Sunday, 6 May 2012

Southwark, 'suspensions' and the authority of the Word

The case of a lay-reader "asked to refrain from ministry" in the diocese of Southwark following (apparently) his suggestion that people might sign the Coalition for Marriage petition will, I suspect, add fuel to the flames in that already unhappy diocese.

I have refrained from comment until now, since it is often wise to wait until the facts are a bit more clear. One of my linked blogs now carries a statement from the diocese, see here.

According to this, it is all about "disagreements within the parish concerning how some matters are handled" and is therefore about "matters of church order and authority during an interregnum."

And in a sense surely that is true. However, I wonder if 'the diocese' has got it right.

It is the task of the teaching office of the Church not only to teach the truth but, in the case of both bishops and priests, to "banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's Word".

As things stand at the moment, it is the prevailing view within the Church of England that -- to adopt a minimalist position -- God's Word on the subject of marriage is relatively clear. If there is dissent from that view in the congregation, it is therefore surely the task of the teaching office to correct it.

And this is where the question of authority comes in. My guess is that Mr Gowlland, whose ministry is now in temporarily in abeyance (the diocese are denying he has been suspended, which is true insofar as he is allowed to go anywhere but that church), was regarded by some in the congregation as lacking the authority to do what he did.

Hopefully that will be sorted out when the new incumbent arrives and, having the authority, sets about correcting any "erroneous and strange doctrines". However, I am reminded of a situation not a zillion miles from here, where a new incumbent with similarly 'unstrange' ideas on the topice of sex and marriage found himself facing difficulties in an ostensibly evangelical congregation.

At the moment, though, my question is simply this: what authority do Readers have as those licensed to preach God's Word? Is it confined to the pulpit, or might they have the authority of the Word in their wider ministry -- even, perhaps, in giving the notices?

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  1. It's a strange position being a Licensed Lay Reader (or Minister as they seem to be calling the office these days). Or even an Authorised Lay Minister.

    The Bishop (or perhaps the Arch Deacon) grants a license to minister within a Parish, under the Authority of the Incumbent. What happens when there is No Incumbent - does authority fall to the PCC or the Church Wardens?

    I know that in our diocese, Lay Ministers are no longer permitted to call the Banns, it must be either ordained clergy or a Bishop's Officer = The Church Warden. This apparently has something to do with the legality of the banns under the new marriage measure?

    I sense that in the case of this particular individual, there must have been some confusion about who had authorised his preaching on the particular chosen topic. I read somewhere that the PCC had agreed that he could adopt the line he took - if so, surely the problem lies with the PCC, not the Reader.

    It all seems a bit confused and messy. Whether or not you agree with the Reader's views and interpretation of what Marriage is, he has the right to hold those views and if so, to preach and teach them. I makes you wonder what else you are not allowed to preach about?

    Both the reader and the whole congregation need our prayers and tolerance to allow them to resolve the situation for the good of all.

  2. - But this view of yours, UKViewer, could be seen as involving the notion that the Reader (and all others) are (equally) free to express their ideas, their own ideas. But surely the Christian Church was not brought into existence so that there might be a forum in which everyone could express their own views. Everyone should be expressing the Christian view on each thing (actually, I think this Reader, in Southwark, was; it is the others (the local church hierarchy) that I would be uncertain about ...)

  3. John,
    You were right to wait before commenting. I have followed the dialogue on this quite closely and as far I can tell the problem seems to rest on the fact that the reader made an announcement during the notices regarding the C4M petition. Others in the church organisation during this interregnum, felt offended that they had not been consulted prior to the announcement.
    Typical of when the cats away the mice come out and make mischief. I'm in charge, No you’re not, You can't do that. Yes I can. You are right, if there had been a Vicar incumbent, this would not have happened.
    Such immature behaviour is not untypical from egotistic jumped up little mice, given an inch and they take a mile. The whole issue is something that would not have happened if they had all been loving Christians. Unfortunately the Church is full of Christians by virtue of tradition and not through a heart transformation.

  4. "Unfortunately the Church is full of Christians by virtue of tradition"

    Which by definition means they are not..

    Chris Bishop

  5. Surely the point is that the argument had two sides. By punishing the person defending marriage only a very clear message is sent. What is being done about the person who publically stated that there is room for a variety of views? Why have they not been disciplined?

    It smacks of the tactics of socialist states. This man and those watching are taught what views are not allowed. One re-instated he will think twice about defending marriage so publically.

    Methinks we can all see that the reality in this story...

    1. As I have read it as the story unfolded and I may be wrong, is that it was not the issue of C4M in exclusivity but that others did not like being not consulted beforehand.

    2. And on that basis the Archdeacon became involved and the Reader's ministry in this congregation was suspended? Surely a bit of a sledgehammer for a nut?

  6. There is something of the is ‘Is it because I is black?’ syndrome about some of these tales of Christian – or in this case conservative Christian – persecution. In the work place, from the 1970s onwards, there have been non-white staff who have on occasion used the race card as a means of suggesting persecution or discrimination when there might indeed be very good grounds for disciplining the member of staff. The same kind of mechanism seems to be happening in Christian circles.

