(but) I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair." It's an arresting opening. The boy in question is the aristocratic Konradin von Hohenfels. He arrives as a new boy in Hans's class at high school (Gymnasium) and at once attracts attention for his fine looks and noble bearing. They become firm friends. Here is the companion Hans has yearned all his life to meet, for whom he might lay down his life.

Who doesn't remember the high ideals, the pain both sharp and sweet, the heartfelt longings of adolescent friendship? Uhlman captures them to perfection in the span of a few lines (for this book is little more than a short story, a novella that's nowhere near full novel length). So much is implied rather than said: the author is a master of understatement. He depicts how this friendship crosses the boundaries of class, for Hans comes from the home of ordinary Stuttgart townspeople who can only dream about what goes on behind the elaborate wrought-iron gates of Konradin's grand house.

There is another difference that their friendship transcends. Hans is a Jew, Konradin a pure-born Aryan. As Hitler's iron fist tightens on Germany, trouble brews for the boys. It becomes clear that Konradin's mother has no time for Jews. "She's jealous of you" he explains "because you, a Jew, have made a friend of her son. She thinks that my being seen with you is a blot on the Hohenfels escutcheon. She believes you are in the service of world Jewry, which is only another word for Bolshevism: 'My poor boy, don't you see that you are already in their hands?'" After that, says Hans, "we both knew that things would never be the same again and that it was the beginning of the end of our friendship and of our childhood".

I don's want to write too much about the rest of the book: if ever a story must not be ruined by spoilers, this is it. Suffice it to say that the tone darkens as Hans begins to feel the awful effects of anti-Semitic persecution at school. Meanwhile the friend he so much needs at this bleak time has gone. Hans' parents decided to send him to America until the storms have passed. Just before he leaves he receives an important letter from Konradin. It is the last contact they have. But it is not the end of the story. And I freely confess that although I've read this book countless times, whenever I get to the final page, I find it unbearably moving. If there were an anthology called Stories That Make Grown Men Cry this would be my choice.

Books can be mirrors that are held up to our own souls and stories. My mother was herself at school in Germany at the time the novella is set, not in Stuttgart but in the Rhineland city of Düsseldorf. At her funeral last summer, every tribute spoke of her childhood and adolescence as a Jewish girl in the Third Reich and the circumstances in which she left Germany. The most painful story was of the celebration of the her eleventh birthday in September 1933. She had invited all her school friends to her party at home. Not one of them turned up for they were all Aryans. I can scarcely imagine what she must have lived through that afternoon.

It would be another four long years before she came to Britain and was welcomed in this country as a refugee. She was one of the very fortunate. And although in later life she would often say that the past is the past and there is no point in dwelling on it, I think she would also understand Hans saying towards the end as he looks back as an adult, "my wounds have not healed, and to be reminded of Germany is to have salt rubbed into them". But it was rather wonderful that the head teacher of her primary school in Düsseldorf came across her name while researching past pupils including Jews who had fled Germany during the Nazi era. They struck up a regular correspondence and sent each other photographs. This meant a lot to her. They became friends. It was a kind of reunion. When she died, the children signed a lovely condolence card they had made. This kind act deeply touched my sister and me.

Holocaust Memorial Day is, I believe, all the more needed today than ever. While the Nazi Holocaust was, in Arthur Koestler's words, "the ugliest tragedy in man's history", we know that cruelty, persecution and ethnic cleansing continue to be visited on innocent human beings in many places in our own time. The Third Reich is an awful warning of what can happen when a people begin to see themselves as a Volk who are stronger or better or more worthy than everyone else, and whose myths and fantasies fuel the evil notion of supremacy. The ascendancy of the far right and its specious but persuasive nationalist rhetoric is a sinister omen for those who lived through the decade before the last war. It re-awakens spectres they thought they had long left behind.

When my mother was in hospital during her last illness, the EU referendum campaign was in full spate. "We're not going to walk away from it, are we?" she asked. "We created the Union so that Europe would never again have to go through what we went through all those years ago." I replied that I didn't know, but I thought that the British were too sensible to vote Leave and pull up the drawbridge. How wrong I was. And now, the threatened "hard Brexit" and the cry "America first" are feeding this isolationist environment in which the beautiful idea that you can be a "citizen of the world" as well as loving your own country is being poisoned. In such an environment, divisions can be more readily sown and hatreds can be fostered.

