Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Which of our bishops are guarding the gates?

Back in the mid-1980s, I was at St Helen’s Bishopsgate for the Evangelical Ministry Assembly at which the Revd Phillip Jensen gave a rollicking series of talks on ‘A Ministry that Changes the Church’.
Certainly these talks changed me, for they restored my lost confidence in parish ministry. However, there was one thing in what he said which has, I think, been very unhelpful for the church in this country, and that was his memorable use of the phrase, “Bishops are deacons and priests are bishops.”
It is not the second part of this phrase that bothers me. There is a widespread acknowledgement, going back to Archbishop Cranmer and beyond, that the ‘presbuteroi’ (for which read ‘priests’) of the New Testament church can be identified with the ‘episkopoi’ of the same (for which read ‘bishops’). And in a world where priests are being expected to become ‘managers’ of groups of parishes, their office is (or ought to be) becoming more consciously ‘episcopal’.
No, the problem lies in the first statement: “Bishops are deacons”, which Phillip argued on the basis that they spend most of their time on ‘admin’, like a deacon, and almost none on preaching, teaching and evangelism, which is the ‘front line’ work of the church (as, I would suggest, the Apostles understood things in Acts 6).
Understandably, the line played very well to a Conservative Evangelical audience. It was what we wanted to hear, and it was true to our experience. Nevertheless, I believe it has left a dangerous legacy, not least because it is so memorable. Thus I continue to hear the same view asserted in the same circles, yet I look around the world —indeed, I look at Sydney itself —and I see remarkable things happening where there is effective episcopal leadership.
Virtually all of these examples come from overseas, I am sorry to say. But there is one area even in England where the work of a bishop is unique and powerful in its effects, and that is in being the gatekeeper for the church’s ministry. It is the bishops who, in the Church of England, are those who, as Article XXIII carefully puts it, “have public authority given unto them in the congregation to call and send ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.”
It is therefore the bishops’ responsibility to make sure that these ministers are suitable for the job. At their ordination as priests, the bishop is to ask the archdeacon, presenting the candidates, whether they have been examined as to the soundness of their learning and the godliness of their manner of life —and the archdeacon is to answer in the affirmative!
The question that must be asked, however, is whether this is happening — or to put it another way, whether the necessary questions are being asked.
This is very important when we consider the way ahead for the Church of England at this present time. Since October, it is certain that it will lose some of its most ardent traditionalist Anglo-Catholics. Meanwhile, the ‘evangelicals’ are so divided amongst themselves that the word has ceased to have much use. (I have heard just recently that one evangelical patronage society is now requiring candidates to affirm explicitly that they will teach the traditional view of human sexuality, having been caught out on more than one occasion by appointees who subsequently did not.)
Meanwhile, it is also certain that at some stage in the near future the church will have women bishops, and although this is supported by some within even the traditionalist evangelical camp, it is strongly advocated by the liberals, from whose ranks many of the women bishops will undoubtedly be drawn.
In the face of this, I have been advocating that traditionalists should orientate not around a redefined evangelicalism or a renewed catholicism, but around a reasserted Anglicanism, which takes full advantage of the ‘privileging’ in the Canons and in law of the doctrines of Scripture expressed in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. (This is not, incidentally, to ignore the teachings of the ancient Fathers and the Councils of the Church, to which reference is also made in Canon A5. But those sources are complex and require a considerable breadth of reading, as well as discernment as to what is, indeed, a teaching agreeable to the scriptures, whereas the Articles, Prayer Book and Ordinal are succinct and readily available, not least in many of our parish churches. It is, moreover, the Articles, Prayer Book and Ordinal which give the Church of England its uniqueness, through those things which, as the Prayer Book itself says, apply “to our own people only”.)
This strategy, however, admits of a certain risk. It would involved, for example, acknowledging that as per the spirit of Article XXXVI, those women who are ordained as deacons and priests or consecrated as bishops are to be deemed “rightly, orderly, and lawfully consecrated or ordered.”
The ‘trade off’ is that all the Church’s deacons, priests and bishops abide by the spirit and letter of Canon A5. And if their knowledge of the fathers and the councils is not all it might be, they at least be committed to the positions on the teachings of Scripture expressed in the Articles, Prayer Book and Ordinal.
For that to happen, however, questions must be asked, and satisfactory answers must be given according to this standard. And this is where the bishops come in —or ought to, for I am left wondering just who is taking on this responsibility.
Personally, I have never, ever, been examined as to what I believe by any bishop. Nor is it clear to me what standards, if any, our bishops apply via their supervision of theological education, other than a broad-brush belief in ‘God and Jesus’. Certainly when one looks at the teaching programmes of the various colleges and courses, both for clergy and for laity, the one thing that becomes clear is that nothing is clear when it comes to what the Church of England expects people to believe.
If the bishops are acting as the gatekeepers, it seems that the gate is very wide and the path very broad that leads to Anglican orders.
When I look at the Church of England today, I am reminded of the classic line by Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski: “Smokey, this is not ’Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.” The trouble is, the rules are being freely ignored on all sides. The catholics, and to some extent the evangelicals, ignore the liturgical rules; the evangelicals want to, and in some cases do, ignore the boundary rules; the liberals ignore the doctrinal rules. And the inevitable result is that what finally matters is power, and the power to enforce the rules upheld by those in power.
Thus we have a situation where many who are liberal in their convictions nevertheless want bishops to be thoroughly ‘catholic’ in their orders, appealing to the church Fathers regarding the nature and function of episcopacy, but entirely ignoring the Fathers when it comes to what bishops should believe, or require of their clergy that they should believe.
If there is to be some regaining of Anglican coherence, there needs to be some quid pro quo on those things which Anglicanism says defines Anglicanism. This does not need to be a rigid ‘work to rule’ approach. Indeed, those with any memory of this particular concept know that it was used precisely to stop any work being done. There needs to be a recognition of the difference between ‘core’ concepts and ‘peripheral’ matters —something which cannot be left to the lawyers. The problem is that, in terms of present discipline, it is the peripherals (namely ‘administrative’ rules) which are often treated as ‘core’ what should be at the core (namely faith and morals) which is treated as peripheral.
Addressing this is the challenge which I would argue faces the Church of England generally, and the ‘traditionalists’ within it particularly, since we are the ones who have lost most, and who have most further to lose, under the present arrangements.
Meanwhile, I would be interested to hear from contributors of their experiences of episcopal ‘gatekeeping’, where they themselves have been required to give an account of their beliefs to their bishop, and to show that they are abiding in doctrinal orthodoxy within the boundaries established by the Anglican formularies. Feel free to name names that should be on the episcopal wall of fame!
John Richardson
17 November 2009
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  1. It is difficult to form an evangelical theology of bishops because the role of the bishop did not develop until after the end of the apostolic era. I note that the ESV uses the term overseer. In 1 Timothy and Titus it is difficult to distinguish the various ministries. Still early church history shows us bishops of great authority which was exercised by preaching. I thought it was the archdeacon who had the administrative burden of protecting church property and bishops had a more spiritual role as chief pastor in canon law.

