In the last few days I have had reason to blog rather a lot on the subject of collegiality (click on the ‘label’ tag below for a list). As pointed out in my last post, however, this is no small matter.
Perhaps the most definitive document for the Church of England on the subject so far states that,
Episcopal collegiality exists to ensure the Church’s fidelity to the apostolic teaching and mission and to maintain the local church/diocese in fellowship – in communion – with the Church around the world today and the Church throughout the ages. (Bishops in Communion: Collegiality in the Service of the Koinonia of the Church [London: Church House Pub., 2000] 38)
Notice, being ‘in communion’ here does not mean ‘receiving the sacraments together’. That kind of ‘lowest common denominator’ approach is sometimes invoked, but according to Article XXVI of the Thirty-nine Articles, you can be ‘in communion’ in that sense with an evil minister who deserves to be deposed.
Rather, as the title of the above booklet suggests, ‘communion’ refers to the koinonia of ‘fellowship in the gospel’ – what the booklet calls the “apostolic teaching and mission”.
Furthermore, since faith, and therefore salvation , comes by hearing the word of God, collegiality is not about maintaining good manners amongst clergy but achieving what is often called the missio dei – the mission of God to the world.
And this is why the prevailing practice of ‘episcopal collegiality’, identified and largely condoned in the booklet, of bishops being free to dispute even quite fundamental doctrines, is such a serious matter.
As a result, it would seem that nothing short of ‘entryism’ is now taking place with regard to issues of marriage and sexuality. Indeed, we could find ourselves in the frankly ridiculous situation where the bishops of the Church of England are all theoretically ‘upholding’ what the Bishop of Salisbury deems the ‘current understanding’ of marriage, even whilst none of them actually believes in it personally.
It helpful, therefore, to remind ourselves that collegiality works vertically as well as horizontally. That is to say (as the same booklet briefly acknowledges), a ‘collegiality’ also exists between presbyters and the diocesan bishop.
The influential sixteenth century theologian, Richard Hooker, was a keen advocate of bishops, seeing them literally as God’s gift to the Church. Yet he was no believer in ‘my bishop, right or wrong’. Rather, in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, he sounded this cogent, if rather long and convoluted, warning:
... bishops, albeit they may avouch with conformity of truth that their authority hath thus descended even from the very apostles themselves, yet the absolute and everlasting continuance of it they cannot say that any command of the Lord doth enjoin; and therefore must acknowledge that the Church hath power by universal consent upon urgent cause to take it away, if thereunto she be constrained through the proud, tyrannical, and unreformable dealings of her bishops, whose regiment she hath thus long delighted in, because she hath found it good and requisite to be so governed. Wherefore lest bishops forget themselves, as if none on earth had authority to touch their states, let them continually bear in mind, that it is rather the force of custom, whereby the Church having so long found it good to continue under the regiment of her virtuous bishops, doth still uphold, maintain, and honour them in that respect, than that any such true and heavenly law can be shewed, by the evidence whereof it may of a truth appear that the Lord himself hath appointed presbyters for ever to be under the regiment of bishops, in what sort soever they behave themselves. Let this consideration be a bridle unto them, let it teach them not to disdain the advice of their presbyters, but to use their authority with so much the greater humility and moderation, as a sword which the Church hath power to take from them. (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, VII.v.8, emphasis mine)
The approach advocated in Bishops in Communion is that bishops must be free to act on individual conscience, even to the extent of disagreeing with established understandings, without this breaching their collective collegiality.
They ought not to be surprised, however, to find that this does not apply to their collegiality with their presbyters. And there is a simple reason for this.
In the Church of England, presbyters differ from bishops in the very important regard that most presbyters are responsible for pastoring a segment of the Church through the weekly teaching of the word of God. Bishops are not.
Thus, although the bishop may have a ‘go anywhere’ expectation and ministry, the presbyter will not – and must not – have an ‘invite anyone’ attitude. Who gets to preach is a very important consideration in parish life because weekly preaching is one of the key means by which the sheep are fed.
Whilst it may therefore be possible for episcopal colleagues in the same diocese to disagree amicably about fundamentals, it is not so easy for presbyters to accommodate the ‘breadth’ of views. Parish ministry includes the pulpit, and in the pulpit one ceases to be a teacher in theory and becomes one in practice.
Furthermore, to be admitted to the pulpit is, in some sense, an endorsement of the person. Article XIX defines the Church as a congregation ... in the which the pure Word of God is preached”. We are this right to be careful whom we admit as preachers. And this brings up back to the issue of koinonia and collegiality.
Collegiality is designed to preserve koinonia with the Apostolic teaching and mission. Thus the boundary of collegiality is reached when the Apostolic teaching and mission is threatened and koinonia is thus breached.
But as Hooker points out, bishops cannot ignore their presbyters in this regard, and presbyters are not under obligation to remain in submission to their bishops “in what sort soever they behave themselves”.
Yet the Bishop of Salisbury described his recent meeting with a delegation of his ‘presbyters’ as “open and robust” – and we can all guess what that means, especially when he acknowledges that one of the issues he faces with them is “profound disagreement about the definition of marriage”.
By any measure, therefore, the vertical dimension of collegiality in the diocese of Salisbury has been put under considerable strain. And we may reasonably ask whether the same is not about to happen regarding the appointment as Bishop of Croydon of a man with similar views to the Bishop of Salilsbury.
What those involved in these appointments ought to note is that whilst they may assume that horizontal bishop-to-bishop collegiality remains intact, vertical, presbyter-to-bishop collegiality may well be broken.
For this is not simply a matter of private judgement. The new bishops are consciously and deliberately in disagreement with, and prior to their appointment have been actively opposing, the established teaching of the Church.
Any presbyters who uphold the ‘current understanding’ of marriage are not setting themselves up against the bishop – rather the reverse. And if collegiality with him is therefore broken, it is the bishop who broke it.
What these presbyters then decide to do is problematic in the present circumstances. That they would be entitled to do something, however, would seem to have the tacit support of at least Richard Hooker.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: