Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Bashing the Bishop

Where I come from 'Bashing the Bishop' has a very specific meaning. Being extraordinarily innocent I understand that it is something gentlemen do at night with their beards in order to make them more luxuriant. It is not in this sense that I am using that phrase today. Rather I use it in reference to the fact that Bishops in the Church of England have come in for a bit of a hammering recently.

My innocent face
Firstly we had 'Is-he-or-isn't-he-a-mason-bishop-gate'; then we had 'men-who-like-other-men-A LOT-can't-be-a-bishop-gate' and now we've got, 'Just-throw-half-of-the-bishops-in-the-House-of-Lords-out-through-the-front-gate-gate'. Presumably where there will we wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Clearly it is the case that the House of Lords - by every desire to extend democracy and British fair play - needs reforming. (By 'reforming' I am inclined to mean 'scrapping and replacing with an elected house'. For today, however, I am determined not to allow that to cloud my main point.) Given that the Anglican Bishops have 26 seats in the Lords (a mark of Establishment) and there are other faith groups which are under-represented there is a question mark about fairness and justice in representation. Current proposals for Lords' reforms suggest cutting this number by over half.

Busy Day in the House of Lords

Whether this proposal is serious or not, there are significant reasons why I sense this is a progressive move. And this is not especially to do with extending representation to other faith groups. It is to do with dismantling the temptations of preferment and privilege within an already privileged institution - an institution to which I am genuinely commitment.

The Church at its most exciting, interesting and intriguing is an irritating, radical and critical beast. Sadly I have witnessed too many of the church's potentially most interesting voices tamed and neutered once they have got the whiff of purple and moving among the great and the good. Often - and I admit this is anecdotal - the more intelligent and able among the church seek to smooth out their style and move in the right places and ways in order 'to get on'. And the number of seats the C of E has in the Lords is a sign of just how 'exalted' it is possible for a church man (and soon church woman) to be.

Some will tell me that it is important that the Church has a voice in the highest places and that our Bishops do much valuable and radical work there. Certainly some do and I would not wish to deny influence to those who speak truth to power.

However, what is clearly the case is that where the Church has been most potent is when it has been substantially connected to the people. Governments are most troubled by voices which represent the hungers, hopes and aspirations of large groups of  ordinary people. The Church - as numbers continue to decline - sometimes feels like it's lost this connection. Its constituency sometimes most feels like it is a diminishing, sometimes self-serving (somestimes rahter remarkable) group of people who choose to 'hang out' in a sacred building once or twice a week rather than the wider group of people we're called to serve. When the Church connects wholeheartedly with the people, serves them, loves them and is untroubled by privilege and power it may have some hope of  speaking with and for them. Then it might dare to let go of privilege, preferment and Establishment. Then it might be truly dangerous. Good, but dangerous.


  1. On your theme of "gates" I think I have something really important to add starting with:
    Cole-gate (Cheryl Cole crying again over spilt tooth paste,)
    Garden-Gate (Graham Garden turns out to be a Baddie and not a Goodie) and of course
    Water-gate (Everyones favourite holiday destination in Newquay, Cornwall. Well I thought it was important.

  2. Great post, Rachel. It is sad that people feel they have to make the truth 'palatable'. My experience of speaking the Truth to Power (influence blah blah) is that the truth - if it is Truth - usually sparks conversations about how and why it has impacted the hearer, and what they now feel inspired to do about it.
    Even totally rattling people can have fantastic repercussions further down the line if we're just brave enough to do it in the first place.

    It's a great gift to be able to spark a fire in somebody's belly, rather than continue to oil the's why people like you have a forehead like flint...

  3. A forehead like flint...I'm going to have to remember that, I really am :-D