Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Why do we pay so much attention to bishops?


No, dear reader, I'm not launching into an anti-religion rant merely trying to apply some context. And the reason for this started, as things do, at a Shipley Area Committee meeting. We we discussing proposals to institute further parking controls and a residents only parking scheme in the roads behind the Old Main Street in Bingley. The local residents had - we were told - been plagued by problems with people parking on their streets both in the general cause of business in the town centre and more specifically as a result of a popular car boot sale at the former Auction Market a few hundred yards in the direction of Keighley.

There were a number of objections to the scheme from members of the congregation at Bingley Parish Church (around which some of the parking changes were to be instituted). I'm not here to explain why we made the decision that we did but rather to build on the report, from the church that the congregation on a typical Sunday is just 84 people. Fewer than 100 people in a parish with perhaps as many as 10,000 residents actually attended the church in anything like a committed way.

This brings me to the recent letter from Church of England bishops:

The Church of England has published a 52-page letter outlining its hopes for political parties to discern “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be” before the general election in May. In it, leading English bishops address themes such as the church’s duty to join the political debate in an increasingly consumerist society, welfare reform and Britain’s role in the world.

Again my intention here isn't to discuss whether or not I like the contents of the letter (for the record, it is very much a curate's egg - which means, of course, that the bad stuff ruins the whole letter but I'm too polite to point this out in case the bishops get upset). Rather I want to ask why so much national media attention is given to the interesting but really rather predictable ramblings of some bishops.

Church attendance has been declining in the UK for decades and is now significantly below one million:

The Church's figure for 'usual Sunday attendance', the method used since the 1930s to measure congregations, found CofE churches had 795,800 worshippers on Sundays in 2012. The numbers were 9,000 down on the previous year.

This has been the steady pattern - a gradual decline in attendance year on year. A small enough decline for the Church of England's number-crunchers to pretend that the picture is more or less stable. It's also true that the decline in the Church of England's flock has been less marked than for non-conformist churches and for the Roman Catholic church.

Anyhow the bishops' letter was addressed to those 700,000 or so folk who loyally attend the established church's services on a Sunday. But it was also given a degree of attention far beyond this as the national media, politicians and commentators all saw it as something more important than just some guidance to churchgoers on the minefield of politics. Here's Labour MP and official policy-wonk-in-chief, John Cruddas:

It is a profound, complex letter, as brutal as it is tender, as Catholic as it is reformed, as conservative as it is radical. It draws upon ideas of virtue and vocation in the economy that are out of fashion, but necessary for our country as we defend ourselves from a repetition of the vices that led to the financial crash and its subsequent debt and deficit. It invites us to move away from grievance, disenchantment and blame, and towards the pursuit of the common good.

It's always fascinating how worldly politicians slip so easily into the self-important pomposity of pastoral literature - Cruddas sounds here like the Bishop in Trollope's The Warden, I even zoomed to the bottom of his piece to discover whether he finished with the opening lines of Ecclesiastes. Sadly he didn't. In truth, for all the grumbles about leftie bishops, the letter is deeply conservative - something that shouldn't surprise us given the Church of England's over-riding imperative of maintaining its established status.

It is this established status that leads to the bishops opinions getting the attention rather than the numbers of people who worship every Sunday. My question is why we continue to pay such attention to bishops simply because we give their church a formal role in our civic life. To be fair, nearly all of those 700,000 or so churchgoers won't read anything beyond the headlines of the letter (it is 52 pages long for heaven's sake) and the rest of the population won't read it either.

The problem is that we credit bishops with a special insight into the choices facing society, choices around the economy, around how we live together and around the idea of liberty. And those bishops present an answer filtered through the prism of Christian theology rather than via economics, sociology or, indeed, the application of common sense. If you are convinced of Christianity's central message this is a perfectly fine approach but this simply isn't the case for over half the population:

Less than half of the British people believe in a God and from 2009 the annual British Social Attitudes results has revealed that over 50% of us say we're not religious and a 2014 YouGov poll saw 77% of the British public say they're not very, or not at all, religious. Comprehensive professional research in 2006 by Tearfund found that two thirds (66% - 32.2 million people) in the UK have no connection with any religion or church.

We see here a case of a declining - deeply traditionalist - minority having an influence beyond its numbers. The leaders of just 700,000 folk presuming to speak for the whole nation and, worse, being granted that privilege because nobody is pointing out that the Archbishop has no clothes.

This isn't to deny the bishops the right to publish letters about the world but to argue that it is time to end the privilege afforded to those bishops on the basis of history rather than their relevance to modern Britain.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read that the only 2 countries to automatically allow unelected clergymen in their parliaments are UK and Iran.

However, David Mitchell asks http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/22/if-church-leaders-cant-complain-about-poverty-who-can-david-mitchell and it's a fair point - if the people who celebrate and revere a man who stood up for the rights of the poor, who can complain about poverty if not them?