May 1, 2020 - 11:19am

When bishops retire they get braver. Freed from collective responsibility when they hang up their mitres, in retirement they find their prophetic voice. To be fair, Peter Selby, former Bishop of Worcester, is an exception that proves this rule. Never a member of the awkward squad, he has always been resolutely independently-minded. And long respected in many quarters of the church.

So when someone of Bishop Selby’s stature pens a stinging rebuke of the current lockdown policy of the House of Bishops — and in the Roman Catholic magazine The Tablet — one can be sure that many will sit up and take notice. Indeed, when he writes that “many in the C of E feel let down by the official response,” he is possibly even understating the matter. There is deep discontent with the church at the moment, and even with the House of Bishops itself.

The “official response” that he refers to is the policy of not allowing clergy to enter their churches on their own for personal private prayer or to live-stream services. This is not a Roman Catholic policy — only a C of E one. Selby has no argument against closing churches for public worship.

But when a priest lives right next door to the church, or when their vicarage is even physically attached to the church and connected by an internal door, even then the priest is not allowed in to pray or to record worship on behalf of the community.

Of course, he or she is asked regularly to go into church to make sure everything is OK for insurance and safety purposes. But absolutely not for prayer or to broadcast prayer. Even when the Vicarage is stuffed full of screaming stir-crazy children, that is still where we are supposed to be Zooming our peaceful, meditative services from. As Selby argues:

Foremost among the reasons given why clergy could not enter their churches was the need to “set an example” of clergy as law-abiding citizens staying at home. The case was never made that clergy are key workers, exercising an essential public function, one rooted in the architecture and layout of their churches and the liturgical function they carry out within them, especially in Passiontide and Eastertide.
- Peter Selby, The Tablet

It is clear that Bishop Selby sees this as an historic moment in which the church reveals how much it has lost confidence in its own distinctive values, looking instead to the government to set the moral tone. This loss of confidence could well be related to the churches’ historic failure to deal with internal safeguarding issues.

But whatever the reason, a criticism that the current church leadership sees itself as little more than the perfect prefect of the bureaucratic (secular) state is now growing. Selby goes on:

Livestreaming from within our churches and cathedrals would have showcased their message to a wider public, reassuring them that the fundamental fabric of our common life and history – of which our large and small churches (including the historic Lambeth Palace chapel) are an integral part – had not succumbed to coronavirus fear.
- Peter Selby, The Tablet

The Archbishop of Canterbury could easily broadcast from the historic Lambeth Palace chapel. No one would be at risk if he did that on his own. And all he has to do to get there is to walk downstairs from his flat. But instead, he conducts national services from his kitchen. And so, Selby concludes, the Church of England’s bishops:

…seem to have accepted the idea that Christianity is a matter for the domestic realm, that our cathedrals and parish churches are just optional when useful and available, no longer the eloquent signs of the consecration of our public life and public spaces. The conviction that the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the places of beauty set apart is an “essential work” undertaken by “key workers” will have become a wistful “BC” [Before Coronovirus] memory.
- Peter Selby, The Tablet

Over at The Critic magazine, Fr Marcus Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield, puts it even more succinctly: “Church buildings narrate the development of a community more than any other. … But this time round the church has written itself out of the story.”

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.