My friend Richard Peers caused something of a stir at the weekend when he questioned whether ‘senior’ clergy should expect to be treated with deference. His reflections arose from noticing a comment made by Justin Welby at the IISCA enquiry into sexual abuse. After offering a robust critique of one aspect of Justin’s witness statement, he notes:
However, it is the Archbishop’s comments about deference that I want to reflect on in light of the wider context of his statements to be found in the transcript here.
The key statement from Justin that I will comment on is this:
“I’m quite baffled by how we tackle deference. I find it strange when I’m given deference.”
It is always good when leaders admit to weakness. I take Justin’s admission as an invitation to all of us to think about how we can end the culture of deference in the Church of England. So here are my thoughts.
I think Richard’s reflections are helpful—and not a little provocative—but I think he needs to go further!
First, Richard hints that he is baffled at Justin’s own bafflement, in that he can think of many ways to address the culture of deference. But there is a more basic puzzle here: is it really possible to have the titles ‘His Grace the Most Reverend and Right Honourable’, as well as a coat of arms, be a member of the House of Lords, live in (an apartment in) a palace, dress in gold on ceremonial occasions, and have real decision-making influence (despite Justin’s fair claim that ‘there are no easy levers of change that I can pull’)—and still be surprised by the deference that is shown? Despite the waning influence of the Church as institution, it still has a formal place in the structure of British society, and so anything the archbishop says will have enormous significance, if only because of intense media interest, which consistently focusses disproportionately (both in the secular as well as church press) on what bishops say, which is often reduced to ‘Church of England believes…’ Given the inherent power dynamics, it is no surprise at all that people treat archbishops with deference.
It has been repeatedly noted that the ‘culture of deference’ has been a highly destructive force which has suppressed proper reporting of abuse. But it also has an impact on another issue under discussion at the last meeting of General Synod, that of clergy well being. When parish clergy are experiencing difficulties and need support, there is quite a wide perception that the distance there is between them and their bishops makes resolving these issues much harder.
Richard’s first solution to the culture of deference relates to clerical dress.
Why do Anglican bishops wear purple shirts? This is a modern (probably twentieth century) invention. The theology is poor. There is only one ministerial priesthood which the bishop shares with her or his presbyters. To be identified as belonging to a separate ‘superior’ order is profoundly disturbing. Justin never, as far as I am aware, wears purple shirts. All our bishops should burn theirs immediately. Walking into a room in a purple clerical shirt is a power statement. It is not what Jesus would do.
Richard includes a correction from an online discussion that this is not only Anglican practice—but neither is it modern. The wearing of purple derives from Roman imperial practice, in which senators had purple edges to their togas and the emperor had an all-purple toga with gold edges. Its limitation was in part a reflection of the expense of this dye, which came from the crushed shells of the murex snail. Historical purists note that the correct colour is actually Tyrian purple, which is more like a shade of red than the cerise colour that most bishops wear today.
But we might extend this question in two other directions. First, there are other elements of clerical dress which also encourage deference. The code for which kind of cassock you can wear in the Catholic Church is boggling in its detail, including reference to different colours of piping and buttons, and this interest has been taken up in the Church of England over the last one hundred years. The effect of this is to create a separate class of those in the know in contrast with the ignorance of outsiders, a little like the different arrangements of buttons for the Guards at Buckingham Palace.
The same applies to Roman-style vestments worn in services and, of course, the thorny subject of bishops mitres. The different theories about mitres are mostly laughable; I was intrigued to discover that the Daily Mail reporting on my article two years ago included this comment from Christine Hardman, the bishop of Newcastle:
The staff and mitre are not seen as outdated trappings of office but as symbols of care and love.
That’s a very strange interpretation of something that, historically, was designed to emphasise the separateness of the person wearing it—and I think it continues to have that effect today.
The Synod debates about dispensing with clerical vestments were precisely around the effect that they have of separation, putting a distance between clergy and ordinary worshippers, especially those who have not been inducted into the culture of the institution of the Church, and this distance is surely something that contributes to deference.
Richard Peers then tackles bishops’ membership of London clubs (‘I have known holy, good men to be corrupted by [the Athenaeum] and associated institutions’) and the House of Lords (‘this most exclusive of London clubs’), before addressing the questions of housing and differential stipends.
The houses we live in are powerful signifiers. This is probably more true in England and perhaps the UK, than in most countries. Not just the number of rooms but the location. Even if a bishop lives in a small flat in a former bishop’s palace the reception rooms, study etc tend to be in the old grand rooms. These are designed to make ordinary folk feel intimidated. Grand furniture, high ceilings, ancient buildings. Imagine being a victim of child sexual abuse and being asked to wait in those circumstances…
Should bishops be paid a different stipend to parish clergy? I can see no reason why. The expenses should be significantly higher. Not the salary.
I think the question of housing and offices is more complex than Richard allows for here. Houses do not just have practical and symbolic importance; they are also historic assets, and I think many dioceses (and the Church centrally) has made a catastrophic mistake in shedding historic assets for the sake of supplementing short-term revenue (and some dioceses are continuing to do this at alarming rates). Capital assets, once lost, can never easily be regained.
