Just when I was enjoying blogging about atheism, the Church of England drags me back, with the news from its General Synod that women bishops are likely to be introduced in the near future without much of a nod to traditionalists.
This has evoked a letter from Reform, the Conservative Evangelical pressure group, signed by fifty incumbents of churches, and it is to this that I want to devote most of this post.
Don’t tell my wife, but when we were on honeymoon in Scotland, back in July 2008, I kept sneaking away to telephone friends in Forward in Faith asking about their reaction to the General Synod earlier that month. This, you may remember, was when the Synod first decided that any provision for opponents of women bishops would henceforward “be contained in a statutory national code of practice to which all concerned would be required to have regard”.
I think it is fair to say that they were in a state of shock. Assurances given in 1993 had just been reneged on by the new generation of Anglican ‘politicos’, who were quite happy to say (as they said to me) that a promise made by an earlier generation could not be binding on the next.
That being the case, those to whom the new assurances were being given (by the same betrayers!) were understandably doubtful about codes of practice to which people would be “required to have regard” (rather than, for example, —in the spirit of earlier Anglican regulations —being required to keep them on pain of death and the confiscation of their goods).
Thus, in July 2008, the fact that they had been treated so badly by ostensibly fellow Christians had induced something like paralysis in the traditionalist camp, and from where I was in Scotland, on the end of a mobile phone, it was hard to do more than sympathize.
Nevertheless, I did offer a practical plan and it was this: first, the ‘Flying Bishops’, along with the Bishop of Fulham, should immediately announce that, as a matter of pastoral responsibility, they would under no circumstances abandon the flocks under their present care. If the Synod ‘abolished’ them, they would simply carry on, and if one of them died, they would consecrate another. Secondly, the Conservative Evangelicals should immediately approach the Anglo-Catholics, apologise for being nasty about them, and ask if they would very kindly consecrate one of their number as a Conservative Evangelical bishop, under whose episcopal care they would then place themselves.
Well, neither of them happened. Instead, both Catholics and Evangelicals adopted a ‘wait and see’ policy. Unsurprisingly, what they saw was that those who disliked them intensely and didn’t care a fig about them remaining in the Church of England or leaving, carried on with the same ‘take no prisoners’ policies.
The last few months of procedural delay, when it looked like a ‘deal’ might be possible (to howls of ‘we’ve been betrayed, Synod promised’ from the betrayers), have proved to be a mirage of hope. We are now back where we were committed to be in July 2008, with the prospect that women bishops will arrive as early as 2012. (As an aside, we may note that despite their being possible in other parts of the Anglican Communion, there are in fact very few women in episcopal office. This being England, however, where bishops are appointed by committee, we may guarantee that the pressure will immediately be on to ‘balance’ the bench of Bishops with as many women as there are men, making England unlike any other part of the Communion in this regard —but that is by the by.)
In one important respect, however, we have moved on from 2008. I refer, of course, to the Pope’s offer of the Anglican Ordinariate. Like it or not, traditionalist Anglo-Catholics are faced with the choice whether to go or stay. The offer is tempting, but to the earlier paralysis it has now added a certain confusion. Nevertheless, it seems likely that some, at least, will go —and possibly some of the most vigorous.
That leaves a rump of Catholics and the Conservative Evangelicals. So what do the latter propose? Well, on a first reading of the letter from the 50, they propose leaving the Church of England and taking their ball with them.
Now at this point, I am curiously reminded of the incident in Mel Brooks’ film Blazing Saddles, where Bart, the black sheriff played by Cleavon Little, is confronted by the Johnson gang. Suddenly, in a stroke of genius, he wraps one arm round his own neck, pulls out his gun and, pointing it at his head, says in a low voice, “Hold it! Next man makes a move, the nigger gets it!”
“Hold it, men,” says Olson Johnson, “He’s not bluffing.” But the difference with Reform is that Sheriff Bart knew he was. What if Synod takes no notice? Who’re you going to shoot?
The Reform letter speaks about paying in £22 million to diocesan funds over ten years. That’s £2.2 million per year. That’s about five vicarages a year the Church of England needs to sell to cover the loss.
And they have contributed 180 ordinands — 18 a year, compared with the hundreds coming in from other sources.
OK, it’s a contribution. It may even, for those congregations, be a sacrificial level of giving. But will the Church of England miss them? More specifically, will those currently driving the agenda on women bishops be alarmed at the prospect of those most opposed leaving the Church of England in whatever is the opposite of droves to take their unwelcome views elsewhere?
Go ahead. Shoot.
Of course, there is another way —which goes back to plan A, above.
Several years ago, I was at the infamous Reform annual conference where the Revd Phillip Jensen spoke, in his usual robust terms, about spiritual prostitution in the Church of England. Later, in the question time, I made the suggestion that Reform churches ought to pass the so-called ‘Resolution C’, petitioning for episcopal ministry under the Act of Synod 1993. Phillip backed this up by saying to the assembly that they ought all to do it immediately, not least (as I recall him saying), “to make it clear you do not want women bishops.”
And here we are again, several years down the track, with very few Evangelical Resolution C parishes, women bishops hoving into view, and Reform threatening to shoot itself (as far as membership of the Church of England goes). Nice plan.
And the reason we haven’t got these Resolution C parishes is that, apparently, ‘half a cake is worse than none’ and ‘you’d have to have an Anglo-Catholic bishop’ (which is actually not true —read the words of the Act).
But there is still —just —time, if Reform have the guts for the solution, which is this: get an English bishop consecrated for the Conservative Evangelicals, and signal that, should the time come, it is his episcopal ministry, and his only, that you will accept. Stop all the talk about leaving and setting up your own alternative. Stay and fight.
Now some will say it would be illegal. Go and read the history of Anglo-Catholicism! Of course it is illegal. Anglo-Catholics went to prison for what they believed, put there by the prosecutions brought by those who wanted to keep the Church of England from their influence. They won. And they won because they had a coherent understanding of the Church and they were prepared to go to the wire for what they believed.
The current problem with Conservative Evangelicals is that, when it comes to their place in the Church of England, they have neither of the latter qualities.
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?” (Lk 14:31, NIV)
The first requirement for a good plan —is that you should have a good chance of winning. And as we know, it is who dares wins. Will we dare? We might still lose, but at least it won’t be as painful as shooting ourselves in the process.
Revd John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
10 February 2010
10 February 2010