Of course I am not saying that we are on the verge of a new holocaust. God forbid. I'm simply pleading with people of good will to be vigilant in ways we have not been before. This is what Holocaust Memorial Day is for. The beauty of Uhlman's novella is that with an exquisite lightness of touch, you are made to feel the sheer terror of the Nazi Holocaust and how it destroyed millions of lives because so many people sleep-walked unknowingly into catastrophe. This marvellous book helps us never to forget. If we are people who pray, it will drive us to our knees.
I hope you will read it.

Biographical note: Fred Uhlman (1901-1985) acknowledges that Hans is of course himself, though he had left school before the Third Reich, and he did not have a friend like Konradin. He became an anti-Nazi lawyer who fled Germany in 1933, and after time spent in France and Spain ended up in Britain in 1936. He lived in Hampstead so it's possible that he and I passed in the street when I was at school there. He wrote Reunion in 1960. It was published in 1971 which is when I think I first read it, but it was only when it was reissued in 1977 that it got the critical acclaim it deserved. He became a painter whose work is still displayed in some galleries.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Peterborough Cathedral: thoughts on the visitation report

The Bishop of Peterborough has recently conducted a visitation of his Cathedral. His charge is now published. It makes interesting reading.
 
Some may be wondering what a Cathedral visitation actually is. The answer is that it is a legal process whereby the Bishop as the "Visitor" of his or her Cathedral engages in a formal review or audit of aspects of the Cathedral's mission and life. Articles of inquiry addressed to the Chapter set out the scope of the visitation. Written answers will be followed up by interviews and meetings. The Bishop's areas of concern frequently reflect challenges that the Cathedral may have faced, for example in financial management, compliance or governance. But a visitation does not need to be a response to real or perceived problems. A newly-arrived Bishop has the opportunity to conduct a visitation in order to familiarise him- or herself with the Cathedral's aims and plans, its life and ministry, the fundamental question being how it could best support the Bishop's mission in the diocese and how Bishop and Cathedral could fruitfully collaborate for the good of the whole church. 
 
Visitations are often news. The report of the recent visitation at Exeter Cathedral, for example, criticised the Dean in ways that led some of us to ask whether such directly personal comments belonged to an institutional report in the public domain. At Peterborough, the Dean's sermon at his farewell service hinted that his resignation was not simply a matter of personal choice but had been wished on him. The visitation report clarifies that the Cathedral has faced severe cash-flow problems for which financial support by the Church Commissioners has been sought. Make what connection you will. In the circumstances, you can understand why the Bishop wished to conduct a visitation. And if the problems are as set out in the report, then many of the Bishop's directions and recommendations about governance, decision-making, staffing and financial management make sense. 

I can't comment on Peterborough Cathedral specifically. I don't know it well enough, though as a fellow Dean I have always admired Charles Taylor's leadership as a senior priest who understands the mission of cathedrals. I am sorry to see him go. It will be for Peterborough people (not only in the Cathedral) to respond to the detailed provisions in the Bishop's charge. No doubt a robust conversation will be had.

But the last six paragraphs of the charge are addressed to the wider church, not only to Peterborough. The Bishop believes that there are lessons to be learned from the Peterborough situation by the Archbishops’ Council, the House of Bishops, the General Synod, and the Deans’ Conference (para 25). That is an invitation to all of us who care about cathedrals to reflect. So here are some thoughts of my own. 

The Bishop accepts that Peterborough Cathedral seems to have complied with the Cathedrals Measure 1999, but the accountability, scrutiny, and safeguards in that Measure were clearly insufficient to prevent the problems that occurred.  The remainder of his charge is effectively a critique of the legal framework under which Cathedrals operate and a plea that they should be reconsidered. Here is where every Bishop, every Dean (including the superannuated like me!), every Chapter and every member of a Cathedral Council and College of Canons will no doubt take a view. 

