Faith & Reason: Christian soldiers and the onward problem

The old model of leadership brought mistakes, but perhaps that was better than the muddle which is its modern counterpart
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The Independent Culture
STANDING OUTSIDE the church in Medjugorje, during an earlier Balkan war, I listened to a pious Brummie dilate on how peaceful and how close to God everything around us was. He went on like this for some minutes until interrupted by a flash on the horizon towards Mostar and moments later the sound of distant shell bursts.

When I asked him and his fellow pilgrims how they reconciled their fervent belief in the peace-giving qualities of the Virgin Mary with the fact that the soldiers wore her picture pasted on their gun butts they replied that it was perfectly logical. When Satan saw the good that she was doing, he naturally concentrated his efforts on the places where she had appeared.

In cathedrals, of course, the combatants go unarmed. But I remember this explanation from time to time when looking at the hatreds and outbreaks of insanity which flourish so luxuriantly there. As with many of the best stories about the Church of England, these can be frustrating for journalists. You spend two months finding out where all the bodies are buried and who put them there and then, when it is all exposed, two more weeks with a libel lawyer working like a cat to bury everything again. And certainly, there is a quality of baroque hatred and exaggeration about some behaviour in cathedrals for which it is hard to find a naturalistic explanation. Why, for example, do so many people appear to believe that the only question about the Dean of Westminster is whether he acts on the direct orders of Satan or whether it is the other way round?

One answer is that these are tendencies present in any congregation, but given free rein only in cathedrals. After all, if you think your local rector is an insufferable twit or tyrant, you can go somewhere else without too much trouble. It's harder to change cathedrals. There is supporting evidence for this theory in the way in which the only really bitter parochial rows are those in rural parishes where an Anglican priest is likely to be the only provider of Christian (or at least church) services for miles in any direction. It's also true that cathedrals, like rural churches, attract some congregants for whom the job of the clergy is simply to look after the building and preserve its splendours.

There is also an organisational answer, though, which has, perhaps, wider repercussions. It is often said that cathedrals have medieval constitutions, as if this explained their problems. The implication, spelt out in the recent legislation on cathedrals, is that a modern constitution would solve all these problems. I think it most unlikely. If a constitution has lasted four or five hundred years there's a presumption that it works which even the experience of Lincoln Cathedral cannot entirely disprove.

The real problem is not the constitution but the model of authority they imply, which is naturally military. This need not be unchristian, unless you believe the Jesuits to be unchristian. But it is increasingly out of step with the experience and expectations of the churchgoing classes in their civilian lives.

Until about 50 years ago, I think it was the natural expectation of English males that they would at some stage in their lives go off to war. Public schools were designed to turn out officers who knew how to obey orders as well as how to give them. But both skills must be learnt, and they are no longer taught or valued. I think myself this is a sadness. It doesn't seem to have been accompanied by any countervailing increase in independent thought or self-reliance. All that has happened is that the natural home of authority is now the immortal committee which cannot make mistakes rather than the mortal and fallible leader who none the less commands obedience because he will pay for his mistakes.

The second model survives in some parts of life where decisions must be made every day and it's more important to make them than to get them right. Journalism is a good example. All good papers end up run by mad tyrants, even if they start off sane. But for the most part in the modern world giving or taking orders is regarded as deeply unnatural, unless you're shopping.

Where leadership is allowed, it is still a distortion of the military model in that different people are meant to give and to take orders, whereas the training of army officers, and even public schoolboys, was designed to give them painful experience of both ends of the stick. This is alien to modern Christians. Evangelicals may talk a lot about Christian leadership, but in their model the Christian leader, however small his platoon, takes orders only from God. Any official portrait of George Carey will illustrate what I mean.

If there is one thing which all the recent cathedral scandals have had in common, it is a refusal by some party or another to accept a decision which a chapter has tried to make. Some of these decisions were right; some wrong. That's not the point. The problems arise because, for most cathedral congregations, it is no part of the dean's or chapter's function to make any decisions at all.

Unfortunately some decisions are completely unavoidable, as cathedrals learn to fund their workings from live, pagan tourists rather than the pious, grateful dead. It is better that these are taken by deans than default.

Andrew Brown is the author of `The Darwin Wars' (Simon & Schuster, pounds 12.95)