Faith & Reason: Blair's hidden agenda for the Church

Quietly, behind the scenes, New Labour is setting about creating a New Church of England. Andrew Brown predicts major changes.

One of the things about being badly beaten up is that after the first few shocks you don't notice much of what's happening: fresh blows can land and the damage only appears afterwards. So it has taken a while for the Church of England to notice what was done to it last week by the Blair government, and to realise, as it struggles up from a disastrous Synod meeting, that this time something vital may have been broken.

The man who put his boot into the kidneys was Stuart Bell MP, whose title is one of those grand vacuities that bubble out of the Establishment like cuckoo spit: he is the Second Church Estates Commissioner. The first Church Estates Commissioner is, of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but he doesn't matter. For Mr Bell's role, by contrast with his title, is not vacuous at all. He is the Government's proconsul, sent to govern the Church of England. Perhaps this overestimates his importance. Proconsuls, after all, were sent to govern the grandest and richest parts of the Empire. Mr Bell, in his conversations with the press, has given the impression that he is only a District Commissioner, sent into the bush to dispense justice to a particularly benighted, if colourful, tribe of savages. They are to be brought within the reach of civilisation, and they are to be grateful for it.

Of course, this message is not delivered too crudely to the natives. The Maxim guns stay under wraps, and the casual listener, unversed in bureaucratic language, might think he was merely paying ceremonial obeisance to their customs, not announcing that everything continued on the Government's sufferance.

Last week, he told the General Synod: "The link between Church and State is not, as some might think, obsolete or stagnant, but an evolving and dynamic partnership." So much windy nonsense has been talked about change, modernity, and relevance in the Synod that its members can be forgiven for not noticing that this particular rhetoric has a simple, unambiguous English translation: "We're going to change everything we feel like changing, and you must like it or lump it. New Labour: New Church of England."

A few were primed to notice this. The members of the Crown Appointments Commission (among them the Archbishop of Canterbury) know perfectly well that the Blair government has turned down both their choices for the See of Liverpool, something Mrs Thatcher never quite dared do, for all the arrogance of her toadies towards the Church. When Dr Carey was pressed about this in questions, he forgot his script and after preliminary stonewalling finally admitted: "I don't know how the news got out." Thus another illusion of the Church's importance is ended; and it did so with a whimper. If Dr Carey really does not know how the news got out, the answer is that it came from Downing Street.

In case anyone had missed the significance of this Mr Bell told the press afterwards the Government would continue to intervene in specific appointments of bishops. This is not the affectation of one District Commissioner, operating miles from the central administration: it is the belief of most of the devout and able Christians in this government that most of the Bench of Bishops, from the Archbishops down, have been promoted beyond their abilities, and would never have reached the top in a healthy organisation. Curiously, they don't blame the Church itself so much as the previous government and especially the evangelical mafia around Mrs Thatcher and her appointments secretary, Robin Catford, or Catfood as he was then known in Lambeth Palace, whose pressure was, of course, exerted more subtly.

So now the Government has stepped in: the whole process of comfortable, creeping disestablishment, which for the last 30 years has looked as if it would lead inevitably to a church which Parliament would not dare to interfere with, firmly established in the possession of its privileges and endowments, has come to a juddering halt. Mr Blair's office will determine who the bishops are. The Church Commissioners will continue to exist, and matter. In exchange, the Church of England is told by Mr Bell that establishment is safe, and that it did a good job in coping with the great outpouring of inarticulate (but scarcely Christian) sentiment over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales - even though privately senior New Labour figures think it reacted rather poorly.

It is clearly an offer they can't refuse; but I don't see how they can possibly accept it, either.

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely

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