We Can’t Go Back….to Power Games & Inequality

by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Author, Member of General Synod and Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation

Rosie Haarper

In France, apparently, one of the biggest worries about lockdown was how single Parisienne women would cope: all alone in a small flat and no partner. No dates, no secret affairs, no sex. All the assumptions were that these women would go into melt down. The framework of their lives and their relationships had been undone – it would not end well.

Turns out many young single women in France have loved the shutdown. All the hectic man- (or woman-) pleasing internal drivers had been challenged. They enjoyed freedom from the pressure to have sex, they swapped sophistication for simplicity, they got in touch with how to be self contained and not dependent their partner. To everyone’s surprise it is OK – more than OK, it is very good.

It is possible that as we emerge from isolation some of this self discovery will remain and the young single French woman will have a better life.

This tale is an example of what Richard Rohr describes in The Wisdom Pattern as the process we are always experiencing in life, but which is technicolour at the moment: Order, Disorder, Reorder.

Order is the pattern we thought we knew. The familiar. Some of us loved it, some of us found it had dark and controlling elements that needed change, but it was what we knew. It was life as we had learnt to live it.

Then came the big Disorder. Present joys became past memories. Of course we fear it. Not just for the physical danger, but because it feels like anarchy. It teeters on the edge of chaos, of total melt down. We fear getting sucked into a vortex of unknowing.

Let’s be honest here; both in society and within the Church at large we were already struggling. Struggling with the age of Quantum Physics where what we thought was linear and certain was, it transpires, nothing of the sort.

Mystery, not knowing, holding multiple truths – all this was stretching our religious imagination. Around the edges interesting thinkers were rediscovering ineffable, unknowable layers of faith, whilst at the centre some pretty desperate measures were being taken to sure up the literal against the flow away from certainty .

Now of course everything is virtual. Even the bread and wine. We shouldn’t be surprised. Pentecost tells us the virtual world is vibrant and powerful. Jesus is very much with us but we can’t see or touch him.

This period of Disorder might be all sorts of things. It’s too soon to tell. What we can see is that the biggest mistake the church made in its response to Covid-19 was rooted in fear of chaos.

As a society we have a contract with one another. We elect leaders who make decisions which some like and some dislike, but mostly we obey even the rules we think are mistaken. So our Government tells us what to do, and although we are not all confident that the best decisions are being made we abide by the rules.

In the Church of England it seems our leaders thought the church worked this way too.

Mimicking the Government they issued rules and regulations, forgetting that their relationship with their flock is different. They do not rule over us, but rather are shepherds whose calling is to offer hope and inner depth and strength through our faith in God.

A bewildered nation expected words of lament, of comfort, of inspiration. Alas, although they were there, they got drowned out by the micro-management of Church buildings. We actually only needed to be told to apply the same rules as everyone else!

So it fell to the local to inhabit the Disorder and it has done so in many wonderful ways. The edges between church and community got lovely and smudgy and people lived their faith by loving and helping one another. Some may think virtual services are a bit naff and amateurish but they are rather gloriously filled with heart and courage.

Well, one day we will realise that the era of Covid-19 has passed. A Reordering has happened. Most people will want to go back to how it was before but of course that cannot be.

I can tell you how I would like the new order to look. How I would love the church to be where every human being is loved and valued equally. Where anyone who was in any way different from the majority need never fear rejection or judgement from other Christians. I would love to see the choking tendrils of power, politics, entitlement, the class system to be unwrapped from around the heart of the Church of England. Where those who had been abused received loving care and just restoration. I would love to see us less obsessed by ourselves and more obsessed by our neighbour. As you might imagine I could go on…….

What I think will happen is that we will make every good effort to carry on as before – and slowly the truth will emerge. The financial model, already strained to breaking point will prove unsustainable. Quite possibly the church in every parish model is bust. The trust of the people in a National Church, already horribly compromised by its internal moral failure to treat LGBTI+ people, women or abuse survivors honourably is gone forever and its place on the national and political stage will be seriously challenged.

There will need to be a journey, probably accelerated by this crisis, which will involve letting go of a model of the Church of England which was probably always a fantasy anyway.

I would like to think that a leaner, healthier, more equal community will emerge – a church that is much closer to the poorest, most marginalised in our society. More present in housing estates across the country and less bound up in Bishop’s palaces and London clubs.

I don’t think this is impossible, indeed God could well be in this new destination. I fear, however, that for many, it will hurt like hell to get there.

This entry was posted in Coronavirus, Establishment, Human Sexuality, Politics, Rosie Harper, Sexual abuse, Social Justice, We Can't Go Back.... Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to We Can’t Go Back….to Power Games & Inequality

  1. Froghole says:

    Many thanks for this. I note that it has hit the national press.

    “The financial model, already strained to breaking point will prove unsustainable. Quite possibly the church in every parish model is bust.” So what you are saying is that provision should cease to be comprehensive, and become sporadic and, by definition, selective and, therefore, to some extent, “exclusive”. Fine, but then it is no “National Church” (since you use that phrase). So, let’s get on with not only disestablishing but also – more importantly – disendowing the Church since in my experience (including across all of Bucks) only about 1% of congregations have ‘healthy’ demoraphics and it’s all a busted flush anyway, virtual church or no virtual church.

    I’m glad you mention both France *and* the class system. In France (outside Alsace-Moselle) bishops and priests alike are paid the same (€1k pcm), which is vastly less than the monthly NMS payment. Superannuation is also vastly inferior to the CEFPS, which I must remind readers is a non-contributory, final salary and index linked pension scheme plus lump sum of a type that is now extinct almost everywhere else (including in other neighbouring Anglican provinces). Also a priest in rural France will often be responsible for the better part of 30 parishes/communes – a relatively greater load. French clergy, therefore, generally provide significantly better ‘value for money’ than their English stipendiary counterparts, whilst there are also no class distinctions in terms of pay and rations.

    The dioceses are bust because parish share subventions have fallen off a cliff. This is because when people were giving *in* church they were frequently doing so out of loyalty to *their* building. The revenue of the Church therefore derives, in large measure, from local atavism (though many clergy resent or are unaware of that). Parishes are “bust” because it is the stipendiary clergy who are the main cost base, and stipendiaries who call for the rationalisation of the stock have revealed (whether wittingly or not) a zero sum game in which their own economic interests must trump the stock and therefore the ability of the Church to fulfil its mission in ‘every community’ (its USP). Some clergy have taken pay cuts, but most haven’t. Dioceses have been exceptionally slow in appealing for support (they should have started this as soon as lockdown commenced).

    What this crisis has also revealed about the Church is that it has a major principal/agent problem.


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  3. Andrew says:

    The Archbishop has a professional managerial career in industry behind him, so not entirely a surprise when he returns to managing the ‘problem’. Look at the disaster that is Transforming Wigan (coming to a Deanery near you) for an example of tomorrow’s model to turning around a failing church.


  4. Jonathan says:

    Whilst I agree with much of what you say, the church is not it’s buildings and it is perhaps these steeple houses as the Quaker George Fox called them, that get in the way of the Spirit. If we truly want to change, the buildings could be sold and the money given to the poor, for there will be many more in poverty before this is over. Then we might come together to pray and worship as a community under God rather than under a pointy roof. So many people have worked hard through online processes for daily prayer and thoughts and services and many have joined them, some who might never have experienced this before.


  5. Neal Terry says:

    Hallelujah, Amen.


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  7. Wyn Beynon says:

    Thanks Rosie, great stuff as always. In our parishes lots of folk are saying we just can’t go back. And their well heeled and a touch Tory! Good news. It’s time for disestablishment and all that follows from that. I was ordained ad served in Wales. It isn’t that painful!! Order, disorder, reorder. I have it on my wall behind me when I do Zoom services!


  8. Andrew Mottram says:

    Absolutely right on target. Locking the parish church buildings was a massive mistake and I think completely the wrong thing to do. We should have just left them open as public open stance with a roof over the top. Thank you


  9. Andrew Mottram says:

    Public open space – not stance, see previous post


  10. Rowan says:

    Hello Rosie
    I so agree with you.
    But if I had only read the reporting I would have entirely misunderstood your message.
    Virtual services reveal our connection. The challenge is to be everywhere and local maybe without buildings.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. williambuggins says:

    The Anglican Church is finished in its present form. Not because of Coronavirus, that was only the catalyst that sealed its fate.
    No, what has done for the CofE are the attempts to make it ‘relevant.’ Some members of the clergy seem to use their position as a platform from which to pursue their own ideas which are sometimes at odds with the very core of Christianity.
    Paradoxically there also seems no desire to abandon the archaic language, rituals and roles which belong to another age. Vestments become evermore embellished, obscure little traditions are ‘resurrected’ as newsworthy and somehow relevant. These are things which perpetuate the concepts of deference and privilege, and are out of kilter with modern notions of equality.


  12. Anne says:

    Personally I appreciated the “micromanagement” and the detailed guidance on buildings and ministry we have been getting, much of which was in response to real questions from real parish priests- I know because I was one of them. The devil (and God) are in the detail, and it was helpful to have a “national line” to follow, especially when dealing with parishioners or members of the congregation who didn’t understand or care about the complexities of opening a building or conducting worship safely. I did a couple of funerals the day before the churches were closed. Social distancing was supposed to be in place, but no one took a blind bit of notice. Our job has been to encourage people to trust that worship can be valid without the buildings, so that they weren’t tempted to try to come to them, and having that message reinforced clearly from the top was an immense help. I know everyone’s experience is different, but this is mine.


    • Ian says:

      Just a simple thank you for saying these things so clearly. I hope and pray that radical, inclusive, compassionate, liberating change will happen.


  13. pkurmis says:

    I have found the recent remote liturgy experience interesting as well as challenging. Is there not both poetry and irony in the ineffable being done virtually?


  14. alex eaden says:

    We are each singular yet volunteer to be part of a group, a church congregation. Our experiences become our norms and this is the order Rosie mentions. The disorder will be contained within the order and will be smothered unless……
    Unless enough of us preach the reorder and each singular person accepts. Then the church congregation can be…………… Let us do more than imagine.


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  16. Peter Liddell says:

    The issue is wider. While I was receiving the blizzard of emails about whether the church building should be closed or open, the heads of churches in Jerusalem, were warning that annexation of the West Bank would be “utterly damaging to the future of the churches in the Holy Land.” At the same time, 140+ parliamentarians signed a cross-party letter calling on the Government to raise sanctions against Israel if annexation went ahead. The signatories included Chris Patten, Andrew Mitchell, Ming Campbell, Margaret Hodge and a number of members of the House of Lords. None of the bishops signed. Declan Lang, Chair of the Catholic Bishops’ Department of International Affairs wrote, “The Catholic Church in England and Wales will continue to stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the Holy Land against such a move.” He then lists the signatories of the appeal from Patriarchs, Exarchs and Archbishops in a direct grasp of the impact. We have all been pre-occupied while in our silence the Palestinian people continue to be ground down.
    Rev. Canon Dr. Peter G. Liddell, former Director of Pastoral Counselling, St. Albans


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