What should bishops do when a bishop breaks ranks and violates the collegiality of the House of Bishops?
That would seem to be the question confronting the Church of England since the Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, apparently stated, in an interview with The Times, that he did not see any need to “sublimate” his support for same-sex marriage to the views of the Church.
Given the inevitable shortcomings of newspaper reporting, that may not be exactly what he said or exactly what he meant, but given also that there has been no refutation from him, for the moment we must assume this is the case.
When we speak about ‘the views of the Church’, however, we must take into account that since 1991 this has included Issues in Human Sexuality: A Statement by the House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England, which was followed up in 2003 by More Issues in Human Sexuality: A Guide to the Debate, which was a discussion document from the House of Bishops’ Group on Issues in Human Sexuality.
Both these document took an essentially conservative line, but the first in particular became notorious as the ‘fall back’ position for bishops under pressure. Like a PoW giving just his name, rank and number, any bishop who was pressed uncomfortably on his views about homosexuality would reply, “My position is to uphold the views expressed in Issues in Human Sexuality.”
Since The Times interview, however, this is apparently no longer the situation, for one bishop is prepared not just to state his support for same-sex marriage, but to advocate the case:
“Part of responsible leadership is having the vision, the sight, to see that’s where I want to go,” he told The Times.
And presumably he hopes to take much of the Church with him. So what are the other bishops to do?
First, it would seem, they can no longer use the ‘name, rank and number’ defence of Issues in Human Sexuality on the basis of collegiality. That is to say, they cannot cite the position of Issues in Human Sexuality as being the one they must uphold ‘as a bishop’ unless they are to embarrass the other bishops. Any reporter, synod member or individual faced with that response can simply reply, “That is not what the Bishop of Salisbury does, and obviously he’s a bishop. So what do you think?”
A bishop may, of course, still say that he holds to the position of Issues in Human Sexuality, but that now has to be a personal viewpoint only — not the collegiate position of the bishops.
Secondly, other bishops may take this as a cue to express their own doubts and disagreements about Issues in Human Sexuality. These are known to exist, not least in the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has so far used precisely the defence Nicholas Holtam now refutes. But there are others in the same position. Will they go with conscience now they can no longer go with collegiality?
Or thirdly, the bishops could insist that collegiality must nevertheless be maintained. Indeed, it may well be that moves are already under way, individually or collectively, to remind the Bishop of Salisbury of this principle.
However, the omens are not good. The Bishop of Sherborne, Graham Kings, who is the theological secretary of the evangelical group Fulcrum and nearest in administrative and physical terms to Nicholas Holtam, has expressed not only his support for an old friend but his ability to live with the differences between them at this point.
In response to a direct question from blogger David Ould, whilst stating that he disagreed with his diocesan, Bishop Kings nevertheless replied as follows:
We are new colleagues but old friends. We are committed to working together creatively even when we disagree. The position of the House of Bishops and the Church of England remains unchanged.
It is, however, the latter point which is in question. How can it be said that “The position of the House of Bishops ... remains unchanged” if bishops individually are free not to uphold that position?
Of course, it may be replied that the position is unchanged, in that bishops have always been free to disagree with it and to teach otherwise than what the House of Bishops’ statements maintain. But in that case we must ask what, if anything, is the significance of such statements and why have they held sway for so long?
And we must mention a name that, for the Crown Nominations Commission, must be taking on overtones of Lord Voldemort. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you — Jeffrey John.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: