Palaces and Paupers
by Paul Walker
We recently moved house. Going from a large clergy dwelling to a
small house was difficult for a family of five. What follows is a
reflection of an experience in England. I realise many readers come from
elsewhere in the world, but I suspect there are parallels.
The Church of England puts its clergy in large houses, so when a person
leaves its employ they are forced to downsize. This Church has to some
extent held on to medieval structures - and its properties show this.
Some bishops still live in palaces and the clergy often occupy houses
bigger than average. I�ve heard it argued that this is good because it
allows for a necessary study and a spare bedroom. But I suspect the truth
is that the Church still likes to think of itself as an important
institution - as it was in the past in Britain, where is still
"established", that is, part of the State's official mechanisms.
The Church nevertheless argues that it wants to work among the poor and
serve the less fortunate. I wonder just how useful large and imposing
houses are if the Church is trying to work among people for whom an extra
bedroom is a luxury beyond their wildest dreams. It seems to me that the
Church is interested in nothing of the sort.
This becomes clear if I consider its actions rather than its words. In
England the Church's resources seem to be put to work mainly among
wealthier people. For example, the highly successful and popular Alpha
Course began in a congregation in the most salubrious part of London. And
it is in communities such as this that it has found its natural home.
Likewise there has been a push to establish more Church schools, which
attract wealthier parents. They are prepared to jump through hoops to get
their children into these schools. I was Chairperson of the Board of
Governors of just such a school and also Vicar of the Church which met in
the school. Many people with little interest in Christianity were prepared
to put themselves through years of my sermons to keep their children in
The Churches also argues that, unlike other agencies, it is prepared to
have its clergy living in the poorest areas. Certainly some are prepared
to do so. Yet the reality is not quite as the Church would proclaim. I
live in the relatively poor town of Stockton-on-Tees in England. There,
all the clergy in the Church of England except one live in the more
pleasant suburbs, even if they work in the poorer parts.
This is all a far cry from Jesus of Nazareth. He worked in one small
area of Palestine. He doesn�t seem to have preached at all in the larger
towns where the wealthy, the naturally religious, or the influential
lived. Rather, he appears to have remained as poor as those among whom he
worked. He also criticised the system which made them poor.
At first his followers appear to have lived as he did - as itinerant
preachers and healers, sharing what little they had in their own homes.
However, with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the
fourth century, the Church began to see itself as an important element of
control within the state. A thousand years later it was the most powerful
organisation in the West.
Now, in the 21st century, the large houses, the palaces, and
the bishops who take their statutory places in England's House of Lords
all demonstrate to me that any pretence at getting back to Jesus' way of
life is just that - a pretence. The huge wealth and influence of the
world-wide Church seem to make the episcopal title of "servant of the
servants of God" ring somewhat hollow.
The Church was founded among the powerless. Yet over the millennia it
has gradually and deliberately gained social power and influence.
It seems to me that the shedding of such power may well be harder that
the gaining of it.