Mere Anglicanism

Silence of the episcopal lambs

Cardboard cutout bishops stand silent as Justin Welby makes an ass of himself

The Archbishop of Canterbury is about to undergo plastic surgery after losing his face earlier this week. Sussex Police gave Justin Welby a bloody nose when, like the trump of the archangel, it revealed that it was no longer investigating the ‘fresh’ allegation Welby’s Safeguarding Stasi had made against Bishop George Bell.

Lambeth Palace went limp. Welby’s media witchdoctors ran out of holy mumbo jumbo to spin the story. Drawing the lush palace curtains, they announced a blackout on Bell. For once, the Archbabbler of Canterbury heeded the counsel of the book of Proverbs: ‘By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back.’

A year ago, Welby made a birch for his behind by insisting that a ‘significant cloud’ hung over Bishop Bell even after Lord Carlile’s diligent investigation found that the Church of England had ‘wrongfully and unnecessarily damaged’ Bell’s reputation. Bell was accused of molesting a child more than 60 years ago.

Rather than apologise for the C of E’s botched job on Bell, Welby charged in frothing at the mouth and insisted that Bell was ‘accused of great wickedness’. The band of Bell supporters, ranging from journalist Peter Hitchens to historian Andrew Chandler, kept confuting fanciful allegations against Bell floated by Welby & Co.

Others like Richard Symonds and the Bell Society went the extra mile intending to restore Bell’s reputation and held a ‘Rebuilding Bridges’ conference at Church House on February 1, 2018, to which I was invited as the keynote speaker. The Bishops of Gloucester and Newcastle, Rachel Treweek and Christine Hardman, rushed to the media screaming ‘Fire’ and attempted to derail the conference.

On the eve of the conference, the C of E’s National Safeguarding Team released a statement saying it had fresh information concerning Bishop George Bell. ‘Sussex Police have been informed and we will work collaboratively with them,’ it said. ‘As this is a confidential matter we will not be able to say any more about this until inquiries have concluded,’ it added. The C of E’s Dirty Tricks Department did not succeed in sabotaging the conference.

Now we know that the ‘fresh information’ on Bishop Bell is a ‘tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing’. Welby is forced to eat his mitre – well done, with extra-hot piri piri sauce.

No other archbishop in recent memory has made such an ass of himself. The Bell fiasco is no exception. Welby and his opposite number in York, Sentamu, have turned the dignity of their offices into an updated version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales entitled Cock-up at Canterbury.

Why has the highest position in the Anglican Communion been brought so low? Could fellow bishops who had the courage to dissent from Welby’s Pravda and defend their deceased brother bishop Bell have saved Welby from eating crow?

On the issue of George Bell, there was not a peep of dissent from a single bishop in the Church of England. A couple of senior clerics hummed a discordant note. The dissenters were all laity. The bishops played along with Welby’s Blairite delusion that ‘I am right when everyone else is wrong and if you are not for me you are against me.’

The Archbishop of Canterbury is not the Pope. He is primus inter pares among his bishops – first among equals. His equals ought to have corrected him when he was wrong and rectified his blunder by setting the record straight. This did not happen because it could not happen. The ‘equals’ are now ‘clones’.

Under CEO Welby a new management mode has taken over the House of Bishops. Gone are the days when a handful of brave or foolhardy bishops made public pronouncements that were either eccentric or prophetic and even rebuked a fellow bishop or two for an error of judgment or a doctrinal boo-boo.

Off the record, one bishop explained to me how Welby had imposed his corporate management structures on his fellow bishops. In the new regime, no bishop should speak on any issue unless they are the ‘lead bishop’ for that area. For example, only the lead bishop on safeguarding may address this issue in public. This masquerades as efficiency but has the effect of turning the House of Bishops into a politburo or a quango, effectively silencing alternative voices on a sensitive matter like George Bell’s reputation, my contact said.

The new gaggle of bishops and bishopettes are cardboard cutouts. They look the same, talk the same, and think the same. They are browbeaten into totalitarian Groupthink. They are nervous sheep rather than shepherds trained to face wolves. The rot begins at selection with two governing euphemisms deciding suitability. First, the candidate for bishop must be a ‘team player’. This is Anglican-speak for ‘yes man’ (or woman). Second, he or she must be a ‘focus for unity’. Translated into English, this means he or she mustn’t believe anything too strongly. Additionally, he or she must be a mediocre middle manager who won’t think independently and make trouble.

There are notable exceptions to the clones in the episcopal Jurassic Park. On Brexit, the Bishop of Shrewsbury, Mark Rylands, made a brilliant contribution in his piece ‘Why I voted for Brexit’. His comrades mocked him for ‘coming out’ as a Brexit bishop. Bishop Rylands has been commended as ‘the humblest bishop’ for deciding to return to rural parish ministry in Devon.

On Islam, the former Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, stood out like a sore thumb. When he spoke out on no-go zones in Britain, thousands of white working-class Britons rallied to his side. Not surprisingly, some of his fellow bishops denounced him for making inflammatory remarks! But that was before Welby became CEO of the C of E. Nazir-Ali later resigned.

In the early church, the apostle Paul refused to conform to the norms laid down by the apostle Peter. On the issue of the Jewish law and inclusion of Gentiles, he dissented and ‘opposed Peter to his face’ because he ‘had clearly done wrong’.

Last month, Charlan Nemeth, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, published her book In Defence of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business. ‘When we are exposed to dissent, our thinking does not narrow as it does when we are exposed to consensus,’ she writes. ‘In fact, dissent broadens our thinking. Relative to what we would do on our own if we had not been exposed to dissent, we think in more open ways and in multiple directions. We consider more information and more options, and we use multiple strategies in problem-solving. We think more divergently, more creatively. The implications of dissent are important for the quality of our decision-making. On balance, consensus impairs the quality of our decisions while dissent benefits it.’ Hmm . . . Justin?

Now the C of E bishops under CEO Welby have decided to revise the theme song from the sitcom Dad’s Army. Here’s a sneak preview:


Who do you think you are kidding Mr Welby?

If you think we’re having fun

We are the bishops who will play your little game

We are the bishops who won’t make you think again

‘Cos who do you think you are kidding Mr Welby?

‘Cos we know the Church of England’s done.

First printed in the Conservative Woman and reprinted with the permission of the author.

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