On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week I was at the Reform Conference in central London. OK, I missed Tuesday morning because I was the dentist's and a bit of Wednesday morning because I was - well, I was just late.
But I was there for most of it, and awake almost the whole of that time. So I was a bit surprised by this article in the Daily Telegraph. According to Jonathan Petre,
"Dozens of conservative parishes will start ordaining their own clergy in an open revolt against their bishops if the Church of England continues its liberal drift, the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned."
Now I'm not sure where the Archbishop got this information from, or who he is warning (unless Jonathan Petre meant to say, "the Archbishop of Canterbury was warned"), but apparently it had something to do with the conference I was on. The article continues,
"Dr Rowan Williams was told that evangelicals would increasingly defy Church rules and their own bishops by parachuting in outsiders to carry out irregular ordinations of 'orthodox' candidates.
"The warning came from Reform, a 1,700-strong evangelical network, which is setting up structures to allow it [to] operate as a resistance movement within the Church."
Now maybe I was asleep for longer than I thought, but I don't seem to remember anything about 'dozens of parishes' or 'parachuting bishops'. Nor was there anything in the formal motions passed by the conference to suggest any such thing was being planned.
Admittedly, there were indeed platform references to overseas bishops. But then there were also platform references to 'English solutions for English problems'. Platform speakers, however much they may concur with the aims and objectives of Reform, are entitled to their own opinions, as was ably demonstrated by the contrast between William Taylor's approach to reforming the Church of England from within the existing structures and Richard Coekin's approach 'from the edge'.
Even Rod Thomas, the chairman of Reform, was only expressing his personal opinions in the final address which is briefly quoted in the Daily Telegraph article. And the reason for this has to do with the nature of Reform as a group. Reform is not, we were reminded on more than one occasion, a body which tells its members what to do and then expects them to do it. Rather, Reform styles itself as a 'network' of the like-minded, which may occasionally make pronouncements (as per the Conference motions) and may occasionally come up with a co-ordinated initiative (as per the panel of reference), but doesn't demand, or expect, that its members march in step.
Now my own personal view is that this is a weakness. But precisely for that reason, the sort of scenario that Jonathan Petre seems to envisage being planned (a) isn't being planned and (b) couldn't happen - at least, not as a 'Reform' initiative which thereby committed dozens of parishes and hundreds of members to act. There are certainly initiatives by Reform members, but that is not the same as 'Reform'.
The outsider may wonder where this leaves Reform as an organized group. And it is, I suspect, the mistaken assumptions of outsiders that lead to articles like that in the Telegraph and the responses one sees on various blogs. (Why, I wonder, don't people ask before they post? Still, maybe that is a council of perfection.)
As to the Conference itself, for me it was a bit of a curate's egg - good in parts, but sometimes frustrating. The motions, I feel, rather reflect this. But on the question of whether overseas bishops will soon be parachuting into a dozen parishes near you ... I don't think so.
Revd John P Richardson
18 October 2007
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