Wednesday 10 February 2010

Reform's 'Blazing Saddles' moment

Just when I was enjoying blogging about atheism, the Church of England drags me back, with the news from its General Synod that women bishops are likely to be introduced in the near future without much of a nod to traditionalists.
This has evoked a letter from Reform, the Conservative Evangelical pressure group, signed by fifty incumbents of churches, and it is to this that I want to devote most of this post.
Don’t tell my wife, but when we were on honeymoon in Scotland, back in July 2008, I kept sneaking away to telephone friends in Forward in Faith asking about their reaction to the General Synod earlier that month. This, you may remember, was when the Synod first decided that any provision for opponents of women bishops would henceforward “be contained in a statutory national code of practice to which all concerned would be required to have regard”.
I think it is fair to say that they were in a state of shock. Assurances given in 1993 had just been reneged on by the new generation of Anglican ‘politicos’, who were quite happy to say (as they said to me) that a promise made by an earlier generation could not be binding on the next.
That being the case, those to whom the new assurances were being given (by the same betrayers!) were understandably doubtful about codes of practice to which people would be “required to have regard” (rather than, for example, —in the spirit of earlier Anglican regulations —being required to keep them on pain of death and the confiscation of their goods).
Thus, in July 2008, the fact that they had been treated so badly by ostensibly fellow Christians had induced something like paralysis in the traditionalist camp, and from where I was in Scotland, on the end of a mobile phone, it was hard to do more than sympathize.
Nevertheless, I did offer a practical plan and it was this: first, the ‘Flying Bishops’, along with the Bishop of Fulham, should immediately announce that, as a matter of pastoral responsibility, they would under no circumstances abandon the flocks under their present care. If the Synod ‘abolished’ them, they would simply carry on, and if one of them died, they would consecrate another. Secondly, the Conservative Evangelicals should immediately approach the Anglo-Catholics, apologise for being nasty about them, and ask if they would very kindly consecrate one of their number as a Conservative Evangelical bishop, under whose episcopal care they would then place themselves.
Well, neither of them happened. Instead, both Catholics and Evangelicals adopted a ‘wait and see’ policy. Unsurprisingly, what they saw was that those who disliked them intensely and didn’t care a fig about them remaining in the Church of England or leaving, carried on with the same ‘take no prisoners’ policies.
The last few months of procedural delay, when it looked like a ‘deal’ might be possible (to howls of ‘we’ve been betrayed, Synod promised’ from the betrayers), have proved to be a mirage of hope. We are now back where we were committed to be in July 2008, with the prospect that women bishops will arrive as early as 2012. (As an aside, we may note that despite their being possible in other parts of the Anglican Communion, there are in fact very few women in episcopal office. This being England, however, where bishops are appointed by committee, we may guarantee that the pressure will immediately be on to ‘balance’ the bench of Bishops with as many women as there are men, making England unlike any other part of the Communion in this regard —but that is by the by.)
In one important respect, however, we have moved on from 2008. I refer, of course, to the Pope’s offer of the Anglican Ordinariate. Like it or not, traditionalist Anglo-Catholics are faced with the choice whether to go or stay. The offer is tempting, but to the earlier paralysis it has now added a certain confusion. Nevertheless, it seems likely that some, at least, will go —and possibly some of the most vigorous.
That leaves a rump of Catholics and the Conservative Evangelicals. So what do the latter propose? Well, on a first reading of the letter from the 50, they propose leaving the Church of England and taking their ball with them.
Now at this point, I am curiously reminded of the incident in Mel Brooks’ film Blazing Saddles, where Bart, the black sheriff played by Cleavon Little, is confronted by the Johnson gang. Suddenly, in a stroke of genius, he wraps one arm round his own neck, pulls out his gun and, pointing it at his head, says in a low voice, “Hold it! Next man makes a move, the nigger gets it!”
“Hold it, men,” says Olson Johnson, “He’s not bluffing.” But the difference with Reform is that Sheriff Bart knew he was. What if Synod takes no notice? Who’re you going to shoot?
The Reform letter speaks about paying in £22 million to diocesan funds over ten years. That’s £2.2 million per year. That’s about five vicarages a year the Church of England needs to sell to cover the loss.
And they have contributed 180 ordinands — 18 a year, compared with the hundreds coming in from other sources.
OK, it’s a contribution. It may even, for those congregations, be a sacrificial level of giving. But will the Church of England miss them? More specifically, will those currently driving the agenda on women bishops be alarmed at the prospect of those most opposed leaving the Church of England in whatever is the opposite of droves to take their unwelcome views elsewhere?
Go ahead. Shoot.
Of course, there is another way —which goes back to plan A, above.
Several years ago, I was at the infamous Reform annual conference where the Revd Phillip Jensen spoke, in his usual robust terms, about spiritual prostitution in the Church of England. Later, in the question time, I made the suggestion that Reform churches ought to pass the so-called ‘Resolution C’, petitioning for episcopal ministry under the Act of Synod 1993. Phillip backed this up by saying to the assembly that they ought all to do it immediately, not least (as I recall him saying), “to make it clear you do not want women bishops.”
And here we are again, several years down the track, with very few Evangelical Resolution C parishes, women bishops hoving into view, and Reform threatening to shoot itself (as far as membership of the Church of England goes). Nice plan.
And the reason we haven’t got these Resolution C parishes is that, apparently, ‘half a cake is worse than none’ and ‘you’d have to have an Anglo-Catholic bishop’ (which is actually not true —read the words of the Act).
But there is still —just —time, if Reform have the guts for the solution, which is this: get an English bishop consecrated for the Conservative Evangelicals, and signal that, should the time come, it is his episcopal ministry, and his only, that you will accept. Stop all the talk about leaving and setting up your own alternative. Stay and fight.
Now some will say it would be illegal. Go and read the history of Anglo-Catholicism! Of course it is illegal. Anglo-Catholics went to prison for what they believed, put there by the prosecutions brought by those who wanted to keep the Church of England from their influence. They won. And they won because they had a coherent understanding of the Church and they were prepared to go to the wire for what they believed.
The current problem with Conservative Evangelicals is that, when it comes to their place in the Church of England, they have neither of the latter qualities.
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?” (Lk 14:31, NIV)
The first requirement for a good plan —is that you should have a good chance of winning. And as we know, it is who dares wins. Will we dare? We might still lose, but at least it won’t be as painful as shooting ourselves in the process.
Revd John Richardson
10 February 2010
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  1. John, your secret is safe with us...
    How about Bishop Michael N-A? Not in diocesan ministry any more and still trying to find a niche for himself - at least that was the impression I formed when he appeared in Westcliff on Sunday talking about Islam and other things, and answering a few questions. Barring Bishop Wallace or a suitable appointment to Chelmsford (as we discussed now some months ago), +Michael is the only hope.

