Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Erroneous and Strange Bishops

A book I’m reading at the moment on ministry describes an important part of the minister’s job as being to preserve the ‘gold standard’ of doctrine in the local church. This is surely a very useful concept, and — encouragingly to me as an Anglican — it fits entirely with what is said in the Ordinal about the ministry of the priesthood.
I have often heard it remarked that it is the bishop’s job to “drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrine” — usually when the topic of conversation is about how bishops have failed to do this. But I must admit that I have only recently noticed that the same duty is laid on priests at their ordination. They, too, are to “to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word; and to use both public and private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, within [their] Cures, as need shall require, and occasion shall be given.”
The point is, I believe, important, because the individual must be ordained priest before he can be ordained bishop. And it is at this earlier stage that he is made the ‘gatekeeper’ for the Church’s teaching — the only distinction being, as far as I can see, that the priest’s responsibility is for the local ‘cure’ (ie parish), whereas the bishop’s is for his diocese.
The priest, in other words, neither waits until he is a bishop before he is made responsible for the ‘gold standard’, nor does he derive the ‘gold standard’ from the bishop. Both the priest and bishop-to-be are (with minor variations) asked exactly the same question about Scripture and their attitude to it:
Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the same holy Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge; and to teach or maintain nothing as required of necessity to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the same?
And then each is asked about how they will put that conviction into practice in their ministries. Of the priest:
Will you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the Doctrine and Sacraments, and the Discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded, and as this Church and Realm hath received the same, according to the Commandments of God; so that you may teach the people committed to your Cure and Charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same?
Of the bishop:
Will you then faithfully exercise yourself in the same holy Scriptures, and call upon God by prayer, for the true understanding of the same; so that you may be able by them to teach and exhort with wholesome Doctrine, and to withstand and convince the gainsayers?
And then each is asked whether he will “banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrines”. In both cases, however, the ‘gold standard’ is assayed by the Scriptures, with the priest administering the word and sacraments locally within his cure, whilst the bishop, within his diocese, is charged to “correct and punish, according to such authority as [he has] by God’s word and as to [him is] committed by the Ordinance of this Realm” such as be “unquiet, disobedient and criminious”.
The priest owes the bishop due obedience, but priest and bishop are engaged in a common task of teaching what Scripture requires for salvation and refuting error. The problem is what happens when the bishop is the one promoting the ‘erroneous and strange doctrines’.
Of course, the first question is who decides what is ‘erroneous and strange’. And here we have a serious difficulty, because the Church of England came of anything like a doctrinal ‘gold standard’ many years ago. Indeed, the Church of England is doctrinally rather like a country in which banks can not only print their own money but make their own choices about what such notes are actually worth!
Hitherto, the evangelical response to this has been to ignore the vagaries of episcopal beliefs, provided they were not too outrageous. The evangelicals got along without the bishops and, by and large, the bishops were tolerant of the evangelicals.
This mutual tolerance was partly because neither party immediately threatened the other’s existence, but it was also partly because there was, in reality, not much the evangelicals could do about it. The Church of England was an important part of the social fabric — part of the ‘institution’. Complaining, such as when David Jenkins was notoriously appointed Bishop of Durham, made no difference. In any case, so far had the Church departed from the gold standard of doctrine that a degree of unbelief was expected from a bishop. (I have genuinely had people commend a bishop’s appointment with the remark that, “He believes in the resurrection,” as if this were an outstanding attribute!)
The difficulties with this necessary acquiescence, however, are highlighted by the current controversy over sexuality. On the one hand, evangelicals are accused of ‘double standards’, or even homophobia — making more of the issue of sexuality than they have of matters like the incarnation or the Trinity (when it was popular to sit light to those).
And there is some justification for this accusation. When Jeffery John was forced to stand down as Bishop of Reading, the appointment of Stephen Cottrell as his successor was greeted with enthusiasm by evangelicals within the Diocese of Oxford. Yet John and Cottrell are both members of the liberal group, Affirming Catholicism, and a glance at the cover of this book (published in 1998) is a salutory warning that the two men may differ little in underlying theology. For what reason, then, was Cottrell welcomed in place of John, other than that he was not a homosexual?
Yet the issue of sexuality may turn out to have something of a ‘last straw’ effect, in that it highlights other grievances. For far too long, bishops have collectively acted as if the ‘hurly burly’ of establishing and maintaining doctrinal clarity were somehow beneath them.
I have sat in a meeting where an evangelical bishop referred to the “adolescent” behaviour of evangelical parish clergy in relation to the issues dividing the Church. By contrast, he pointed us to the example of the local administration at Church House, where people of competing views ‘got along together’. To him, this clearly represented theological and spiritual maturity — setting aside our differences in the interests of peaceful coexistence.
But of course at the point of delivery of the word and the sacraments, which is to say in the local parish, then, as indicated above, the work of ministry requires from the clergy exactly what the Ordinal actually requires from the bishop: “to teach and exhort with wholesome Doctrine, and to withstand and convince the gainsayers”. Doctrinal clarity is not some ‘party political game’ (as I have seen another evangelical bishop suggest), but the very means of rescuing Christ’s sheep and keeping them safe.
And so evangelical parish clergy face a problem. Typically, and sadly, the bishops of the Church of England seem to treat anything except the most rudimentary doctrines as beyond their interest or remit. They may (may) act if a priest openly denies the faith, but beyond that they do not seem much to care. Variety, for them, is the spice of the Church’s life. The clergy, by contrast, know that ‘sound doctrine’ is the very heartbeat of their ministry. Yet they often feel unsupported in this conviction by their bishops, and may even find themselves in a situation where a bishop is himself a cause of difficulty.
It is not enough in these circumstances to say that the first duty of the clergy is to obey their bishop. Quite simply, it is not! Obedience to the human authority of the bishop (what the Ordinal refers to as his “authority ... committed [to him] by the Ordinance of this Realm”) must be set within the context of the mutual obedience of bishop and priest to the authority both have “by God’s word”. It is tragic if, as a result of a departure from the ‘gold standard’ of doctrine, the priest must preach against, and resist, the bishop as a ‘gainsayer’. But it may at times be a tragic necessity.
John P Richardson
17 March 2010
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  1. Would you be willing to share what book it is that you're currently reading that gave rise to this post? I am intrigued, especially in light of the thoughtfulness of the post!

