An explanation is not an excuse.
Let me repeat that: an explanation is not an excuse. So, what I am about to write is an explanation of why bishops have not been willing to comment in public on the events at St Paul’s Cathedral in the last couple of weeks. The structure of the Church of England is such that episodes like this current one are unsurprising. (But, two resignations is not exactly great.)
Before doing that, and in this context, I draw attention to a story behind the story. The Independent on Sunday concludes a report on St Paul’s with a list of bishops (who they speculatively think might one day move to Canterbury) and their non-response to journalists’ attempts to wrest a comment from them. Apparently, they were all away, unwilling to comment or not contactable. I seem to have been ‘away’. [See update below.]
I wasn’t. I was in bed with a chest infection and a total lack of a voice. In fact, Jerome Taylor – a fine journalist with the Independent – phoned me and I texted him back to say I couldn’t talk. I texted a comment on another question he asked me and I said I would be happy to discuss that matter with him when my voice returned. He came back to me with his own ‘take’ on the St Paul’s situation and agreed we’d talk again.
But, the real problem for journalists (and just about everybody else in the country, to say nothing of all the foreigners who keep asking me about it) is a fundamental lack of understanding of how the Church of England works. That is not a criticism of journalists; if anything, it is a criticism of people like me that we have not adequately explained ourselves.
Basically, it looks like this. The Church of England is not the Roman Catholic Church. We do not have a Pope. The 43 dioceses in England (I am leaving out the Diocese in Europe for obvious reasons) are autonomous and the diocesan bishop in each is the one who ‘orders’ (that is, brings order to) his diocese. The Archbishop of Canterbury is one of the diocesan bishops – a primus inter pares. No bishop has the right to interfere in the doings of another diocese. Given the fact that we never quite know the real story of what happens elsewhere, it is wise not to intrude in or comment on (a) what is not anyone else’s business or (b) what we don’t actually know about. In other words, if a story breaks about Bradford Cathedral, I don’t want any other bishops offering their opinion when they don’t know the detail and aren’t involved.
I hope that is clear. The business at St Paul’s is a matter for the Diocese of London.
Well, actually, it isn’t. A cathedral is autonomous and responsible for itself. This means that the Bishop of London has no direct remit in its affairs unless invited. Hence the hesitation (I imagine) on the Bishop’s part to comment on something for which he is not responsible. It is for the Cathedral itself to handle its affairs and it’s PR.
Now the problem will be obvious. Events at St Paul’s in the last couple of weeks have exposed the weakness. These events affect not only St Paul’s, but (clearly) the Diocese of London… and the rest of the Church of England. This crisis is not a parochial or diocesan matter, but has become a national story which affects the reputation of the whole Church of England. But, no one will comment because it is not our remit to do so. The Archbishop of Canterbury cannot – it is not his diocese and he has no jurisdiction in the Diocese of London. He is not a Pope.
And where does this leave us? A church that is internally and ecclesiologically coherent, but so structured as to appear incoherent to everybody else. In the modern media world it is mad that the Church of England does not have (or cannot work up) a common national communications or PR strategy. We keep trying – within the current polity – but the gap has been ruthlessly exposed by the situation at St Paul’s.
Having written the above explanation while in Cambridge and without wifi, I now see that the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury have spoken. The Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement which says:
The announcement today of the resignation of the Dean of St Paul’s, coming as it does in the wake of the resignation of Canon Giles Fraser last week, is very sad news. The events of the last couple of weeks have shown very clearly how decisions made in good faith by good people under unusual pressure can have utterly unforeseen and unwelcome consequences, and the clergy of St Paul’s deserve our understanding in these circumstances.
Graeme Knowles has been a very distinguished Dean of St Paul’s, who has done a great deal to strengthen the pastoral and intellectual life of the Cathedral and its involvement in the life of London. He will be much missed, and I wish him and Susan well in whatever lies ahead.
The urgent larger issues raised by the protesters at St Paul’s remain very much on the table and we need – as a Church and as society as a whole – to work to make sure that they are properly addressed.”
When I get the chance I will move on from St Paul’s to the issues that caused people to camp there in the first place. But, I will say (as the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s have said) that the questions raised by the protesters, the fundamental impatience with a system that rewards greed while the poor get poorer, need a much more coherent and intelligent response than they are getting so far. The fundamental questions about the unsustainability of the current system (who and what caused the current financial crisis?) need more urgent attention than they are currently getting from governments or the City. It is a crisis of credibility – on the day the ILO warns of social unrest following the likely world recession we now face. The current system isn’t exactly working, is it? Yet, the people running it do not seem to have alternatives to offer. That’s why the debate is urgent.
The attention needs to move away from questions about the propriety of camping on the highway and back on to what provoked such camps around the world.
And isn’t the Church well placed to ask those questions and push those debates? Er… it should be.
[Update 3 November: I have just been shown the print version of the Independent on Sunday piece. Not only do they get the quote wrong, but they also print a photograph of my predecessor who left office eighteen months ago or more.]