    But we are, as you say, hopelessly unequipped for the fight. Still less are we united as to what we might do - on the assumption that only Reform-type evangelicals would join in anyway, we might have to recruit Baptists, Charismatics and anyone else prepared to get involved. The bible-believing voice in this country is far too fragmented to mean anything and far too afraid of the consequences to speak out.

  2. "+Michael" is no conservative evangelical - not at all.

    There are, though, a number of conservative evangelical bishops in continuing anglican style churches who would share ethos, approach, doctrine and much else (except for actually being 'in' the CofE) with Reform. Why not approach one of them and see whether there was a way forward for them like that?

    Two names spring to mind, Bishop Arthur Bentley-Taylor (brother of the current President of the FIEC), and Bishop Dominic Stockford. Bishops of the Evangelical Connexion of the Free Church of England. As an ex-Roman priest Bishop Stockford even has 'valid' orders in the eyes of the CofE. Reform and their ilk should start their search there rather than re-inventing the wheel.

  3. Dear John, This makes it sound as if there is a straight alternative between a Blazing Saddles moment and behaving like the Tractarians in seeking to 'win'? Is it really as simple as that and do we have to conceive of winning in denominational terms?

    Rod Thomas' letter seems to be descriptive as much as prescriptive. It is describing the likely behaviour of Reform churches in setting up charitable trusts to safeguard the future God willing of their gospel ministry. To a parish plodder like me, that sounds like quite an effective guerrilla strategy. Surely the precise future denominational affiliation of these churches is not as significant as the integrity and effectiveness of their ministry and their ability to plant gospel-preaching churches?

    As we have discussed before, there is the need for Reform churches to become more socially adventurous in their evangelism and move out of the bourgeois comfort zones. Could looser institutional ties help that to happen?

    Kind regards,

    Julian Mann

  4. John, as I note in a comment on my post on this matter, I am surprised at how much you agree with what I wrote there. At least you are consistent in not taking my advice to leave the Church of England.

