Sentamu shoots the messenger

By Simon Barrow
July 10, 2010

The Archbishop of York, who is himself extremely adept at employing the media, has attacked reporting and comment on Church of England affairs. But for many it is the Church leadership's own claims to the moral high ground that are in the spotlight.

"It deeply saddens me," the archbishop said at General Synod today, "that there is not only a general disregard for the truth, but a rapacious appetite for 'carelessness' compounded by spin, propaganda and the resort to misleading opinions paraded as fact, regarding a remarkable, gifted and much-maligned Christian leader I call a dear friend and trusted colleague - one Rowan Williams."

Undoubtedly there has been much speculation around the circumstances surrounding the rejection of Dr Jeffrey John as a candidate for the bishopric of Southwark - and a lot of it has been angry and volatile. But it is not clear who, exactly, is being chastened in this particular piece of rhetoric.

As for Dr Williams: admirable though he is a thinker and person of genuine quality and prayerfulness, he has chosen again and again to "preserve unity" within Anglicanism by de facto acting in favour of those who wish to exclude others from the life and ministry of the Church. It is hardly surprising that this will attract criticism - some of it valid, some of it ill-informed or uncharitable, no doubt.

However, simply having a go at the professional and social media for dealing in what is being said, or for processing leaks coming from within the Church's own (secretive) committees, is to risk shooting the messenger rather than facing the real issues.

These include the continual justification and sanction of those who mistreat and marginalise women and gay people in the church; the defence of inequality by senior C of E figures (including the use of parliamentary privileges to secure opt-outs from legislation effecting all other civil society organisations); the maintenance of selection processes that lack transparency and accountability; and the perpetuation of the relic of Establishment itself - questionable on theological as well as pluralist grounds.

There are real questions of truth and integrity here. Bypassing them to give others a ticking off, as if everyone should simply do what the archbishops want, will not do. The vote today against their amendment to measures concerning women bishops illustrates why.

Dr Sentamu criticises the "spin and propaganda" of (unnamed) others. Yet the archbishops themselves seek to describe as "compromise" and "safeguards for objectors" an amendment - thankfully lost - that would actually have stopped women bishops having full jurisdiction in their dioceses, entrenched guerilla opposition to their ministry, and privileged male bishops and clergy over women within a two-tier system.

This is not "even handedness" - unless you are already in a position of power and preference, and fear this being taken away from you. Dr Sentamu is right to deplore the vituperation that long-standing disagreements within the Church have occasioned, and he is right that the media can simplify and magnify these. But the smoke is caused by fire, and the heat is felt most intensely by those the archbishops are failing to support.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.