The other day (as you do) I wandered over to the ‘Thinking Anglicans’ website to see what Anglicans were thinking about. Apparently it is women bishops and same-sex marriage (or for tweeters out there #WomenBishops and #gaymarriage).
Actually, you might well get the same impression reading this blog, though in fairness to myself I would point out that when I try posting on other topics the rate of hits goes down and vice versa (on the day of the women bishops vote, there were over eight hundred hits before I even posted anything), so perhaps the problem is also the readership.
But what should Anglicans be thinking about? Or to what will their thoughts turn when we have bishops who are women (and same-sex marriages at least in some denominations)?
I doubt whether it will be what they were thinking about towards the end of the Second World War, namely the conversion of England. As some readers of this blog will be aware, I have gone on at considerable length about the report Towards the Conversion of England and have posted extracts here so people can read it for themselves.
Indeed, I could genuinely claim that this report provides the framework for everything I am trying to do via the blog and my other involvements. My personal dream would be ‘every parish an evangelizing parish’.
And that is why the present debate about the gender of our bishops has to be seen as a distraction.
Please note, however, my careful choice of words. I am referring to the present debate, not all debate. There are perfectly good grounds for debating the role or otherwise of women in the episcopate, but in the present situation in the Church of England, our troubles will not be resolved either way by settling this issue, whether to the satisfaction of some or of all.
The Church of England has only ever had male bishops, and until 1993 only had male incumbents, but for several decades (at least) it has failed to be an evangelizing body, or even to uphold the core truths of the gospel.
Consider what Towards the Conversion of England had to say about the state of the Church of England in 1945:
In view of the immense opportunities open to parochial evangelism, it is alarming to discover how few of the clergy have been given any training in the work of an evangelist, such as in the art of preaching or of personal dealing with enquirers; how few, again, have been used of God to bring a soul to new birth ... (98)
The ignorance of the Bible to-day, not only in the ranks of the laity but also amongst many of the clergy (and particularly the younger clergy) is really horrifying. Yet there is nothing more vital for the work of evangelism. The Bible contains the title deeds of our Faith. How many priests, to-day, by pointing to passages and verses from the Holy Scriptures, can bring that assurance of salvation to enquirers which our Bible-loving forefathers were able to mediate to countless multitudes? (100)
Indeed earlier on the report makes this damning observation:
... the Church is ill-equipped for its unparalleled task and opportunity. The laity complain of a lack of creative leadership among all ranks of the clergy. The spiritual resources of the worshipping community are at a low ebb. Above all, the Church has become confused and uncertain in the proclamation of its message, and its life has ceased to reflect clearly the truth of the Gospel. (6)
Yet that was the situation with an all-male clergy and all-male bishops. And whilst it might be objected that little has changed today, clearly gender is absolutely no guarantee of evangelistic endeavour.
And here is another point to recognize. If that is still the situation in much of the Church of England today, creating and maintaining all-male enclaves of ministry and episcopal oversight, far from transforming matters may actually make them worse.
But what have bishops got to do with it? Some critics of Conservative Evangelicals have rightly observed that until they were threatened with women in the role, they rather preferred to ignore bishops entirely. And that is true. But the answer is not to carry on ignoring them.
Another book that I believe should be on the shelf of every bishop is that by the Rt Revd Samson Mwaluda, Bishop of Taita Taveta in Kenya, titled Reorienting a Church for Accelerated Growth (Nairobi: Uzima, 2003). In it, Mwaluda points out,
Our experience in Kenya, as in many parts of the Anglican Church worldwide, is that the diocesan bishops [sic] leading rôle affects every aspect of the Church. I want to contend that one key factor in the reorientation of the Anglican Church in Taita Taveta for accelerated growth, is for the diocesan bishop to focus on his rôle as the chief teacher-evangelist.”(18)
Then he adds,
The Anglican Church, particularly in the West, is decreasing in areas where bishops undervalue evangelism and the teaching of the apostles’ doctrine. [...] Anglicanism is growing quickly where bishops are vision bearing evangelist-teachers ... (19)
And this is surely the crucial point — not just about bishops but about the Church of England. According to the latest census figures, nominal Christianity has fallen by about 10% in ten years. That is not a decline, it is free-fall. And that has taken place whilst the majority of the population have, I would suggest, been indifferent to the Church’s disputes about the gender of its bishops or its attitude to homosexuality. (And furthermore it is during a period when women vicars have become widely accepted as normal. The Vicar of Dibley, which initially relied on the ‘novelty factor’, first aired in 1994.)
I don’t know how many contributors to Towards the Conversion of England are still alive (and I would very much like to contact any who are), but they must be amongst the most disappointed people in Christendom.
But as Mwaluda suggests, we do not have to look far to find one area we might address, yet which has been almost entirely ignored, and that is the attitude of our clergy in general and our bishops in particular, to evangelism and apostolic doctrine.
Towards the Conversion of England actually has some suggestions to make in this regard:
Any forward move ... in evangelism must begin with the clergy themselves, and with their coming together to gain a new liberation into the vision of the glory of God. Our first recommendation as a Commission is that the Bishops (if they have not already done so) should arrange for gatherings of their clergy for this purpose. (90)
That was in 1945. Yet what bishop has done so? I am not saying there are none, but certainly none under whom I have served (which is several). Indeed in all my thirty six years (almost to the day) in ordained ministry, none of those bishops has tested me on my understanding of any theological issue whatsoever, let alone the gospel itself.
There aren’t even questions asked during the process of Episcopal Review. Yet surely the most basic question that ought to be asked regularly of all clergy is ‘What do you preach and what do you teach?’
And this is where we come to the bishops themselves.
Bishops are the overseers of the shepherds and the guardians of the gospel. I feel no embarrassment in making that statement. That is why we have them and that is, first and foremost, what they are supposed to do. If they don’t do it, no one else will or can.
So the first question that should be asked of any candidate to the episcopate is the one they themselves ought to ask regularly of those under their charge: ‘What gospel do you preach and what gospel do you teach?’
Actually, I do know a suffragan bishop who, in his interview, was asked almost exactly this, and I was very impressed by the fact. (I don’t know his answer, but I am glad the question was put.) Yet if you look at the preaching and teaching, or simply the priorities of bishops, you do wonder what they feel about the Apostle Paul’s charge to the Corinthians:
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures ... (1 Cor 15:1-3, NKJV)
Now whenever I post this, someone always objects ‘What about the resurrection?’ And indeed the resurrection is there in Paul’s preaching. But the crucifixion is the horse that pulls the cart, as we see elsewhere not least in the words of Jesus himself:
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45, NKJV)
But the important word in what Paul has to say, as far as our present debate is concerned, is the word ‘if’; as in ‘the gospel ... by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you’.
For the Apostle views life in these terms: that the only guarantee of salvation is to hold fast to the word of the gospel, of which the first and key element is that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (which means, incidentally, as a ‘penal substitutionary’ sacrifice — try Numbers 8:15-18 for a change and Article II).
This concern — this gospel — is what should be at the forefront of episcopal ministry. Every bishop should believe that the word of the gospel begins with Christ’s death for sins, scripturally understood, and only if people believe and hold fast to this can we be sure of their salvation from the coming wrath of God.
And every bishop should ensure, as far as possible, that the clergy under his — or her — charge, who hold his or her license, believe, preach and teach the same.
Whether and how that can be the case is the real debate we should be having and which we are yet to have. Who are the bishops who believe this, and who are the candidates for the episcopate who believe it?
Without that, we will never be the Church which Christ builds and whose prevailing against the gates of hell he guarantees.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: