The answer, I am persuaded, is a lack of theological coherence and integrity, despite having Scripture, Creeds, Articles and Prayer Book. We are like Israel before Josiah’s reforms. The book of the Law is there, but it is gathering dust. We pay lip service to our history, and to historical formularies, but in practice they mean nothing.
You can say one thing and believe and do another as much as you like (provided, now, you accept the ordination and consecration of women) and there is no theoretical limit to the responsibilities you might be given or the promotion you might receive.
Occasionally I have a look to see how traffic has come to my blog, and if the source looks interesting I’ll nip over there and see what is going on. Thus earlier today I found myself on Bishop Alan’s Blog, run by Alan Wilson, the Area Bishop of Buckingham.
There I found a thread headed ‘A Church of Navel Gazers?’, which quoted approvingly an article from the Daily Mail which accused the Church of England of neglecting its real mission for all this stuff about women and gays. Why, the writer asked, couldn’t the Church just accept both and get on with the job? And Bishop Alan entirely agreed.
The problem is, though, it surely depends on your understanding of Church, and therefore on your understanding of controversies within the Church. If the Church is a ‘rainbow coalition’ of theologies where we focus on tackling social issues, then I can see the point of the Mail article. But if the Church is ‘the pillar and bulwark of the truth’ (and according to my computer Bible, the word ‘truth’ occurs in 237 verses in the NIV translation, beating the word ‘poor’ by 60), then the issues which divide us are ‘mission issues’ (including on mission to the poor).
With this in mind, I posted a comment on the Bishop’s Blog thus:
Here’s a question. What doctrinal standards are set by the church’s selection and appointments process, and what doctrinal checks are made by bishops when they carry out their episcopal reviews of clergy?
I know of clergy who don’t believe in the virgin birth, and/or the physical resurrection for starters.
Does a bishop ever ask his clergy, “What is your gospel? What is your understanding of Christ’s nature? What will happen to the world at its end?”
I have never been asked a doctrinal question by a bishop by way of inquiry into my doctrine or manner of life. Ever.
If such questions were asked, then some of these other problems might not be so urgent, for unity is found finally in truth, as the Bible says and the Prayer Book has us pray: “We humbly beseech thee most mercifully ... to receive these our prayers ... beseeching thee to inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord: And grant, that all they who do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity, and godly love.”
Where there is no agreement on the truth, there can be no unity. A divided Church needs to look to its doctrine, not to its divisions.
And here is Bishop Alan’s reply:
John, thanks for a sgnificant [sic] question that deserves an answer, though I’m not sure it will meet your particular requirements.
There are clergy, as you know, who are not Conservative Evangelicals, and since the 1860’s Clerical Subscription Acts there has been a formal degree of lattude [sic] to allow for honest divergence about epistemology and the meanngs [sic] of words. You may say Elizabeth I’s comment about “windowes into men's soules” has always, to a certain extent, applied. However, all clergy subscribe on every appointment and at ordination. Before ordination they are certified from their course or college in the form given in the ordination service. Before selection in this diocese we enquire as to their willingness to live according to Issues in Human Sexuality, and written assurance is sought and given in every sponsorship for which I am responsible. There is an issue about people’s integrity, of course, and we do not have an efficient thought police. You can challenge their integrity and they can challenge yours.
I am anxious that people who are appointed are people of faith. I don’t care whether they are high or low or Catholic or Evangelical, but I would be looking for people who bring faith to their work. My custom at interview is to give them a bible and five mnutes [sic] and tell them to get on with it. Usually appointment boards discover in this way what kind of a gospel people preach, and that is a significant question, surely, for any parsh ministry appointment.
Practce [sic] in different diocese may vary greatly, no doubt.
Finally I know what you mean about truth and unity, and on a human pelagian level, of course that will do. I need to say, however, that this is not a gnostic cult founded on propositonal [sic] truth. Unity is a gift of Christ arising uniquely from his blood shedding on the cross, not something you or I can create by signing up to checkboxes. I’m sure you didn't mean to imply otherwise.
Now I really can’t be bothered to unpick this, except to note that in our diocese there are clergy in active same-sex relationships who are deemed by our bishops to be adhering to Issues in Human Sexuality. It is so far from an adequate response, that it is simply not worth the effort. In any case, I think it is deeply patronising with its references to ‘thought police’ and pelagianism.
But it does confirm what I suspect — that our problem is not just of process but of principle. We are supposed to have standards. There ought to be some sense in which when you meet a member of the English clergy you can predict that he or she believes the Creeds in a way that corresponds more or less to their intention, and that they are not in significant conflict with the things they affirmed as bearing witness to the faith when they made their Declaration of Assent.
The trouble is, we know it isn’t true. Worst still, the bishops know it isn’t true. And worst of all, those they ordain and oversee know the bishops know it isn’t true. And so we collude in untruth.
Oddly enough, we are then divided.
10 July 2008