Our Church, their club

On the eve of the General Synod, Cole Moreton despairs of self- serving bishops
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The Independent Online
THE Archbishop of Canterbury is naked. Someone has stolen his clothes, but he still stands before the nation in all his pomp like the fairytale emperor, desperate to convince us that all is well.

The thief in this case is the Prime Minister. Not that long ago, the man who was Archbishop could claim to be England's moral guide, our spiritual leader. But the historic mission of the Church of England to offer spiritual care to all through its parish system is looking forlorn. We are going elsewhere to pray.

The real "church" of England, in the broadest sense of a community of faith, now embraces followers of all kinds of creeds - from the other major religions to materialists, spiritual healers, UFOlogists, ghost- hunters and ordinary people with a vague sense of the supernatural. There are still lots of Christians, but the Church of England has alienated many of them with its attitude to women and homosexuals.

The Archbishop's authority, which once seemed natural and proper, has gone. The void has been filled by Tony Blair, who preaches caring capitalism and an inclusive society. In contrast, Dr Carey leads an institution whose values are worldly, whose structures are undemocratic and whose attitude to power promotes social inequality.

In the hours after the death of Princess Diana, it was Mr Blair whose words seemed to capture the spiritual mood of the nation, sounding less like a PM than a pastor. It is dangerous for an elected politician to assume the moral high ground in this way, and dangerous for us to let him (not least because his apparent compassion and understanding may prove to be generated by ambition and artifice). But if Mr Blair wants to play that part, the Archbishop can only stand in the wings and watch.

Under Margaret Thatcher, the Church of England was provoked into acting as the unofficial opposition. Even then, those bishops who spoke up on behalf of the miners or others who were losing out to monetarism found their arguments undermined by the activities of the Church Commissioners. These secretive mandarins who administer the Church of England's finances lost pounds 800m when the property market crashed.

There was never any forthright apology from the Commissioners, or any thought that worshipping Mammon in such a passionate way might have been wrong. Until recently, they invested in companies that made arms, and dismissed those who protested as naive. These were true Thatcherites. Now the Church seems equally dazzled by New Labour. With such reactionaries behind him, it is hard to imagine Dr Carey acting as the conscience of Mr Blair as Desmond Tutu has for Nelson Mandela. Even if he wanted to.

When the Archbishop called in 1996 for a national debate on morality, it was a waste of time. Dr Carey was the leader of a church whose reputation for fudge and financial incompetence had made it a laughing stock, and he chose the outdated institution of the House of Lords to address a nation that no longer had faith in its authority figures.

There was even a problem with his own place in the Anglican structures. The Archbishop has status but no power to intervene in crises such as the dispute at Lincoln Cathedral. The situation will be addressed later this week when the General Synod, the governing body of the Church of England, meets in London to put the finishing touches to proposals which appear to have been aimed at dragging the Church into the Eighties.

The Archbishop will become managing director of CoE plc, head of a boardroom structure that owes much of its thinking to outdated business practice. These proposals must be ratified by Parliament and the Queen, a process that has reawoken the debate about Establishment, that archaic and finely woven link between Church and State.

This unjust relic informs the attitude taken by much of the media, which seems to believe that only the House of Bishops of the Church of England has anything to say about spiritual affairs. What its members say is usually out of touch, watered down or undermined by internal disagreement, but still we take this rag-bag of sad, middle-aged managers seriously. Indeed, we ignore or condemn other churches - where there is often life and good works - and seize with glee on the failings of inept and confused bishops, like parliamentary cartoonists discovering a row of their lordships fast asleep.

Unfortunately, the bishops are still important. There are 24 of them active in the House of Lords, a representation denied to any other major faith or Christian tradition. So who are these people?

They are not elected by those they serve, or accountable to anyone but themselves, and they are appointed by a committee that meets in secret. Two names are given to the Prime Minister, who can pass one on to the Queen or request more choice. What has the spiritual care of the people of Liverpool, say, got to do with Tony Blair? Not much, really - but then he is also choosing a parliamentarian.

Sometimes they use their privilege in an effective way - the bishops' opposition took the edge off Michael Howard's inhumane asylum Bill - but their voice is mostly stifled by a desire not to lose influence. You don't get to be a bishop, still less sit with those in the House of Lords, by being a dangerous radical.

Two years ago, a survey of the 43 bishops in charge of their own dioceses revealed that not one would admit to reading a tabloid or listening to Radio 1. Two of them never watched television, and one never read a newspaper. They are, of course, all men. Some may be gay, but won't admit it in public. The Church spends pounds 13.7m a year on providing for the bishops as a whole - an average of pounds 124,000 per man, which includes secretarial staff, chauffeurs and entertaining. It also includes the annual salary of up to pounds 26,470, which is nearly twice as much as the average parish priest gets.

Then there are the palaces. The Bishop of Worcester lives in Hartlebury Castle. The Archbishop of York, a single man, lives in a small part of the magnificent Bishopsthorpe. The Bishop of Durham lives in Auckland Castle. "People don't say 'Our bishop is a snotty person living in a castle,' " his chaplain once said. "They say 'We are an important place. Look at where our bishop lives.' "

Do they really say that in the housing estates around Durham, or outside the railway station, where the Big Issue is sold? Is it what they said in Chelmsford in 1996, when John Perry became the local bishop and announced that his new palace was inadequate? Never mind that the six-bedroom Edwardian mansion was the only bishops' residence to have a swimming-pool. He wanted something nearer to the city, to make it easier for visitors. Critics suggested he send his driver to pick them up.

The Bishop of Bath & Wells lives in a modest part of his palace, and allows the rest to be opened to the public. "The great advantage [of the palace] is that it's classless," his secretary once told the Church Times. "If you put the Bishop in a five-bedroom house in the gin-and-Jaguar belt it would identify him with a particular class of people, but this is almost unreal - who lives in palaces these days - so anyone can approach without feeling intimidated. Apart from the moat, of course."

Apart from the moat? Of course. It takes a particular class of person to use such inverted logic with a straight face. But then his argument is rather undercut by the homeschosen for bishops when their historic palaces do have to be sold off - usually large "executive" houses in the gin-and-Jaguar belt.

Why does this matter? For ten years I was an active member of the Church of England, and regularly gave a proportion of my income to it. And the message I heard from the pulpit, usually from beleaguered, underpaid priests who had chosen to work among the most desperate communities, was that the Christian message to the poor was about justice and equality. The first would be last, the powerful would be removed from their thrones, the rich would not enter the kingdom without first having accepted the responsibility that went with their wealth.

But not in this life. Not in the Church of England, anyway. Nobody chooses to become a vicar as a career move, for the big house or the social cachet. The financial crisis has stripped away any illusions on that score. Parish priests are there out of a sense of calling. They struggle. And they are managed, from a distance, by bishops who rarely renounce the driver, the car, the gardener, the palace, the seat at dinner next to the mayor, or the Prime Minister.

The Church of England will not become the force it could and should be until it stops clinging on to privilege, and cuts the old apron strings that tie it to the state. They'll snap anyway, soon. Free of its desperation to be respectable it could challenge the inequalities it currently supports.

How to start? The Archbishop of Canterbury lives behind a high wall in Lambeth Palace, enjoying fine furnishings and art, while people sleep on the pavement a few hundred yards away. Dr Carey knows about symbolism. Sometimes it seems it is all he has left. What a symbol it would be to society, to Parliament, to his own church, if he could offer that space and warmth to the homeless.

That will happen the day hell freezes over.