Paragraph 27 states: the Cathedral Council and the College of Canons, both of which see the Cathedral accounts, do not necessarily have the expertise, and certainly do not have the specialist staff, to allow them to exercise real scrutiny; and they have no powers to mount an effective challenge to the Chapter. They can have great value in terms of advice, goodwill, and networking, but they cannot hold the Chapter accountable. This is an important paragraph because it assigns to the current governance structure for cathedrals a built-in weakness that is incapable of ensuring the proper accountability of the Chapter.

I want to comment on this. Without going into the long and complex history of how Cathedrals were governed before 1999 (a different story for the different types of cathedral), we can say that one of the clear aims of the Measure was to make sure that Chapters as the executive bodies of Cathedrals charged with holding their strategy and leading their mission would no longer be laws unto themselves but would be properly accountable. So Cathedral Councils were brought into being to represent the wider church and community and hold the Chapter's accountability. Thus the Chapter was obliged to report regularly to the Council, and in particular, the annual budget and annual report and accounts had to be presented to the Council for scrutiny. 

There are two important aspects to the functioning of the Cathedral Council that the Peterborough report doesn't do justice to. In the first place, the Chair of Council is an independent lay person (i.e. not a member of the Chapter) who is appointed by the Bishop after consultation with the Chapter. So it's really up to Bishops to make sure that they get the Council Chairs they want and need, people who are capable of the careful scrutiny and if necessary, challenge that is the proper job of any body that holds accountability. In the second place, the Bishop him- or herself is a statutory attender at Council meetings. Bishops don't have a vote (because as Visitor this would compromise the Bishop's role), but they are expected to be present and to speak. This is a powerful role for a Bishop to occupy. His or her voice is always influential. If the Council lacks expertise in particular areas, then let the Bishop insist that the best people are appointed to make up the deficit. But all this only works if Bishops are consistently present at and committed to Council meetings. It is not the Chapter's fault if they do not exercise their rights under the Measure. 

So it is not true to say, as the next paragraph (28) suggests, that the Bishop, despite the Cathedral being known as his or her seat and Church, has no powers except the draconian one of Visitation. The Bishop's seat on the Council is precisely positioned where it needs to be in order that he or she can be part of the structure that calls in accountability without having to manage the institution directly. What is more, the Measure requires Bishops and Chapters to liaise regularly about the mission of the cathedral. This can mean their attendance at Chapter meetings from time to time so that the Bishop can overhear the Chapter's business and contribute to it (I wouldn't recommend all the time, though an earlier paragraph in the Peterborough charge seems to look for this). It can mean informal gatherings specifically to discuss how Bishop, Cathedral and Diocese could align their mission and collaborate more effectively. It can mean the circulation of meeting papers and documents, another request the Bishop of Peterborough reasonably makes. In my view it ought also to include regular (and frequent) meetings between Bishop and Dean. In my time as a Dean I have valued these "audiences" enormously. 

There's another point to add. Since the revision of senior church appointments processes, the Bishop is now an ex officio member of the panel that is set up to appoint Deans. He or she has a veto on the appointment, so while the Bishop may not always get "his" or "her" preferred candidate appointed, it is not possible for a Dean to be appointed against the Bishop's wishes. This process ought to ensure that the Bishop always has a Dean with whom he or she can work fruitfully in a relationship where there is from the outset a high degree of trust and a good personal rapport. 

It is true (paragraph 28) that the Chapter is exempt from scrutiny by the Charity Commission. The Church Commissioners, even though they pay for the Dean and two Residentiary Canons, have no standing powers or right to scrutinise. The Diocese, whose mother Church the Cathedral is, and which risks serious reputational loss if the Cathedral has problems, has absolutely no standing in all this. But to draw the consequence that in practice the Chapter is accountable to nobody goes well beyond the factsAs I have said, the Council, whose chair is the Bishop's appointee and on which the Bishop sits, has this responsibility. I'd say that it's up to Bishops and Council Chairs to liaise regularly (as I know some do) to make sure that the structural accountability provided by the Measure is working in practice, and that the right questions get asked of the Chapter. 

