Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Generous Church of England

The Archbishop has said that church property cannot be alienated. That was in answer to a question at the press conference with Archbishop Vincent Nichols. I wonder what expression crossed the face of the Archbishop of Westminster at that moment? Perhaps he recalled how just such alienation had happened before in England. All religious houses were alienated, or if you prefer nationalised, within a very few years, by Henry VIII to fund his wars and his palace building programmes. With the end of an absolute monarchy, no doubt Elizabeth II By the Grace of God &c could not act like her predecessor. There is no reason to suppose, though, that the Crown in Parliament could not do so. In the 19th Century it dissolved many of the twenty-four Irish bishoprics (and so triggered the Oxford Movement). In the 20th Century it disestablished the Welsh Church. In the 21st, it might well decide to disestablish and disendow the Church of England. Many of our bishops still live in cloud-cuckoo land, where the Cof E has a priest in every parish, and where everyone living in England has a right to be baptized, married and buried by that Church.

So, for instance, the Southwark bishops (You can see some of them here) have said: ‘We do not envisage our parochial structure with its parish churches changing, and we continue to have the responsibility of care for everyone in our parishes’.

What dreamers! The reality is that in many parts of England that old parish system has broken down. Whole swathes of the countryside are left with only a part-time, unpaid person trying to give the impression of ministering to five or ten or more parishes. In the towns, parish boundaries are increasingly ignored – not least by ‘church-plants’, often encouraged by bishops to the dismay of the local Vicar. Whereas once you could only be married in the parish where you or your intended lived, now you can find the feeblest of links with some church and be married there because it is pretty, or has better catering facilities – to say nothing of being able to have a woodland burial or marriage in a Hotel or a National Trust Property.

So it is time for the Churches to take an initiative. If the Church of England wants to be dog-in-the-manger and refuse to part with any of its ancient buildings (except when it can sell them to property developers) it will only hasten the time of its disestablishment. But what if it were to be truly generous, and allow other Christian bodies to use the church? That has happened already with various church-sharing schemes, but it could be hugely expanded. Or what if it were to say, to a priest seeking reconciliation with Rome, “By all means continue to use the church where your people feel at home – and since we can’t afford to maintain it, how about having it on permanent loan?” Now that really would be a blow for Christian Unity.

The Church of England also has the possibility of acting with generosity to those who feel obliged to leave – or it can face what has happened in the USA. There battles have been over church property. Here, it might rather be over compensation for constructive dismissal. If a young priest with a family simply cannot continue in a church which has changed its doctrine; if he cannot in conscience make vows to “The Bishop of x and his successors” when such successors might be female, then that church has the moral responsibility to do what it can to recompense him for loss of home and earnings. If the church does not recognise the problem, perhaps Parliament will.


  1. Who is Cardinal Nichols? Have we missed a recent red hat promotion?

  2. Sorry about that; I thought the red hat went with Westminster as it does with some Archiepiscopal sees ... I will put it right!

  3. And perhaps, Magister, you can tell me; if a Bishop may be an Ordinary, then is an Archbishop an Extraordinary?