    Virginia, USA

  2. The 'evangelical' bishops so described are not really evangelical but rather men from that background who have since 'broadened'. James Jones fits that description, and so do the 'blogging bshops' who have been preferred by the English system or nomenklatura. Of course they still want to hang on to the title 'evangelical' but it means little.

  3. Bill, it is The Trellis and the Vine - the website says its out of stock, but I was sent one in the UK recently - as a freebee for some reason!

  4. This post comes just after I've finished reading Stephen Noll's paper on Communion Governance, which advocates that the Bishops in Council ought to be the primary authority in the Communion - not the ACC. But when a good number of those bishops are "strange and erroneous" it undermines that model. It forces orthodox bishops to start alternative movements like GAFCON in order to restore sound doctrine and promote Biblical witness within the Communion.

  5. Andrew, I think also that any proposals about councils of bishops need to take into account Article 21, "Of the Authority of General Councils".

    I doubt whether we can, any longer, wait for "the commandment and will of Princes" before such councils are called, but we should note the caution that "(forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God" and the requirement that "things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture."

    It is, as you say, the known unorthodoxy of bishops that makes the gathering of councils (Lambeth, Dar es Salam, etc) such a fruitless exercise at present.

    Of course, the big issue is what we do locally when our own bishops step away from orthodoxy. It seems to me unarguable that Jones has done this vis a vis the position held set out in Issues in Human Sexuality and reaffirmed by the House of Bishops in Some Issues in Human Sexuality. If the other bishops do nothing, where does this leave the rest of us?

  6. John,
    It is a great book which points us back to what Ministry is about - people not programmes. Any hoo! your link is I have a better link for folks:
    It may sound naff but 'a must read' (after the Bible)!

    Richard Wood
    East London

  7. The nagging problem always remains at the heart of the structure of the CofE and that is it is an established church. It was created by political processes and to some extent it continues by the same processes. The most sensible solution, if you really want 'mutual' authority, is to press of disestablishment. It is is the only sensible way forward.

    Just noted your talks on Islam. Did you use David E. Marshall's excellent little book on the subject "Learning From How Muslims See Christianity"? I will try and make time to listen, but I can't promise!


  8. Excellent post John. Agree with you 100%. I am more than ever of the conviction that the future of the Church at every level will need to come, in God's grace, through the re-establishing of the priority of 'good' (as in gospel-affirming, faithful to apostolic tradition, attentive to the living word of God) theology. And the exercise of theology itself needs to be re-claimed, away from the esoteric and abstracted academic musings (and I speak as an academic), to the frontline of life-giving theology in the local church and public square.

    We have relegated 'theology' to a curious pursuit of a few - a specialist academic sub-discipline - and removed it from the most important questions of life and making sense of the world as we experience it - guided and instructed by God's word as a precious means of grace. As the mode of pastoral ministry has been shaped in terms of 'leaders as facilitators', the practical effect is a public witness that amounts to 'what would I know?', and it is only a short step from this to 'follow what your instincts tell you - I'm sure God will understand'.

    The tragic fruit of such neglect is seen in the vacuous excuses for theology emanating from the present generation of leaders (bishops and presbyters) - albeit elegantly expressed. Or to put it in terms of Amos 8, we are experiencing a 'famine in the hearing of God's word' throughout the land.

  9. I thought this was an article about bishops in TEC and AC/NA, they're certainly erroneous and strange.