What are conservative Evangelicals to do about the new shape of the Church of England which is likely to emerge from the current debate on women bishops? That, it seems to me, is an increasingly urgent question, and yet it is one to which very few practical answers have been offered.
We could battle on through the Synodical process, but the problem with this tactic is that it relies too much on other people doing what we want. We could leave (or threaten to), but the problem there is that we would be doing exactly what other people want from us. Yet we cannot afford simply to carry on as we are.
I want to suggest that an important course of action presents itself when we consider the nature of episcopal ministry itself. What bishops can do, amongst other things, is give local congregations a sense of belonging to a larger and coordinated whole — a network of congregations which care about one another and which are mutually supportive.
Unfortunately, such networks are entirely lacking amongst conservative Evangelicals, with the result that our people are often unaware of the wider issues in the Church, whilst the clergy are battling on isolated and unaided.
Yet if we had the kind of bishops we would prefer, this is surely one of the impacts we would want them to have — strengthening the bonds of fellowship between congregations and encouraging ministers in their local work.
This is not, of course, how our existing bishops currently operate, but it is, I would suggest, part of the nature of ‘episcopal’ ministry. And although there is increasingly little chance of conservative Evangelicals being appointed to the bench of bishops, there is no reason at all why they should not develop networks of mutual support which supply what is lacking in the current situation.
One of our problems, for example, is that we do not have networks of congregations. Ministers get together. They join various organizations and see one another at conferences and so on, but our people have almost no awareness of this. For them, the parish boundary, or the local congregational membership, is the limit of their entire world.
Why not, therefore, invite those we know from our clergy networks to preach in our own pulpits? That way, our people would become aware of these other clergy and their congregations. They might hear some of the news from these far-off places and they might, incidentally, begin to appreciate that the doctrines preached by their own ministers are not just personal eccentricities.
This might be particularly important with respect to the larger churches. I have heard it suggested that ‘when the time comes’, conservative Evangelicals ought to create new episcopal structures centred around the senior ministers who staff these ‘flagship’ congregations.
That may or may not be the best approach, but it is worth reminding ourselves that episcopal ministry ought, first and foremost, to be a teaching ministry. Therefore, if these senior ministers are to exercise an ‘episcopal’ role, they ought to be released from their local pulpit to go and preach in other congregations in order to create and sustain the necessary networks.
At the same time, it would be very good if some of the ministers in the smaller congregations were invited to speak from the ‘flagship’ pulpits. It would be a great encouragement to them, and it would also be a great opportunity for those larger churches to be less insular and inward-looking than they often currently are.
It has been observed more than once that trying to organize conservative Evangelicals is like trying to herd cats. The ethos amongst the clergy is summed up in the words of the old song: “You in your small corner, and I in mine.” And that is how we often prefer things, not least because we are protective and defensive. (It reminds me of the person who jokingly said, “There’s only me and Dick Lucas left, and I’m worried about Dick.”)
The pulpit exchange could be a very powerful force for the good of our constituency, if only we will make the effort to start organizing along these lines. In particular, it has the advantage of being based in what we claim to value most, namely the ministry of the word. It would not ‘solve’ all our problems — nothing ever will. But it would certainly address our isolationism and, not least, our sheer unfamiliarity with the idea that there is a wider church out there.
So who is up for it?
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.
11 July 2010
11 July 2010