    I would have thought that prospective ordinands are examined quite enough - before training, during training, to be accepted by the diocese, to be accepted in the parish. The question is how. You cannot expect a bishop to demand of the candidate a faith more certain than his own.

  2. Church of England bishops in many cases have examining chaplains (or clergy with a similar title) who interview candidates for ordination and report to the bishop. I don't know how many candidates they recommend against ordaining, or how often a bishop agrees to such a recommendation (i.e. refuses to ordain someone who was about to be appointed as a curate and made deacon): rightly (in my view) that kind of thing is viewed as confidential.

    If John P. Richardson underwent NO kind of scrutiny in the diocese where he was ordained, then I suspect his experience was unusual--although as David says, the training process does incorporate elements of close examination of ordinands' beliefs. Bishops who have responsibility for hundreds of parishes, don't (I suspect) have as much time as they would like for ministering face-to-face to the clergy under their authority.

  3. Macca, in my days - and I'm sure beyond - DDOs did ask indeed ordination candidates about their beliefs. But the standards required from such inquiries can clearly be seen in the candidates who are finally put forward to be ordained, where we have everything from liberals to conservatives, via charismatics and mystics.

    This inquiry, in other words, is not the same thing as ensuring that candidates conform to the standards of historical, confessional, Anglicanism which they are nevertheless required to affirm at their ordination or licensing.

    I do, come to think of it, remember being asked at my interview for theological college what was my view of the Thirty-nine Articles, which fortunately I had read. I responded that I wasn't too sure about Article XXVII and the baptism of young children, to which the interviewer - one Dr George Carey - said a lot of people felt that way.

    Meanwhile, I imagine most dioceses have, like ours, a scheme of 'episcopal reviews' which take place a regular intervals. I have had several such. The standard form to be filled in asks nothing about what we believe doctrinally.

  4. F.A. Iremonger in his biography of William Temple (1948) writes of how Temple was turned down the first time he sought ordination, because he expressed uncertainty about the virgin birth. A year later he satisfied the Archbishop that his convictions on the matter were firm enough for him to be suitable for ordination.

    Things have changed since those days, and perhaps not for the better. Still, I suspect the reality of it is that today the right questions ARE asked of candidates for ordination, and the bishops (who have the responsibility: they lay hands on someone, or don't, and give them their title posts) are satisfied with weak answers in some cases.

    Probably Temple was lucky in being sent away to think for a year (or unlucky in not getting the job, if you look at it that way). He was a Fellow of an Oxford College and a philosophy teacher, so that he had a position in the world which (despite his youth) meant that the decision for or against ordaining him set an example. With most people who are ordained, the stakes can seem to be lower.

  5. Nobody is guarding Sewanee


  6. Having been through the selection and ordination process fairly recently, I can say that I was never asked about my beliefs on things like the virgin birth, the Trinity and so on. Nor, in my training, was there ever any suggestion that a particular view should be taken - as long as I could justify whatever position I took in the esssays I wrote.

    I was, however, asked by the DDO about sexual morality, on which my bishop takes a traditional, orthodox line. But another ordinand from my diocese, who openly lives in a same-sex partnership, was sent for training by said bishop - not because he himself had gone soft but because it was agreed between the ordinand and the DDO that this information didn't need to be passed on (it was the ordinand who told me this).

    My bishop would be livid if he knew, I'm sure. But it's not his orthodoxy that's at fault - it's his misplaced trust in the DDO.

  7. I was ordained in 2000 by Bishop John Hind (then in Europe, now at Chichester) - who examined me and my fellow ordinands vigorously on the Trinity and whether we held an objective view of the atonement (he didn't mind whether we held to penal substition, but it wouldn't do to say Jesus' death merely showed God's love or formed our characters as we thought of it). I was surprised, but pleasantly so.

    Andy Griffiths, Galleywood

  8. Laughing and scoffing is my (self-conscious and not so funny) cover and mask for deeper anguishes over the observations posted.

    D. Philip Veitch
    North Carolina, USA