    Dominic Stockford may be considered to have valid orders as a priest, but is he as a bishop? But then there are retired bishops with undeniable Anglican orders and conservative evangelical beliefs who could come out of retirement to consecrate a new bishop. Indeed I know one such retired bishop here in Chelmsford who recently took part in a non-TEC consecration in USA - although I don't know if this individual would go along with your plan. And then surely there are ACNA bishops who are more or less conservative evangelical and might be prepared to help. So, far be it from me to give encouragement to your little plan, but these are ways in which it could be made to work.

  5. "Anglo-Catholics went to prison for what they believed, put there by the prosecutions brought by those who wanted to keep the Church of England from their influence. They won."

    I don't want to ask this question, but long-game here, did they really win? The recently touted merger with Methodism seems a lot more compatable with the direction CoE is headed.

    Maybe I have interpreted this incorrectly, but why fight to remain where one is not wanted instead of using that determination to go where one will be embraced?

  6. Now for something completely different...

    The BBC has asked for our opinion about its portrayal of homosexuality. How about a blog giving your thoughts. a) Given Christians believe homosexuality is wrong does that mean we should campaign for homosexual relationships to be banned from public and private life? If so, why? If not, why not? b) How should we respond to the BBC questionnaire?

  7. John,
    I'm mystified. Where can we find this questionnaire that the BBC wants us to complete?


  8. And they won because they had a coherent understanding of the Church and they were prepared to go to the wire for what they believed.

    And one could argue that the Sidney Anglicans did much the same - after figuring out how much they had to lose if things went against them in the long run.

    Perhaps an understanding of this is what is lacking in the Reform case? The statement seems to assume that they will remain an influence in the seminaries etc that they use.

  9. Questionnaire found here.

  10. As one of "the 50" I'd just like to comment that when I offered my signature to the letter, it was one way of crying out in a wilderness. Apart from doing something like that, I have no effective voice in this debate.

    I watch the dear old CofE tearing itself to bits over this and other issues while I am absorbed in the necessary work of trying to maintain and rebuild an outpost of the kingdom that fell into sad disrepair before my watch.

    I am the only one I know of in my diocese who has publicly expressed an inability to swear allegiance to "the Lady Bishop" of the diocese. I have been able to correspond with one General Synod member who while committed to getting women Bishops, wants to keep the female episcopacy sceptics within the CofE. But what other public utterance has there been that allows obscure and isolated people like me to express our voice? It is fine and dandy to be able to blog about it, but this was a letter to those with the power to affect the outcome of the debate.

    I was unable to sign the original version of the letter. I knew that it would be taken as negative and threatening withdrawal, although it actually did not do so. It was sent to me with a letter asking me as (words to the effect of) "an incumbent of a large Reform church" to sign, to which I wrote back that I was flattered to be included, but only two of the descriptive words (incumbent of a church) applied to me, and that while "Reform" applies to me, I am one of few if any in my parish who would be willing to align under that banner.

    The revised version at least offered an argued reason for our unhappiness with the proposed legislation and an explanation of the difficulties it faces incumbents with if they are unable to offer allegiance to their "Lady Bishop." I am not in a position to be taking any of the action implied in the letter. My parish is a net receiver of support from other parishes and I have not been able to put any candidates forward for ministry. But I remain very unhappy about the prospect of women Bishops, unlikely to find an appointment where I will be received favourably as an opponent, and potentially stuck in my present post until such time as I retire or resign.

    I ask again, how else can my voice be heard?

  11. Dominic Stockford was not only ordained priest by the RC church, before leaving them. If you hold to the three-fold order of ministry (which he would not, and nor would Cranmer) and so find who consecrated him bishop important then: He was consecrated Bishop by someone who was consecrated by someone (etcetera, etcetera, very boring and daft really, as if the placing of hands on someone is relevant, rather than the spiritual task given by the people of God) who had what some call "valid" episcopal consecration.

    Now, in blunt honesty, that shouldn't be the issue though. The issue is that with the Evangelical Connexion of the FCE genuinely evangelical members and congregations within the CofE have got a real home to go to where indiscriminate ecumenism isn't tolerated (because of doctrine), where women are not mininsters (because of doctrine), and where high churchism is not only condmened as unbiblical but fought against.

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  13. I think the Free Church of England will be a better place for those who come from a Reform position within the Church of England. Certain positions and recent events make to be concerned about the future of the EC-FCE.