In paragraph 29 the Bishop tells us that in this Charge I have made some provisions to bring Peterborough Cathedral, for the time being, under a degree of oversight and scrutiny: to make it accountable to the Bishop and the Diocesan Board of Finance. The Church Commissioners’ conditions for their support include another level of accountability. All these are, I believe, necessary steps for Peterborough Cathedral at the present time – though I hope that they will be seen and felt as a matter of co-working and mutual cooperation within the body of Christ, rather than as the imposition of accountability. No-one will argue with the final sentiment. But I'd want to press that its logic is taken seriously. The fact is that while the Measure is no doubt not a perfect instrument, it goes a long way towards ensuring accountability in just the way the Bishop rightly urges. It's a question of making the existing systems work better. To introduce yet more levels of oversight with all the risks of heavy-handedness and micro-management seems to me to be a mistake. 

What is more, all the ordained members of the Chapter and other Cathedral bodies hold the Bishop's licence which, premised on the oath of canonical obedience, is itself an instrument of accountability and discipline. The Dean is a member of the Bishop's staff, Bishop's Council and Diocesan Synod. In practice, Bishop, Dean, Cathedral and Diocese form a closely-integrated system. But no system is better than the people who inhabit it. And this is the key point. A cathedral, a parish, even a diocese, can get into serious financial, compliance or reputational difficulties if its senior officers take their eye off the ball. The only answer is close collaboration, mutual respect, and accountability between people as well as committees. 

The Bishop concludes (paragraph 30): I urge the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, and the House of Bishops, to look at whether the current Cathedrals Measure is adequate, and to consider revising it. The Peterborough situation has convinced me that the high degree of independence currently enjoyed by Cathedrals poses serious risks to the reputation of the whole Church, and thus to our effectiveness in mission. A closer working relationship of Cathedrals with their Bishop and Diocese would be of benefit to all, both practically and spiritually. I am not against revisiting the Measure: it has been in operation for fifteen years and it would no doubt be good to review after the experience of a decade and a half. And I entirely endorse the sentiment that the closer the relationship between Cathedral, Bishop and Diocese, the better for all concerned, and the better for the mission of God. 

But I dispute the conclusion that the degree of independence enjoyed by Cathedrals poses the risks the Bishop identifies. We are regularly told that the mission and outreach of Cathedrals is one of the big success stories of the Church of England; indeed, in their press comment on the Peterborough visitation, the Church Commissioners go out of their way to underline this. Cathedrals they say offer spiritual sanctuary for millions of people each year and are the jewels in the nation's heritage crown. Cathedrals must be doing something right! Whether or not that is related to their freedoms from direct episcopal or diocesan control I leave it to others to judge. 

But as a priest with nearly thirty years' experience of full-time ministry in (three different) Cathedrals, I can I think speak about the good health of these great institutions and the outstanding ministry they exercise towards a public that is otherwise largely untouched by organised religion. The Cathedrals Measure has helped, not hindered this. That isn't to say that Cathedrals can afford to be complacent, nor that there aren't problems that some of them are facing. But radically to tamper with the delicate checks and balances between Cathedrals, Bishops and Dioceses that have evolved over centuries of English church life would in my view be a mistake. I doubt it would guarantee that Cathedrals never faced problems in the future. Ever more centralisation is not usually the way to sustain what is life-giving and flourishing. And I doubt it would do much to strengthen the mission of these altogether wonderful and remarkable places.


Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Walking Into 2017

Today means getting back to work after the holiday. Even in retirement time has its ebbs and flows, is shaped and configured by the seasons. After Christmas and new year, ordinary time is here again (not liturgically I know - but it feels that way). A new term has begun and the caravanserai of school buses snakes past the house with youngsters from across Northumberland. My wife returns to her day-job with people to see. And I have some thinking to do.

It's a beautiful day: crisp, clear and sunny. The sky has that exquisite duck-egg hue you get in the north in winter and which it's almost impossible to capture accurately in a photo (I've tried). I need to walk, not so much to slough off Yuletide excess (there's a bit of that) as to limber up, get body and mind into shape for whatever awaits this new year. Walking is good mental and spiritual exercise as well as good for the body. It has a way of sorting things, putting them into their proper places. Pascal said: "just carry on walking, and everything will be all right".

