Saturday, November 24, 2012

The hard choice facing Justin Welby

The reaction of the North-East media to the recent appointment of Dr Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury says much about the unusually high regard in which he has come to be held in the region since becoming Bishop of Durham last year.

An editorial in The Journal described his appointment to Canterbury as a significant loss to the North-East and, with due respect to other church leaders in the region, few of them would merit such an accolade.

I have to confess I am a little biased where Dr Welby is concerned as we went to the same London church in the 1980s before he received the call to ordination, although I doubt he would have much cause to remember me.

There are many reasons why he will make a first-class archbishop, but in an age when many young people go straight from university into church leadership without the intervention of a career in the real world, the best thing about him is the grounding he gained from 11 years in the oil industry.

But if Dr Welby’s appointment was greeted by a general chorus of media approval, the universal disapproval that greeted this week’s decision by the church’s general synod to say no to women bishops highlights the extent of the challenge facing him.

It must be a moot point as to whether he or the new director general of the BBC, Tony Hall, has been handed the more poisoned chalice.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue itself – and the beliefs are passionately held on both sides of the debate – it seems beyond doubt that the vote will make it harder for the church to get its message across.

The national and broadcast media has given the church a fearful kicking over the issue in recent days, and it didn’t take long for the politicians, from Prime Minister David Cameron downwards, to start joining in.

The broad thrust of their criticisms is that the church has shown itself to be out of touch with modern values and, as the former Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith put it, no longer reflects society as it is.

However it is by no means axiomatic that any faith community should be required to conform to the prevailing culture. Indeed, its belief system may at times require it to be vigorously counter-cultural.

To take a different example, there is a widely-held view in society that the accumulation of wealth and possessions is a good thing, and that our political and economic systems should be so arranged as to promote and encourage this.

Christianity, however, takes a different view, arguing not only that you can’t take it with you, but that, in the eternal scheme of things, the abundance of possessions may actually be more of a hindrance than a help.

So for politicians to suggest that a church should necessarily buy in to politically fashionable causes without reference to its teachings and traditions is too lazy an assumption.

No, the real difficulty arises here because of the particular nature of the Church of England as the established church and the role of its all-male bishops in the legislature as members of the House of Lords.

In this regard, it is surely significant that, while MPs mutter dark threats about subjecting the Church of England to equalities legislation over its failure to ordain women bishops, no-one is suggesting doing the same to the Roman Catholic Church over its refusal to allow women priests.

Indeed, if anyone were to suggest that the government should start regulating churches in this way, I suspect the resulting uproar would make the row over whether it should regulate the press look like a vicarage tea party.

Of course, a move to a democratically elected House of Lords, minus the bishops, would remove part of the problem at a stroke.

But Tory MPs foolishly voted down that option as part of their petty feud with the Liberal Democrats, and it is unlikely to come back onto the table before the next election.

The upshot is that unless Dr Welby and his colleagues can find some way of revisiting the women bishops issue, preferably before another five years of argument and bloodletting have passed, the church may be forced to make a hard choice.

Either accept the increasing and unwelcome intervention of politicians in its affairs – or take the nuclear option of disestablishment.

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