    I think it is helpful sometimes to play the ‘reversal’ game. Hence let’s pretend that instead of this man being ‘suspended’ for encouraging parishioners to sign the C4M petition, he had in fact been ‘asked not to minister’ because he had been pushing a petition for SSM. Would it be seen that the diocese and church in question were acting ‘illegally’ (as far as canon law) goes? I very much doubt it, because the diocese and church would be doing something conservative Christians would approve of and hence the blogging sphere would quiet on the subject (tho’ perhaps AM might dabble in a little ‘victory of orthodoxy’ posting).

    By tradition, Justice is personified as blindfolded, she deals with facts rather than emotions and partisanship. The problem with so many of these ‘Is it becoz I is a conservative Christian’ tales of persecution, is that the facts are obscured by emotion and partisanship. And occasionally, even when the facts become known and the ‘conservative’ has actually acted inappropriately there can be a turning a blind eye and (to borrow (and paraphrase) from F. D. Roosevelt) a saying ‘He may be a b*stard, but he’s our bast*rd...’ – and we see Christian integrity fly out of the window as politics and partisanship obscure truth and justice...

  7. Canon E4 does not mention the notices. The generality is that they perform the parts of the service the minister has asked them to subject to exclusions re the administration of communion and the absolution. In the case of an interregnum responsibility for the conduct of the service passes to the churchwardens and readers are responsible to them. see

    West Yorkshire

  8. Perhaps the truth that emerges most clearly from this sad event is the question mark it raises over the whole "clergy/laity" divide. Did it really matter whether it was a 'Licensed Lay Reader' or indeed anybody else who sought to make a point about the Coalition for Marriage petition? (leaving aside perceived discourtesies or procedures in this specific incident).

    A notable N.T. scholar James G Dunn points out that it is this artificial divide which seriously distorts the Biblical and especially N.T view of what ministry is, and therefore one that needs to be challenged if the C of E is to engage with reform in reality. Here are some of his comments on the issue:
    "At a minimum, this (distinction) highlights the fact that traditional treatments on church practice are lop-sided. The “priesthood of all believers” is a field ripe for further investigation in the light of N.T. information.
    A distinctive of the N.T. is the complete absence from its pages of a distinction between ‘priest’ and ‘laity’, of the thought that some Christians may or must needs exercise a priesthood which is not the prerogative of others”. This N.T. viewpoint “marks it off from both the Old Testament and from what was subsequently to become the pattern of Catholic Christianity.
    Compared to the Jewish and Greco-Roman religions surrounding them, “the first Christian congregations were an oddity indeed – religious groups without priest or sacrifice”.
    In the third and fourth centuries a separate class of “clergy” was viewed as indispensable, but it “never occurred to the first Christian churches and writers that a priest was necessary for the functioning of a church as a church or desirable for its well-being” “Those who yearn for a priesthood of the old kind, like the order of Aaron, are in danger of falling back into the era of shadows and imperfection, and of losing the immediacy of that communion with God which it was Christ’s whole purpose to bring about”
    The emergence of a clergy-class also contributed to the mistaken notion that the Christian life was divided into two parts – the “sacred” and the “profane”. The N.T. concept of priesthood sees all Christians as offering “their lives in the ordinary physical involvement of everyday commerce and intercourse. The cult has been desacrilised...... but because of the traditional ideas connected to clergy functions, the mind-set persists that there are “holy” (sacred) and “ordinary” (profane) professions.

    When Clement resorted once again to the distinction between ‘priest’ and ‘laity’ (1 Clem.40:5), he was pointing down a road which would fundamentally compromise if not make a mere cipher of a very basic element in earliest Christianity’s self-understanding…. It is the apparent disregard for something quite so fundamental by subsequent Christian history that does more to undermine the canonical authority of the N.T. than most heresies….The major authority acknowledged by all Christians (the N.T.) has been effectively discounted and ignored." (New Testament Theology In Dialogue)

    If a scholar of Dunn's calibre sees much of the root of the prolem of the 'clergy/laity divide, perhaps the time is long overdue to re-visit the issue with a view to its abolition?
    Graham Wood

  9. '"Unfortunately the Church is full of Christians by virtue of tradition"
    'Which by definition means they are not..
    That depends on what you mean by "tradition".

  10. I can't speak for Anonymous but I meant that they had accepted Christianity through their parents or by social acquaintance or even through intellectualism. As for me, there is only one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ, called by the Holy Spirit and with a complete transformation of the inner man.

  11. Surely a case for a Sanderstead Ordinariate Exploration Group.

  12. To LBS,
    I think that what the original writer meant here was that 'tradition christians' are those who are of the view that going to church makes you a christian as going into a garage might make you a motor car.

    In the first case you can fool people but not God and in the second, you can't fool anyone at all.

    Chris Bishop