This week will see not one but two embattled leaders trying to advance their agendas, see off rebellions, and push their respective organisations forward. Both leaders preside over internal debates that are increasingly fraught. Both are facing serious rebellions. Both know their authority is being strongly challenged. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, are both in for one hell of an awful week. For neither is this experience new. For both it is extremely serious.
The General Synod, in effect the Church of England’s Parliament, is holding the first of its two annual meetings at its national headquarters in Westminster. It has a packed week of business, debates, meetings and votes. Its 483 members – its size has not reduced in proportion to the shrinking numbers actually attending church – represents every faction and grouping. It is as political a body as you will find in any organisation, with all the attendant wrangling and division that you would expect.
This week only one item on the agenda will attract national attention, and that is the Synod’s debate on the Bishop’s plans to sustain the ban on gay marriage but introduce new blessings for same sex couples in churches. All sides in this acrimonious debate seemed more or less united in criticising the proposals. Some clerics have gone further and threatened ongoing disruption of day-to-day church life unless their view prevails. The debate preceding Synod has been a deeply unattractive and debilitating spectacle, a good example of how just because the Church should be about God’s business, does not mean some of its members feel the need to conduct themselves in a Godly manner. In reality, the modern Church of England is not one church but a collection of different churches choosing which bishop to attach themselves to, what liturgy (type of service) they use, and what interpretation of the Bible they think is right.
Though this debate will dominate the headlines the church generates over the next few days, the more existential issue facing it remains the continuing collapse in numbers of people attending its services, and the even more worrying fact revealed recently that basic knowledge of Christianity among young people is in free fall. Given the Church of England runs a huge number of schools across the country you have to wonder what on earth they are doing in terms of teaching the basics.
The Archbishop, who himself comes from the evangelical wing of the church, is now facing a serious revolt from those whom he would have regarded as his closest friends. He has done much to promote his part of the church at the expense of other parts and in the process has earned himself few friends in the wider church, friends who might have come to his aid at this time of difficulty. He has also, wrongly, prioritised his inherited role as the senior figure in the Anglican Communion over his more important job as head of the Church of England. Leading him to the inelegant position of publicly supporting same-sex blessings but refusing to conduct any himself in case it upsets parts of the Communion overseas.
He has said he will stick to this position even if it means the Church of England itself is dis-established because of its refusal to respond to national issues. This is a serious miscalculation. The Church of England is a reformed church and over time has changed its views on such fundamental issues as the number and nature of the sacraments, divorce and re-marriage, the nature of who can be a priest, among other things. The church is more likely to change its Archbishop than it is to willingly surrender its role in national life.
Over the road in the real Parliament the Prime Minister is facing a twin assault on his authority and policies by his two immediate predecessors. Over the weekend he added to the turbulence surrounding his administration by letting it be known that, under certain circumstances, he would be prepared to withdraw Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights. Like the Archbishop, Sunak presides over a party disunited in what it believes and how it should be running its affairs. Like the Archbishop, Sunak inherited a whole range of issues that were going to reach boiling point during his time in charge. Yet unlike the Archbishop, Sunak has to face each and every day a bunch of people who could push him out of office if their discontent becomes uncontrollable.
So far the Prime Minister has done well in trying to assert some sort of control over the programme and conduct of his government and the nation’s affairs. For the Archbishop, low pew numbers represent continuing sadness at the church’s failure to effectively engage. For the Prime Minister, low polling numbers represent a very real threat to his future in office. The upcoming Budget will not, cannot, be the silver bullet that solves all his problems but it is a vital opportunity to reset the terms of engagement.
This week, then, will be a great trial for both Primate and Premier and its outcome will have a significant impact for both on the rest of their time in their respective jobs.
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