Princes of the Church have become middle managers

Father Silas makes his debut upon His Grace’s blog (so be nice):

I love the sonorous and elegant formality of the statements issuing from Downing Street announcing the appointment of bishops of Our Own Holy Church. Here’s last week’s:

The Queen has approved the nomination of the Right Reverend Paul Roger Butler, BA, Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, for election as Bishop of Durham in succession to the Right Reverend Justin Portal Welby, MA, on his elevation as Archbishop of Canterbury on 4 February 2013.

Nomination, election, succession, elevation – the courtly high-flown Norman French a sweet, rolling echo of unperturbable order, timeless continuity and gracious acquiescence. None of which qualities, you may archly observe, are much in evidence in the modern Church. We no longer want our bishops to be princes of the Church; we want them to be its managers. We want them to be active, responsible and relevant. They must be seen to Make a Difference and to be In Touch. Above all, they must Care.

It sounds as though Bishop Butler ticks all the boxes. Published photographs suggest that he is not at all of princely bearing or demeanour. “Bishop Butler, a married father of four” (BBC News) looks reassuringly ordinary and benignly managerial. And sounds it, too. His statement to the Diocese of Durham website sets out his priorities, among which “tackling poverty” is prominent. “Together as communities” he says, “with the church in all its forms playing a key role, we must seek to see what we can do ourselves as well as look to support from elsewhere. Poverty is a scourge that we can only tackle together.”

Quite right, too. The Church should be against poverty and in favour of tackling it collaboratively (I think that is the word). As if to emphasise his determination in this area, the Diocese’s Twitter feed proclaims: “@BishopPaulB says other priorities our communities and working towards eradicating poverty and young people.” Eradicating young people seems a bit self-defeating – where is the next generation of church managers to come from? – but you can’t argue about poverty.

I wonder how Bishop Butler proposes to eradicate it? Apart from the fact that poverty is a relative state (the poor of his diocese may seem quite well off to the poor of, say, Malawi) is it in any real sense eradicable? Has any society ever succeeded in eradicating it to the extent that none of its citizens have had to do without what, in context, were regarded as the basic necessities of life (for want of a more definitive baseline)? But Christianity is nothing if not a religion of hope.

At the outset of his public ministry, the Lord stands in the synagogue to read the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” And the nature of that good news? “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God”, he later tells a “great multitude” of people who had gathered to hear him. It is the coming Kingdom of God that is the good news, not the eradication of poverty, for “you always have the poor with you”.

The move away from proclaiming the actual Gospel – with its promise of eternal life – towards proclaiming a “social” Gospel – predicated on the amelioration of our earthly circumstances – seems to have taken place without our really noticing it. Throughout most of its life the Church of God in this land variously provided healthcare, education, shelter and even sustenance (until these ministries were progressively subsumed by the State). Its modern congregations give generously to Christian Aid, to food banks and via countless other routes to help the poor.

Until now, this has almost never happened because Christians thought they were eradicating poverty, or even “tackling” it in anything other than a local, personal sense. They have done it, and continue to do it, out of compassion; out of a vocational love of their neighbour inseparable from the love of the God who is his father as well as theirs. By this love, they hope to gain, with the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden, citizenship of that Kingdom of which the Lord speaks.

That is what used to be called the Good News. I hope proclaiming it is also among Bishop Butler’s “priorities”.

Father Silas is an undistinguished (he says) priest and deacon of the Church of England who loves it in spite of everything.

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