Here we go again. The pattern keeps repeating itself. The Church speaks out over money and injustice. The Church finds out it is doing the very thing it is attacking other people for. The Church gets embarrassed, somebody has to apologise and its message – which was a good one – gets torpedoed.
This time it is the living wage, a perfectly good campaign to get employers to pay what it actually costs to live these days. The Archbishop of Canterbury says he is “embarrassed” to discover that some people working in cathedrals – collecting tickets, for example – are being paid less than the living wage. It must be immensely frustrating for him, but he has been here before. Remember the righteous attack on Wonga, the high interest lender? Remember that it turned out the Church had an indirect stake in Wonga? Remember that nearly a year later, when he spoke out about money again, it turned out they still hadn’t got rid of the stake in Wonga? Or for those with longer memories, think back to the days of the crash, when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York spoke out powerfully against the follies and evils of hedge funds – and were told within hours, by the financial press, that they had shares in one of the biggest hedge funds in the country. It’s embarrassing. It’s stupid. It undermines good people saying good things. It has to stop. Here’s how.
1) Ask the question. For the love of God, just stop and think before you say anything. Ask what everyone else will ask. “Are we doing this thing we are attacking?” The Archbishop didn’t ask the question about Wonga, he just assumed it could not be happening because of the ethical investment team. Wrong(a).
2) Ask again. Drill right down into the detail. It was a tiny stake in Wonga. The people being paid less than the living wage in cathedrals might not have appeared on the radar first time around. It’s understandable that they were missed. It’s also unacceptable.
3) Realise you’re all one entity in other people’s eyes. Bishops love to slide out of thinking about the money that funds the Church by saying that’s all down to the Church Commissioners. The Archbishop says he has no control over them, he can only suggest. The Cathedrals seem to operate as a separate entity too. Today’s line is that the CofE is lots of individual units acting individually. But none of that makes any difference to people outside the Church. They don’t see the bitter rivalries, the historic chasms, the lack of communication and the high metaphorical walls. They just see the Church, one part of which does not know what the other part is doing. The arse and the elbow are strangers. Enough.
4) Get over your historical addiction to money, power and property. Fast. The Church of England has been a hugely privileged, immensely wealthy institution over centuries, but that game is over. Disestablishment is happening by default. Half the bishops don’t seem to realise they are going to have to give up their trappings and stop assuming everyone listens to them, but the other half know it. The people at the top know it.
5) Like it or not – although we all know that the Archbishops have no direct power over anyone at all – they are seen as the people at the top. Stop fighting that and support them instead. Make sure that when one of them – or a group of bishops – takes a stand there is nothing, anywhere in the whole of the Church of England that can undermine it. This may be difficult, given the scale of the thing, but good things often are. Get over it and get on with it.
6) I know I said five. I’m so hopeless, I can’t even count. I’m no expert in all this, I certainly don’t speak for the Church. There are very good people in Church House, at Lambeth and among the bishops. Lately, the communications strategy has seemed right and strong and well timed. Nobody has asked for my help and they are probably quite right if they feel they don’t need it. I’m just fed up with seeing good words undermined. I’m just someone who observes the Church in his professional life, occasionally sits in a pew and happens to believe it is a force for good in our society, sometimes despite itself.
So here’s one more wild thought. It is hard for some people to take seriously a church that fights against poverty at the same time as holding so much property, including palaces and some of the most beautiful homes in the country. We all know Church people are doing good things, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, speaking up for those without a voice, caring for communities, often being the only such presence when everyone else seems to have stopped caring. The Church of England is right to speak out about that as loudly as possible, and right now it seems to be the only group of people willing to name the injustice and inequality in our society. Those interventions in our politics need to go on and intensify, for the sake of the whole country. But they are being undermined.
Having all that money, property and historical access to power makes the Church of England look like a champagne socialist at very best. Why not give it all up and find another way to be? Why not do the single most radical thing in the history of the Church? I know, it’s silly of me. Just a thought. How naive. Best concentrate on the other five then, because it really is time for the Church to stop making a complete and utter fool of itself over money.