Rev Dr Malcolm Brown

Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England

31 May 2013

Click here to download a PDF of the interview


This month SCPO took the opportunity to meet with Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, who was visiting the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland as an ecumenical delegate representing the Church of England.  Malcolm is the Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops' Council of the Church of England.  Leading a team of 16 dealing with "the relationship of the Church at national level to bodies outside itself", his remit is wide and varied:  "we have the Church's Parliamentary unit as part of my team, we created that about 4 years ago, which is about relating to both Houses of Parliament, but we have a particular role of course with the Bishops in the Lords, and we've been trying to resource them better through the parliamentary unit."  Malcolm's team also has a group of ethicists, with specialists in medical ethics, international affairs, home affairs (including criminal justice), and economics.   There is also work on-going on black and minority ethnic issues, climate change and interfaith affairs - and all of these issues only cover the 'public affairs' section of the team. "We have people working on mission at home, world mission, mission theology and so on, and rural affairs as well."   Whilst initially there had been concern about merging two very different departments, the Board of Social Responsibility and the Board of Mission, Malcolm reports that, even amongst those who may have had doubts, the merger has been judged to be working well: "it prompted us to see the public affairs work as missional.  We're trying to put a Christian ethical perspective into public debate on 101 different issues, and that perspective is increasingly at odds with the predominant culture of politics and society. … In the last ten or fifteen years our job has changed massively on the public affairs side, because we can't assume that basic understanding of what the Christian faith is about among politicians, senior civil servants, and movers and shakers generally. Whereas, not all that long ago, even if they didn't believe a word of it, they would have understood it, possibly because Sir Humphrey Appleby went to public school and had chapel foist on him daily."

Malcolm has been in the role for six years, but has a wealth of experience on which to draw, although it was not a career path which he would necessarily have envisioned when he was ordained 34 years ago: "it's one of those strange things. As a career unfolds, you begin to see patterns that you never chose, and one of the patterns that's been around for me for a very long time has been relating people's Christian faith to their working lives".  Prior to his ordination, he worked in the Seaman's Mission in Tilbury Docks, and then was an industrial missioner and involved in training industrial chaplains.  Malcolm's doctorate is in Christian ethics and economics, and he has also published several books on this topic.  So when he says modestly that he puts in "a certain amount of my own work in terms of the things I am equipped to do so" in addition to managing his team, he is certainly well equipped to make an informed and meaningful contribution. 

The next General Synod of the Church of England convenes in July, and Malcolm has been preparing a paper on welfare reform.  Explaining the Church of England's interest in the current welfare reforms, Malcolm explains that: "we've had a certain amount of pressure from members of Synod, because of course when welfare reform goes wrong, as I'm sure is the case for the Church of Scotland, the vicarage doorstep becomes the place of last resort for people, and of course we've been in discussions behind the scenes from before 2010 with ministers and civil servants at the DWP, although not always satisfactory discussions.  … there's quite an art to producing a report that won't be too partisan, and so it won't immediately provoke loads of amendments, trying to make the government's case for it; but says the things that need to be said.  I'm trying to dig back into the history of the Church of England's relationship with the welfare state to explain why we do actually have a commitment to welfare - and fascinatingly, it's not just about concern for the vulnerable, it's to do with what kind of a state can a Christian - who always has a higher allegiance- actually give their allegiance to?  So what we're going to do is a theological, philosophical paper backed up by a paper covering what the changes are, and what we know of their impact so far." 

As a first time attendee to the Church of Scotland's General Assembly, Malcolm was interested to see how the Kirk's decision making body compares with the Church of England's equivalent body, the General Synod, and he found that "there are some very familiar moments".  However, Malcolm was rather surprised by the daily ceremonial aspect to the General Assembly (the royally appointed Lord High Commissioner attends daily business as an observer): "far more pageantry than we have when the Queen herself comes in her normal frock and hat. She comes every five years to open Synod, because it runs for a five year period. If you do this every year, that's quite a lot of pageantry! I was really rather interested!" 