The question of stipend differentials has been a thorny issue for some time—as has the question of clergy remuneration overall. I understand that the Anglican Church in Canada has differentials based on age alone (which raises other questions), but the practice of having differentials based on ‘seniority’ is widespread. The implicit question here is whether bishops do have a more ‘responsible’ job that, for example, parish clergy. If you are a bishop responsible for the oversight of, say, 150 clergy, is that more responsible than a vicar responsible for the oversight of, say, 300 members of a church? In practice, this is not the question that most people ask—because, tacitly or explicitly, our expectations of what bishops do has changed beyond what is reasonable. As I noted recently:
The problem here is putting [the expectation of good preaching and teaching] alongside all the other demands that we make of them. They need to be good administrators (who wouldn’t want a quick reply to a request?); financial managers (how else will the diocese balance its budgets?); competent strategic thinkers (else who will lead us into growth?); concerned pastors (who else is looking out for the clergy?); effective in discipline (someone has got to keep everyone in line, even if that contradicts the previous concern); they must offer an effective voice in national debates (to raise the quality, as Parris argues)…and so on. As a recruitment consultant once commented, it is the multi-coloured unicorn brief!
If we want to undermine the culture of deference, it would help a good deal if we didn’t expect all our bishops to be Superman (or Wonder Woman).
Richard Peers then makes an interesting comment about who visits whom when meetings are arranged:
Being Director of Education is a pretty minor role in a diocese. In my three years in the role I have never asked a Head teacher to come and see me in the office. Far better to go and see them, what does it say to people to ask them to come to you? To waste their time in traffic? To have to be in your space not theirs? The time spent driving to meet people where they are is time well spent. Bishops should be pilgrims, peregrines, like Jesus, travellers on the road. Seeing people where they are.
I was very impressed when my diocesan bishop, in his first year of appointment, did just this, visiting every licensed minister in the diocese. But, noting the demands we have heaped upon our episcopal offices, I suspect that is just not practically possible for most. But the principle expresses good practice, as Richard says, and of course applies to parish clergy too; there is nothing that encourages people, especially men, than for their pastor to visit them in the place of their daily occupation.
Richard then makes a point about titles and forms of address—’My own preference is for christian name or Mother, or Father.’ I have reached the point in life where I cannot think of a reason for addressing a bishops as ‘Bishop X’, except that, if I don’t know them well, they appear to expect it. But I am now at the stage of life where I am as old as half the bishops in the Church, and have been around long enough to know many of them personally. Besides, none of them address me as Presbyter Ian, so why should I use their title in personal address to them if they won’t for me?! And I think Richard needs to reckon with the fact that ‘Father’ is in itself a term of deference (‘Do not call anyone on earth ‘father’…’ Matthew 23.9).
Titles and forms of address are another area, like dress codes, which create a difference between insiders and outsiders. I am on one mailing list which has me as ‘R D I B Paul’; it took me a little while to reality that the first initials stood for ‘Revd Dr’. And I have regularly had slightly amusing conversations with my bank on the telephone, where I have to explain that I should not be addressed as ‘Revd Paul’ since ‘reverend’ is an adjective, whereas Mister (or Doctor) is a noun, so the correct way to address a clergyman is ‘Mr Paul’. It is usually a lot easier just to ask to pay a bill, or whatever.
But what is one to do when the archbishops address one another (possibly tongue in cheek) as ‘Your Grace’ in meetings? If they show one another deference, what of mere mortals?
Apart from addressing the specifics of deference as Richard Peers has done, I think it is also worth asking the question as to why this is an issue at all. There is clearly a question of historic legacy, which has a direct bearing on things like the use of titles, historic buildings, and even stipend differentials. But a key issue (which has a bearing on both issues around abuse and the question of clergy well being) is the question of power. Justin Welby is right in some respects when he says that he (and any bishop in his or her diocese) has few levers of power; bishops are not, as many imagine, CEOs of an organisation called ‘the diocese’ or ‘the Church of England’. Change must be brought about by careful thinking and the building of collaboration. But pressure for change is undoubtedly present, perhaps more than at any point in the last few decades, because of the perceived urgency of the need to reverse decline. This means that questions of power to effect change are in sharp focus—and there is no doubt that bishops exercise power over clergy, just as clergy do in fact exercise power in a range of ways over ordinary church members. No matter how cordial is my relationship with my own bishop, the fact of the matter is that I hold the bishop’s licence, and if I am planning to move, then I will need the goodwill of my bishop and any other whose diocese I might move to in order to continue to exercise my ministry.
But there is another key factor, which arises from a simply observation about the New Testament language here. Paul notes to Timothy:
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. (1 Tim 5.17)
This is an interesting comment in several respects. First, if Paul was working in a hierarchical church, which includes the marks of deference we have noted here, then this comment would be superfluous; in other words, the need for this comment reinforces the sense in Paul that the early Christian communities were strikingly egalitarian. Secondly, there has been some debate about the term ‘honour’, since the Greek word time has the meaning ‘price’ or ‘value’ in modern Greek, and it might be that Paul is suggesting that they should be paid more—though this is not conclusive.
But the bigger issue is that of ‘honour’ or mutual respect. One commentator on social media noted that we shouldn’t treat bishops (or clergy) with deference, but we should treat them with respect. We are living in a culture which (in part because of the relational detachment afforded by online interaction) is singularly lacking in respect, and that has often infected discourse within the Church too. If leaders feel they are lacking respect, then the easier thing to reach for is deference—and the use of titles, clerical garb, and large offices are the easiest way to implement that.
We will have a better chance of eliminating the culture of deference if we all treat one another with a good deal more respect.
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?