Sunday, 15 May 2011

Do Not Be Afraid

Everyone enjoys a joke. Except some librarians. And most dictators. But apart from them, everyone likes a joke. Well, if you discount clowns. And possibly whoever was responsible for gagging the cart-wheeling verger the other week. 

Two weeks ago, I was particularly delighted when a friend told me a joke concerning me. What made it even better was that it was told with a straight face. As if it wasn't a joke.
We were enjoying an Italian lunch, yacking about the usual things -  how Brits go doolally in the face of pomp (apparently there had been a big wedding or summat the previous Friday), women bishops, being gay in the church, how is it possible that Vernon Kaye keeps getting work and so on - when she dropped into the conversation that a few months back my name had been mentioned in some newspaper twitter feed/blog/blah as one of the candidates for first woman bishop.

How I laughed...Would you buy a used car off me??

Once I'd stopped choking with laughter on my breadstick I pointed out very clearly why not only would hell have to freeze over but it would have to open an all-night skating rink before I would be considered bishop material. Firstly, if the Church of England couldn't consecrate Jeffrey John, then it sure the hell couldn't go for me. EVER.; secondly, there are clearly lots of talented, polite and actually rather marvellous women who I would cheer should they be picked on for the role; thirdly, given my bold and radical (by 'radical' many people would say 'heretical', 'silly' and 'idiotic') reflections on church I'll be lucky to be offered another job; and, fourthly, and most importantly, I am precisely the kind of unsafe, opinionated, and unthinking fool that those responsible for ensuring the 'smooth image' of the church I suspect rather despise. Which brings me to my point.

One of the dimensions of the 'masonic flying bishop-gate' event this weekend ( I wish I was making this up) is the extent to which appointing him sends out unhelpful messages to the media, society and to parishes. Now I have no wish to comment on the specifics of this event, but I am intrigued by the extent to which the Church of England has become fascinated with managing information, image and identity. 

Clearly it is the case that bishops do attract media attention, Rowan and John Sentamu most directly. Their words are scrutinized and, on occasion, taken out of context. As such, I do understand why these figures are cautious about image and have advisory staff who are inclined to make of them 'smooth men'. I understand and, yet, there is a huge part of me that weeps at this situation and actually is inclined to see this as a sign of an institution losing such edge as it once had.

I know that many liberal/radical Christians like myself have experienced disappointment during Rowan's tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury; there is a sense that he has not been as bold or as radical as many on the Christian left had hoped. I have shared this, though there are no doubt substantial reasons - political, administrative, personal, theological - why he has not been what some have hoped. He is - in my view - one of the supreme intelligences in the UK, religious or otherwise, but the role of Archbishop is almost impossible to wear well.

Picture of a Bishop
  My concern is that the fear of the media and the appointment of safe clergy to bishops' roles may mean the appointment of eccentric, bold characters to the episcopate becomes ever rarer. When I think back to bishops who actually mattered to me in my formative years - when I was an admittedly critically-minded, intellectually ambitious teenager - I inevitably think of David Jenkins. His thoughtful and very honest theological explorations were of course parodied in the press and his appointment as bishop was massively controversial in some quarters. But whatever else he was, he was interesting, immensely intelligent and genuinely engaging and he gave many of us hope. His appointment was rare, but I fear that today it would be practically impossible. The smooth men would not have it. I pray that I am wrong.

It may seem lazy and cliched to claim that the Church has never been about being safe, but as I see it, this claim is true. My anxiety is that, as it continues to shrink, the church will become ever more desperate to protect what it has and will continue to miss the opportunities to be as bold and risky in its 'leadership' as it it called to be.


  1. Alas, Rachel, I think you are right, but there are a few subversives who still try to keep radicalism alive (and their heads down!) - I think, for instance of Alan Wilson (+Buckingham) who is usually thought provoking and unfazed (is that a real word?) by the establishment.

  2. To judge by his appearance, Rowan is an hairy man (though I haven't seen his forearms).
    The bishop who most influenced me was John V Taylor, because of his book 'Enough is Enough', and his poem 'Let not my humble presence affront and stumble'.


    I am not a Bishop either!