Late on Monday evening, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to take away my bishop. Not only mine, of course — they voted to take away all the Provincial Episcopal Visitors from the parishes which have enjoyed their ministry in the last few years.
That is something the Synod has the privilege and the power to do. And in many people’s eyes it has struck one of the last necessary blows for human dignity, comparable (according to recent interviewees) to the end of slavery or racial discrimination.
They may, of course be right. But then again, they may not. Certainly great swathes of the church across time and space have thought so. Indeed, very substantial numbers currently in the Church of England think that way also.
And this is why the decision by the General Synod is problematic, for despite clear warnings in the Bishop of Manchester’s report that such a decision would plunge the Church of England into “a period of uncertainty and turbulence”, the Synod has taken the Church down a path which will leave it, again according to the Manchester Report,“possibly be more cohesive ... undoubtedly ... less theologically diverse” and almost certainly smaller.
What, then, is to be done?
There are times in human affairs when humble obedience, even to bad rulers, is the right approach. The Church of England’s own formularies make much of this in the Homily Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion. However, the argument within this homily is based on the principle that the Church is not to be ruled in this way by its own ministers. On the contrary:
Our Saviour Christ likewise teaching by his doctrine that his Kingdom was not of this world (Matthew 27.11, Luke 23.3), did by his example in fleeing from those that would have made him king, confirm the same (John 6.15, 18, 36): expressly also forbidding his Apostles, and by them the whole Clergy, all princely dominion over people and Nations, and he and his holy Apostles likewise, namely Peter and Paul, did forbid unto all Ecclesiastical ministers, dominion over the Church of Christ (Matthew 20.25, Mark 10.42, Luke 22.25).
Anglicanism is indeed an odd beast! Asked whether the Apostles had a God-given authority to make bishops, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer answered that,
In the apostles’ time ... forasmuch as the christian [sic] people had no sword nor governor amongst them, they were constrained of necessity to take such curates and priests as either they knew themselves to be meet thereunto, or else as were commended unto them by other that were so replete with the Spirit of God, with such knowledge in the profession of Christ, such wisdom, such conversation and counsel, that they ought even of very conscience to give credit unto them, and to accept such as by them were presented: and so sometime the apostles, and other, unto whom God had given abundantly his Spirit, sent or appointed ministers of God’s word; sometime the people did choose such as they thought meet thereunto; and when any were appointed or sent by the apostles or other, the people of their own voluntary will with thanks did accept them; not for the supremity, impery [sic], or dominion that the apostles had over them to command, as their princes or masters; but as good people, ready to obey the advice of good counsellors, and to accept any thing that was necessary for their edification and benefit. (‘Questions and Answers Concerning the Sacraments and the Appointment and Power of Bishops and Priests’ in Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer, Ed J E B Cox, Cambridge: The Parker Society, 1846, reproduced by Regent College Publishing)
In other words, before the advent of godly princes (such as Henry VIII and, more plausibly, Edward VI), the Church accepted ministers appointed by the Apostles as one might accept the good advice of a godly friend, but not because the Apostles could order them to do so.
Now of course, we are not in the time of the Apostles. But the important difference, according to Cranmer, is chiefly this: what we have today is the authority of the Crown, imposed through the laws of the land, which may compel a congregation to accept the minister appointed to them by the bishop.
What this means, however, is to refuse such an appointment is therefore to challenge the authority not of the Church but of the Crown. It is an act of rebellion, not blasphemy or heresy.
So when the General Synod orders me to give up my bishop I ought, as an Anglican, to hear and obey because I am loyal to Queen Elizabeth II, not because the Synod has in itself any power to do so.
However, as any study of history will show. There are times when disobedience even to the civil authority becomes a necessary exercise of godliness. Sometimes, like Peter and John, we must say even to the properly constituted religious authorities, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God?”
We must not forget that the Church of England has regularly in the past been on the side of oppressing those who wanted to express their religion freely. As one writer observed (I cannot locate the quotation, but remember it well), it was the Church of England which, due to its intransigence, virtually single handedly created Nonconformity. He might have added, and much of American religion too. And just as the American War of Independence was justified by a lack of proper representation, so I would argue this move by the Synod to deprive me of a moral and spiritual entitlement justifies a rejection of this decision.
So here is what I suggest.
My bishop may — hopefully will — decide to stay in post, and I and our congregations (should they so choose) may stay under his oversight. If anyone objects, let us take it up with the Church’s Supreme Governor. I remain a faithful and loyal Anglican despite the obtuseness of the General Synod.
8 July 2008
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