I've said I have some thinking to do. So I find some classical music, plug in my earphones and head off up the hill. Who else finds that BBC Radio 3 is among the best of all walking companions? So enjoyable. So civilised. So stimulating. And most of the time, so harmonious in ways that in the open air suggest nature and art echoing each other in praise of creation's eternal harmonies. Every walk out of the village takes you up a hillside. When you live in a steep-sided valley, walks bring their rewards early on. Quiet narrow lanes criss-cross the hills with only the occasional tractor or post van to disturb the tranquility. The holly trees are thick with berries. Snowdrops are tentatively pushing through the hard ground. Mossy drystone walls glow green and silver-grey in the morning light.

I climb clear of the village outlier, an intriguing group of Northumbrian bastle houses gathered round a green in a place that clearly has a long defensive history in this land of border reivers. Here is where I set about getting my mind round the project I need to think about. It focuses on the three sets of addresses I have agreed to give in 2017. Why on earth did I take on so much in one year, my wife has asked me, as if to say, will you never learn? I respond, feebly, that favours are being called in here, and promises about how I would have so much more time to give in retirement. I hardly convince myself, let alone her. But on the other hand, I am honoured to be asked to do important things like these. I am glad still to be useful in my superannuation. And I shall enjoy the mental and spiritual stimulus of preparing for these assignments because I know how much I shall learn in the course of it.

The first is to preach through Holy Week in an English cathedral. I have always thought that the public proclamation of the cross is the year's most awesome undertaking, and I won't deny that even after all these years of preaching I am still daunted by it. The second is to lead the summer ordination retreat for deacons and priests in another diocese. This will feel private and intimate by comparison, but it is no less awesome to be ministering to men and women who are experiencing one the biggest turning-points they will ever have known in their lives. And the third assignment is to conduct the annual week's retreat for a community of monastics. It will be the first time I have lived and prayed with this particular religious community and the first time I have led a conducted retreat for monastics (as opposed to lay people or secular clergy). So this too will bring its sense of both privilege and challenge.

I figure that if I can have identified the central themes of each of these in good time, it will help me find some coherence in the considerable amount of preparation that lies ahead during the first half of this year. Recognising what I should offer in each place and how I should set about it is of course itself an act of spiritual discernment. Prayer comes into things, and so does conversation with those responsible for arranging these events. The last thing any preacher or retreat conductor wants to do is to speak into the vacuum of not knowing his or her audience, what their needs and expectations are, and why they have asked this particular person (me) to address them. At this early stage, my own thoughts and instincts are inchoate: morsels of bread cast on to the waters. But the process has to start somewhere. And I have wanted to take the first steps on my January Northumberland hillside.

I find (think? feel? believe? so many perhapses and maybes) that I am sensing a direction, a shape. As the lane twists round the little old church where centuries ago St Cuthbert's body once lay, I detect faint outlines of a discernible picture on each of the three blank canvasses. Below me, the village is laid out in the valley like a patterned hearthrug. I take in the majestic Tyne that has given our valley its shape and much of its history, and which flows swiftly across the tableau from right to left. I pick out the two bridges that span the river, the one old and narrow where the medieval bridge used to be, the other built more recently to carry traffic. I glimpse the parish church with its distinctive pagoda tower where we worship each week and where I join the Vicar for daily prayers. At the station a Newcastle-bound Sprinter has stopped to collect passengers. Wisps of smoke from a score of hearths (one of them mine) hang over the village in the stillness. The sun continues to shine. I am feeling warmed by my exercise.

"Angels whisper to you when you go for a walk" someone said. I regain my front door sensing I have been whispered to. I wish I could say that the big problems facing humanity could be resolved by an invigorating winter walk. We take off our walking boots and everything is manifestly not all right - yet. But I suspect everything has a way of looking a little different when we go for a walk. Is this what Pascal meant - that the sheer act of striding out has a way of getting us mentally and spiritually engaged, making us participants rather than bystanders? I think I've glimpsed that this morning. I have certainly been given a lot to think about.