In a surprising move, the Daily Telegraph has published a leader comment in favour of Church of England bishops. Commenting on a news article by its own Religious Affairs Correspondent, Jonathan Petre, headlined One in five C of E bishops faces sack, the leader says:
When, in 1942, Winston Churchill nominated William Temple for Canterbury, he remarked that he had chosen the only half-crown article in a sixpenny bazaar.
That was too harsh on the bishops of the time, but how does the bishops’ bazaar compare today?
In monetary terms, their services are less valued now. A diocesan bishop receives £36,230 a year, and an auxiliary suffragan bishop only £29,560.
That is less than a teacher, though we expect great things of bishops.
But, as we report today, instead of finding ways of attracting better candidates, perhaps by increasing the amount they receive to a level where they might no longer wonder how to pay for the children’s shoes, the Church Commissioners, in a secret document, have recommended that more than a fifth of bishops should simply be abolished.
Some dioceses might also go, or be merged. There is talk of selling off historic palaces.
No one is underestimating the difficulties facing the Church of England. Its full-time clergy have diminished in the past century from 24,000 to 9,000. Parishes are amalgamated, and churches crumble and are closed.
The apparent decline reflects lay secularisation, but also a reduced status for clergy. This leads to a diminished pool of talent from which bishops may be drawn.
The solution is not to bash the bishops once more. Real savings should come from trimming a proliferating bureaucracy, not from cutting bishops’ incomes.
As for selling off historic palaces, that is an abdication of trust and a pointless transfer of historic property to unreliable custodians.
A success story for the Church of England has been its cathedrals: well attended and able to draw in those previously little interested in Christianity.
One model for the C of E’s future is the building of central teams in dioceses, flexible and mobile enough to meet local needs. This is no time to weaken episcopal vigour.