An evening in a 'steeple house': Justin Welby and Christendom order

By Jill Segger
March 31, 2014

My forebears would have called the venue a "steeple house" and the multitude of participating clerics "hireling shepherds and prayer-book men."

These are rather unkind words to use in relation to the event which took place in Bury St Edmunds Cathedral on 29 March and to which I appreciated my invitation. Nonetheless, I am left wondering whether those 17th century 'Seekers after Truth' might still have something to say to us about faith communities and the institutions of power.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was the preacher at a Choral Evensong celebrating the centenary of the founding of the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. Together with the Clerk of our Area Meeting, I was ushered to a seat in the north aisle which appeared to be the area reserved for Dissenters.

Cathedrals do these things rather well. The opening organ music was timed to the second and at exactly the appointed time, a long and stately procession entered by the west door. Here was the Establishment on parade: Christendom order confidently displayed for the comfort of the Great and Good. Among the clergy and visiting bishops in their finery, were judges, bewigged and costumed in 18th century style. Chains of office were much in evidence and magenta-robed men (it was all rather male) bore a variety of symbolic staffs, ranging from substantial maces to dainty wands.

The Dean – the only woman with any significant visibility in the whole proceedings – welcomed us, the choir sang and chanted, scriptures were read, prayers intoned and hymns sung. The Archbishop was escorted to the pulpit by a mace-bearer and began his address.

Justin Welby speaks well. He is direct, has a human register and a dry, self-deprecating wit. His theme was that of Christians fearing decline and marginalisation. Drawing on Isaiah's description of Israel scattered, exiled and surrounded by a culture which had defeated them, seemed incongruous amid so much confident ceremonial and evidence of embedded privilege. But the Archbishop enlarged upon his idea with a logic which was understandable and at times, inspiring.

The smouldering flax would not be quenched nor the bruised reed broken, he told his listeners, if we would trust in the love of God personified in Jesus. This is the language of the evangelical, calling on prayer and scripture for personal salvation. It was right that he should speak thus, being true to his own beliefs and speaking principally to those who look to him for leadership. That it rang a little oddly to a couple of Quakers is not significant in the context. I read him too, as a man who would listen with respectful attention to a critique from the Peculiar People tucked away just behind his pulpit, were he to hear it.

He developed his thesis by reference to the church engaging in the community of its diocese, telling of the Street Pastors of Ipswich and of a rural church which had reached out to its local community, “In spirit-filled imagination and co-operation with the local authorities. Doing what the church should do by making the building serve the church, not the other way around”. He spoke of the church having the capacity to “mend broken marriages and renew hope”, of the “challenge of discipleship” and of a “flourishing church renewing society”.

“Full churches don't fall down” he declared. It would be difficult to argue with that. But the event of which Justin Welby was the centre that evening is also indicative of why the buildings of the Church of England are not full outside such set-piece occasions. This will not change if the smouldering flax of the pre-Christendom vision I sensed in the Archbishop's words is quenched by the continuance of Establishment thinking and practice.

In the presence of Peers, MPs, judges, colonels and civic dignitaries, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a man with the grime of the carpenter's bench upon him entering the cathedral without a colour-coded ticket. It seemed probable that one of the staff-bearers would have escorted him politely towards the exit.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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.