On check-in to the Oxford Patristics Conference in 2007 all attendees were given distinctive plastic bags to carry all the literature in. As a result, here and there in the streets of Oxford delegates were visible at some distance by the bag. This led to awkward situations, where you would suddenly realise that the person stood next to you was also carrying The Bag. An awkward cough, and a nod, usually resulted.
The conference started with a garden party in Christ Church College. I was making my way down St. Aldates, when out of a side-road right next to me, carrying The Bag, popped none other than Rowan Williams, currently Archbishop of Canterbury, evidently heading the same way. Tableau! Neither of us could well avoid or ignore the other without overt impoliteness, and so we made the sort of polite conversation that strangers do when placed suddenly in a situation where they must be polite.
Down to Tom Tower we went in this fashion, through Tom Quad and under the stairs to the hall and out towards the back into a courtyard which in turn opened into the garden. In the centre of the yard was a dozen or so men dressed all in black uniforms with clerical collars. All these looked as if they lived in these uniforms every day.
As we came out into the yard, a single voice was raised with a polished, clerical joy; “Ah here he is! The main event!” I cannot convey to you the tone of that voice. Not a single note of sincerity was present in it. No tinge of genuine emotion was present. In short, it was a piece of gross flattery.
Astonished, I looked at the archbishop; but his face did not change. I remember thinking how like a mask his face was. Without speaking he approached the gathering of sycophants — for such they plainly were — and perforce, not wishing to simply stalk off, I followed. After all, I would not drop someone without a word, even an archbishop; my mother brought me up better than that. So I stood there for a minute or so, ignored by both, until I suddenly realised that I had been dropped, as I had thought rude to drop another. I did not exist, and was being ignored as unimportant.
At that, I chuckled to myself, at the absurdity of it all, and carried on, past the sycophants into the garden, and into cleaner air. The last I saw of the archbishop was of the man and his court moving towards a side-building for some purpose of doubtless ineffable import, at least to their own welfare and advantage.
All these clerics were of junior rank. None of them, we may be certain, had any parishes to attend, or funerals to conduct. No, these southern middle class boys were the “upwardly mobile” clerics, above such tedious duties, engaged in ingratiating themselves. Imagine such a life; one of constant court, constant flattery. Yet… can anyone doubt that the bishoprics of the Church of England are filled from these people? Indeed is there much doubt that none will achieve high office in the CofE, unless they are of this type? For who else is known to those who make appointments?
This small group, this narrow system of people, all self-serving … is this really the Church of England as it really is? The parishes full of ordinary people merely sheep, to be fleeced for the benefit of the few? The sheep may wonder why the bishops are always of such a poor standard, so often self-serving atheists in all but name, so harsh on anyone who presumes to query whether the church is really fulfilling the commands of Christ, so generous to adulterous clergy and those caught in worse vices. But the sheep count for nothing, if appointments are made like this. The hard-working parish clergyman counts for nothing. I recall one bishop who paid his chauffeur more than the parish clergy received, thereby causing resentment among the latter; but of course he cared not at all for that. The diocese had been earned by ceaseless flattery and court, no doubt, and was his in law and in fact, to use or abuse as he chose. Judging from the works of puritans like Richard Baxter, it has never been different since the reformation. Perhaps longer…
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.