Few of the bishops of the Church of England would be able to find the town of Skibbereen on a map, even fewer would have heard of its Nineteenth Century newspaper, the Skibbereen Eagle. Perhaps they should learn about it.
Skibbereen is a small town in Co Cork, where its newspaper was one that would comment on the international affairs of the day. In 1857, it is said to have published an editorial that said it had “got its eye both upon him and on the Emperor of Russia.” In 1914, it is said to have declared, “We give this solemn warning to Kaiser Wilhelm: The Skibbereen Eagle has its eye on you.” Of course, neither Palmerston, nor the Tsar, nor the Kaiser were concerned in the slightest at what might be the opinion of a newspaper that spoke for a tiny community.
The condemnation of the Prime Minister by the bishops of the Church of England over the Dominic Cummings affair revives the spirit of the Skibbereen Eagle, for whom do the bishops presume to speak?
Boris Johnson, may be blustering, he may be faltering, he may have days when he has not mastered his brief, he may be ill-kempt, he may have a fluid amorality about his relationship, but at the December 2019 general election he secured a strong democratic mandate, condemning the opposition Labour Party to its worst defeat since 1935.
What can the bishops boast in comparison? They cling on to the status of being the Established Church despite having neither biblical, nor moral, nor numerical grounds for retaining such a medieval anomaly. Attendances at ordinary Sunday services in 2019 were 756,000 out of an English population of 56 millions, barely more than 1% of the population. How can a church not attended by more than 98% of the population claim to be the church of the nation?
The Church of England is in terminal decline. There are stories that at least eight of its dioceses are insolvent. Its membership is elderly and not renewing itself. It is unknown to most of the population. Few people among the teenage population could name the Archbishop of Canterbury, let alone the bishop of the diocese in which they live,
The bishops presume to condemn Boris Johnson, but these same bishops were condemned in the Church Times by one of their own clergy Canon Angela Tilby. Writing of the Church of England’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, Canon Tilby said, “the Church’s position looks uncomfortably like moral cowardice.” Canon Tilby was of the opinion that the archbishops had done more to marginalise the church than the National Secular Society had done in generations, concluding that when the bishops allowed the doors to be reopened, she doesn’t think people will have forgotten what happened.
The bishops aren’t able to lead their own church. Their judgement of the leadership provided by those who command the support of millions is as convincing as an editorial by a Nineteenth Century West Cork newspaper.