Peter Owen-Jones: The Church is now well and truly in the dock

We should stand up and adopt hard moral lines – and take the hits for doing so

Peter Owen-Jones
Sunday 30 October 2011 23:49 GMT

St Paul was by profession a tent-maker. He was also a Roman citizen, which gave him access to a certain degree of "diplomatic immunity" when he needed it. So it is a wonderful twist of fate that the London cathedral built in his name, whose grounds are now filled with tents, faces this dilemma: Is it part of the protected elite? Or is it with the tent-makers?

Giles Fraser, the Canon of St Paul's who announced his resignation yesterday, has made it clear where he stands. The question for the wider Church remains.

The Church of England has always trodden a narrow path between serving the needs of the wealthy and those of the poor. As the national church, it has felt that it needs to be accessible to all sections of our society and that a problem arises when it becomes beholden to just one of them. But also as the national church, it is effectively licensed by the state and the Crown.

The hierarchy of the CofE is appointed not chosen, it is selected not elected, a nice little arrangement that goes back to the end of the English Civil War. It is the state, Parliament and the Crown who pull the strings governing the CofE's identity, a process of unnatural selection designed predominantly to garner against religious fundamentalism, the kind of which tore this country apart during the Civil War, and quite rightly none us would ever want to go there again.

The problem with these good intentions is that over the centuries what has evolved is a naturally cautious and inherently tepid Church. Very occasionally the mask slips and archbishops confront the gathered parliamentarians in the wake of a conflict saying that war is always the result of human failure, or they point out that the current status quo is not something that any of us have voted for. But by and large we remain, as a Church, suitably compliant and that is because we have been genetically engineered to be that way.

The Church's own institutions remain gloriously unexciting, and the Church Times continues to serve up its weekly fair of lamb dressed as mutton. And all was bumbling along much as it should do until a small group of protesters decided to make their point in the churchyard of St Paul's Cathedral.

None of us should be surprised that the Bishop of London and the Dean of St Paul's have asked the protesters to leave. They are simply fulfilling the terms of the job description that they have been selected for. One of the very good ideas that emerged from the Civil War was that the Church of England should act as grit and gruel for the excesses of the State, that we should be the ones to stand up and adopt the hard moral lines and – quite rightly – take the hits for doing so. At best the Church's role is to act as a counter-balance to the predations of power and the aching emptiness of materialism – to provide a different perspective on wealth and poverty.

Over the past 50 years we have all felt the cold hands of capitalism squeezing more and more of our humanity out of us. We have all by and large allowed it to happen, believing it was progress. The Church of England has just gone along with it, and we are now utterly embedded in that system.

Under the banner of balance, we at some point took it upon ourselves to "steady the ship" even if it is – as now many of us feel intuitively – going in the wrong direction. As priests we are not supposed to uphold the needs of the State – we are here at best to provide balance against the excesses of power, both political and financial. But we have not remained true to our calling.

The Bishop of London has apparently offered to organise a debate as long as the protesters leave the cathedral grounds. Both he and I know that that is just more of the same and will achieve precisely nothing. Really the days when the Church could offer to arbitrate over debates have long gone. It has taken a while but we are well and truly in the dock now. I find it rather reassuring that after all these years, all of the politics, all of the posturings of the Crown appointments commission, our fate – it would seem – now rests with the tent-makers.

Perhaps St Paul should have the last word. "Finally, beloved whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise think about these things."

Now there speaks a tent-maker.

Peter Owen-Jones is a Church of England vicar and the author of 'Small Boat, Big Sea – One Year's Journey as a Parish Priest'

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