Shifts of power in the Church of England

Faith and Reason
A Commons Committee's strictures on the Church Commissioners this week could lead to the Church's full disestablishment, writes Andrew Brown.

There is something medieval about Frank Field, the MP for Birkenhead who chairs the Commons' Social Security Committee, which has just produced a damning report on the Church Commissioners.

When I was a parliamentary sketchwriter I used to watch him from the press balcony, and in the television lights his face always seemed carved from wood, not because it lacked expression but because his expression of ascetic determination was so archaically clear. He seems to lack all modern gloss. He would have made a good inquisitor. Indeed, Sir Douglas Lovelock must be wishing his own reputation had fallen into the hands of someone more gentle, maybe Torquemada.

Sir Douglas, the man in charge of the Church Commissioners when they lost £800m in the property market, has never given the impression that he wastes time doubting his own competence. After the Synod had debated for the first time the causes and consequences of the disaster, and so after he had retired, I found him chatting jovially outside the building with one of the bishops who had had to clear up the mess. I asked whether he had watched the debate. "Oh no," he replied. "It is bad form to watch your successor. You always think you could do the job better." Later in the conversation, I mentioned that many people thought him arrogant and high-handed. He was astonished that anyone should believe such "utter piffle".

Of course, none of the facts in the committee's report was new. The facts have been known and admitted ever since the "Lambeth report" in 1993. The report does one service in making clear that the financial crash would have come inevitably as a result of the commitment to paying decent pensions. The property fiasco accelerated an inevitable process, and made it harder to manage. But once the fateful decision had been made in the Seventies to treat priests as if they had a job and not a vocation, and were thus entitled to retire, the Church of England was committed, all unknowing, to a process whereby living, rather than dead, Christians paid for the whole show.

This is a hugely important point. It means that the collapse of the parish system and the partial destruction of the Church of England, which Frank Field so eloquently foresees, might well have happened even without the property debacle. If the pensions bill rises until it is equal to all the Church Commissioners' surplus, as seems inevitable, the projects they fund at present must be funded by the living laity; and, if the money cannot be raised, then large numbers of parishes will simply disappear.

No one is certain whether the money can be raised from churchgoers to prevent this. Despite the brave noises made by the official church when discussing this, the actions of the Church's leadership suggest that it does not feel the confidence it affects. The House of Bishops has insisted that the Church Commissioners continue to erode their capital through the arcane practice of coupon-churning rather than cut expenditure to fit their diminished income. The best one can say is that, if the parishioners of the Church of England really are so willing to pay more for it, they do not seem to have expressed their willingness loud enough for their pastors to hear it clearly.

Whether the money can be raised or not, this shift in financial power will bring about a huge shift in political power within the Church. The shift may be even greater if the money cannot quite be raised. So far, the analysis is not controversial. What is new in the committee's report (or so startlingly anachronistic that it comes to the same thing) is the suggestion that the laity involved should once more be Members of Parliament.

Dividing the Church Commissioners' assets to safeguard the pensions of the clergy can only be done by legislation. In the normal course of events this is originated by the General Synod, and then appears before Parliament as a Measure, a law which Parliament may accept or reject, but cannot modify. This device, of a law which Parliament must approve but cannot write, is at the heart of the partial disestablishment which General Synod represents.

Mr Field's committee, though, suggests that the Synod produce a Bill instead of a Measure. The difference is that Bills may be modified in their passage through Parliament. To the synodical mind this represents a naked power grab: there is every likelihood that whatever emerged from Parliament would reflect the preferences of a parliament which is hardly Anglican, indeed hardly Christian, instead of the General Synod which, if it has no other virtues, is undoubtedly Anglican.

Mr Field wishes to strengthen the established status of the Church and give it some substance. No one I have spoken to within that establishment really believes there is any substance to strengthen. They fear that public, political discussion of the Church of England's status will end in full disestablishment, and the emergence of a narrower, nastier body.