One of the more visible groups in the House of Lords are the Church of England Bishops, the Lords Spiritual, who afford the Church of England a unique role in the legislative process in the UK compared to other denominations.  This unique role is one aspect of the Church's work that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is keen to develop.  Malcolm is positive about the role that the Archbishop is playing in trying to "get the Church on the front foot in public debate, away from all of the toxic stuff on sexuality and gender."  The new Archbishop, was appointed to the Independent Commission on Banking Standards whilst he was the Bishop of Durham, which Malcolm believes has been a "massively influential start" to his contribution in the House of Lords:  "that's given him a wonderfully public pulpit on a subject where there's massive sympathy for the things he stands for.  So instead of it being the Church standing up against modernity in every shape and form, this is the Church articulating ordinary people's concerns, so that's just given him a jet-propelled start that is almost pure serendipity, but we really intend to build on that." The role of the Bishops is sometimes misunderstood, as people often assume that all 26 Bishops are in attendance every day - on a good day, there may be two or three: "they've all got day jobs!".  Possibly more interestingly, it is not unusual to see Bishops to support different sides on the same argument.  They do not vote en bloc, and are certainly not under any party whip.  Nonetheless, the mantra appears to be: "if you've got them, you better use them, that's the key.  Justin intends clearly to use all the opportunities we have as a church to say things into public debate that are worth saying, and to back that up with action where we can so it's not just words."

Malcolm paints a picture of a new and refreshing relationship between church staff (Church House) and the Archbishop's office (Lambeth Palace). "Justin is using us at Church House much more than anyone has before. You have this direct interaction… He's very very 'can-do' if something fits his programme."  The new Archbishop, who comes from a business background, is taking a very hands on approach to the job: "he's said many times, that in the Church of England we're very good at analysing why things don't work and why things aren't easy, but we're less good at coming up with solutions. Now that's a classic business-driven way of thinking.  My team's job will be to be able to do the theology and to come up with the relative five bullet points to put something into action as a result of that theology."  This is a new and different way of working to what has gone before, but Malcolm and his team are rising to the challenge.  However, Malcolm is sanguine about the extent to which there will be a radical change to business as usual: "The structures of the Church are always going to be a problem for anyone who wants to get things done. The Church of England is not a corporation that works as one body, it is a coalition that was designed as a coalition to prevent warring religious factions from killing each other. For 400 years or so, it's done fairly well and now there's the question as to how long it can hold together."  Keeping conflicting views together is the root of one of Malcolm's personal frustrations in the job, in that "sometimes the practical politics of that get a bit irksome, so I've had to appear in media opportunities saying things… I've never perjured myself but I've had to steer well clear of saying what I actually think, and that's a very subtle line. I've not lied, I've never supported anything I don't support, but I've not always said what I really think."  However, more concerning to Malcolm is the creeping secularisation of public life and debate, and an increasing sense of "how alien to much modern thought basic Christian concepts are.  Very rapidly we've moved from a position where people had at least a gentle sympathy for the Church's perspective even if they didn't believe a word of the religious stuff, we were given the benefit of the doubt on a lot of things as Christians, and there was a deep understanding that Christian understandings had shaped what most people take for granted in the structures of society around them.  Now, the default position is that all religion is bonkers, all religion is problematic; it is a very secular set of assumptions. It has left the majority of English people who are still quite well-disposed to the Church of England feeling that there's no way of articulating that albeit rather incoherent support, because there are some rather noisy voices both from the Christian right, and the atheist left right and centre, which are hogging the public space for debate."  Malcolm described a recent exchange at the Cambridge Union where he was debating the issue of same sex marriage, and realised that "the Christian perception of what makes a rich, functioning society, which is something more than atomised individualism based on consumerist understandings of lifestyle choice" was a concept which just wasn't countenanced by the majority of the audience. Malcolm remarked: "I don't think I've ever been quite so demoralised as by that realisation."

However, although he may feel demoralised on the one hand, on the other, Malcolm has much to be thankful for.  He is obviously enthused by the opportunities presented by working for a new Archbishop, and the new way of working that this is presenting.  His team also continue to delight him:  "the fact is that people with considerable skills, that are marketable in the world, have chosen to use their skills for the service for the Church of England in my team.  I'm really proud of that."