Bishops and their palaces

Bishops and their palaces

Andrew Brown for Independent features 11 June 2001

What are bishops for? In modern Britain, theological opinions may only safely be held by winning football managers. Once they start losing, their heresies are used as an excuse to sack them. Glenn Hoddle had to go after he did not say them things about reincarnation. Craig Brown, a Scottish manager, had to resign when he was taped singing drunken protestant songs to the answering machine of one his mistresses. But at least people pretend that the theological opinions of football managers matter. If a bishop announces that he no longer believes in the resurrection of Jesus, he might make page four of the Daily Telegraph. Only if he were to manage a successful football team would his theological opinions be taken seriously.

Since we don’t know what the job of a modern bishop actually is, it is very hard to determine what he ought to be paid. The report of the Mellows Committee, which was published by an astonishing coincidence, on the morning the general election result, showed that the cost of the Church of England’s 103 bishops rose in 1999 by 10%, which is almost as fast as the Sunday attendance was falling. But the report is a rather better job of work than you would think from the headlines. It is lucid, thoughtful, scrupulous, and remarkably pessimistic.

The most illuminating sections come when they ask the bishops themselves what they believe their jobs should be and — by implication — what they think it will be. You have to unpack what is said from the surrounding jargon: but it is quite clear that they see themselves as men overwhelmed by the task of managing decline. They don’t know what to do, and they don’t know how to do it. In the modern world you signal your inadequacies by asking for training: here are some of the things that bishops told the committee they needed training in: conflict management; stress management; media presentation; prioritising and learning the ability to say ‘no’; leadership, especially team leadership; management of change. The picture is clear, especially when you add and translate into English the first two items on the list — "Mission strategy and practice" (what do we do?) and "theology and applied theology" (why should we bother?).

A little more jargon unpacking explains why they feel so inadequate. "The demands of leading the diocese will increase" says the report (Our jobs are going to become even worse). "There will be change in the pattern and complexity of ministry" (we will have fewer priests); "changes in numbers of worshippers and occasions of worship" (fewer people will go to church on Sunday. We hope some will come at other times of the week instead); "Changes in the balance of stipendiary and non-stipendiary clergy" (We won’t be able to pay the priests we’re left with). "Through all of this the bishop will need to lead the diocese to provide stability for it and be the focus of unity" (And we’re supposed to make everyone feel good about this shambles. Oh God. Oh God.)

These harried and inadequate managers, hurrying between committee meetings, are rattling around in the shells of real privilege. The 1662 Prayer book has a clear job description for a Bishop, in the vows that he takes at his ordination: — he is to teach and to ,maintain sound doctrine, to "maintain and set forward, as much as shall lie in you, quietness, love, and peace among all men; and … correct and punish … such as be unquiet, disobedient, and criminous ,without your Diocese." This is old-fashioned, but it is worth quoting because it explains why the bishops came by their palaces, their chauffeurs, and their expense accounts, which are all causing so much trouble today. The bishop was responsible, not just for clergy discipline, but the for general moral tone of his diocese. He needed the power to correct and punish people. He sat in the House of Lords when that was the ruling body of the country. The Bishops of Durham had until 1932 their own private armies, for keeping out the Scots, though no doubt handy for other purposes too. So, bishops had palaces for the same reason that millionaires do now: they were among the richest and most powerful people in the country; and everyone thought this was a just and proper state of affairs.

The castles of the older and grander episcopal sees are really wonderful. My hear lifts when I walk into the courtyard of Lambeth Palace, the only one remaining of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palaces. I know, because his press officer tells us, that the archbishop’s fridge contains nothing much but skimmed milk and yoghurt; but this was a palace built for men who would decant their yoghurt into gold cups at breakfast. It enlarges the splendour of life. Bishopthorpe, where the Archbishop of York lives, is less imposing, but just as delightful to look at. There are plenty of ways to justify such luxury. You might argue that the Church of England is such an important institution that it must offer rewards to attract the most able people to join it. That was the nineteenth century explanation, but it has rather fallen out of fashion. There are a couple of bishops who might be running ICI if they were not running a diocese: the bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who has a pleasant house next to St Paul’s, comes to mind. But it’s not a widespread temptation for the bench. Modern bishops are chosen by a process almost guaranteed to eliminate originality and self-confidence, since the diocese, the Archbishops and the Prime Minister can all obstruct or block the appointment of candidates they dislike, and each will have entirely distinct reasons for finding a candidate unsuitable.

The justification for privilege opposite to the traditional understanding was put by the late Philip Goodrich, a lovely man who lived as bishop of Worcester in a few rooms of Hartlebury Castle. The rest were occupied by the local council. He thought that bishops occupying these houses showed the world how little success might matter. They were to be an example of humility; and to provide the least worst occupants of the buildings. But this is not an entirely convincing explanation either, or at least it is one out of tune with the temper of the times. Especially, it is out of tune with the temper of wives. The palaces were built at a time when a great man’s staff was his household. They were not designed for the nuclear families we now think of as Christian. On the contrary, the bishop was expected to share his life with his chaplain and all the other people who worked for him. This means that the bishop’s wife now gets to share her life with the chaplain, too; and arrangement neither of them need much enjoy. In the foreseeable future, it is the bishop’s husband who will have to share a house with her chaplain, an arrangement which will bring pleasure only to the writers of sitcoms.

There is still a feeling that a bishop should maintain the lifestyle of the upper middle classes. The Church Commissioners believe that a diocesan bishop — the 43 who actually have cathedrals of their own — needs to have, amongst other things, a study, an office for two secretaries, another office for his chaplain, a chapel; a dining room to seat 12, five bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a drawing room that will host meetings for up to thirty people. It’s obvious that fitting all these facilities into one building rather restricts the kind of buildings that a bishop can live in. The obvious step would be to house bishops away from their offices, as ordinary priests are, and run the diocese from hired office space, as if it were a normal business.

So the Church of England would undoubtedly get rid of some of its grand palaces if it would. The problem is finding a buyer. Though they have been valued at £60m, it is difficult to see who is actually in the market for fifteenth century palaces. They might make hotels or conference centres. Even then, it would take a gifted hotelier to make a profit out of such rambling buildings, expensive to heat and to keep in good repair.

It is in the nature of shrinking organisations that more and more money is sucked into the centre, to manage the process of panic and contraction. The fewer resources there are, the more important seems the job of sharing them out. But of course no one knows how to do this well. The chauffeurs constantly rushing them around and the mobile phones — one bishop spent more than £10,000 on his mobile in 1999 — are, I think, marks of panic rather than self-satisfaction. In the end, these problems will solve themselves. The committee recommended both that bishops publish a detailed breakdown of their accounts, and that a greater share be paid by their own churchgoers, and less by the central authority. In the end, the question of what a bishop should be worth will be answered by her own parishioners. It’s entirely possible that they might want to pay some of them more than at present. But I doubt the chauffeurs will survive.

When the bishops themselves were asked what they most needed, they replied that they wanted time to think, pray, and read. Those are the skills they feel a bishop should really be paid for; in its way, that would be the most privileged existence of all.

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