When is a bishop not a bishop

Summary of argument

Modern Church's reasons for opposing Clause 5(1)(c) are as follows.

  1. It would allow PCCs to subordinate the Church of England's open, inclusive and developing theology to their own minority convictions on women's ministry.
  2. It would reinforce this subordination by giving dissident PCCs a legal right to demand alternative episcopal oversight.
  3. Instead of encouraging Anglicans of diverse views to worship with each other and learn from each other, it would encourage division into separate parishes.
  4. It would not only continue, but expand, the present situation where the Church is helping to maintain within itself a group of churches whose primary feature is its opposition to the main body.
  5. By granting legal rights to PCCs to override the wishes of their bishops it would ensure that such opposition becomes permanent, and therefore a continual source of tension.
  6. The provision of exemption from the Church's authority structure in the 1993 Act of Synod has already set an unfortunate precedent, inviting campaigners against gay bishops to demand alternative episcopal oversight. If maintained, the exemption would inevitably encourage similar demands in future.
  7. It would weaken the authority of bishops, not out of a considered decision to do so but as a by-product of a dispute about women's ministry.

Instead the Church of England needs to reaffirm its identity as an open, tolerant and inclusive church. It should

  1. allow for the widest practicable range of theological opinions so that questions may be debated without fear of discrimination, and
  2. have a coherent authority structure which protects freedom of opinion against those who would suppress it and encourages communication between those of different persuasions.

Its inherited authority structure makes a bishop responsible for the administration of each diocese. As long as there is no proposal to abolish bishops or to abandon the diocesan structure, the legislation should retain the authority of bishops without any distinction between men and women. Any decision to limit the authority of bishops should be based on a consistent principle (e.g. greater accountability), not on special concessions to a specific lobby - least of all one which rejects the Church's authority structure.

Introduction

This is a response to the House of Bishops' Clause 5(1)(c) amending the proposed legislation for women bishops. The Clause has generated considerable controversy, both because of its long-term implications and because of the procedures by which it was inserted. This article discusses the theological implications. It does not offer advice on how members of General Synod should vote on the motion.

Draft legislation to allow for women bishops was approved by 42 of the 44 English dioceses. The House of Bishops used its authority to make two changes to the wording in order to make the legislation acceptable to opponents of women bishops. Clause 5(1)(c) is the controversial one. If passed it will add a legal requirement to the forthcoming Code of Practice setting out the parameters for diocesan schemes catering for opponents of women bishops. The new Clause specifies that the Code must provide for

the selection of male bishops or male priests the exercise of ministry by whom is consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women on grounds of which parochial church councils have issued Letters of Request.

The theological positions

Within the Church of England there are competing theologies of episcopal authority. From the time of Henry VIII onwards for three centuries the dominant view was that the bishop's authority came from the monarch, who was in turn appointed by God. During the Tudor and Stuart eras controversy raged over whether the Church should have bishops, and the usual defence was that they were needed for decency and good order; the theory of apostolic succession was yet to be developed.[1] Later Erastianism declined; there is now less emphasis on the Queen as Head of the Church and more on the Church's own structures, centred on General Synod. This means that if Synod votes for women bishops, women so consecrated will indeed be bishops. Such a theology is public: it appeals to open procedures, not disputed theories of invisible divine processes.

Similarly the usual conservative evangelical position is comparatively easy to understand. Some biblical texts disapprove of positions of leadership being held by women. There is scope for debate about the authority of those texts and the leadership roles of bishops, but the theological position appeals to easily understood criteria.

In the case of the anglo-catholic position the matter is different. Supporters and opponents alike often find it difficult to understand as it seems rooted in arcane mystical claims. This leads some to dismiss it as nonsense and others to allow it a wide berth.

Sacramental validity

It was a product of the Oxford Movement. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries governments determined the state religion. By the 1830s British Government support had waned; in the first of the Tracts for the Times Newman asked: 'Should the government and country so far forget their God as to cast off the church, to deprive it of its temporal honours and substance, on what will you rest the claim of respect and attention which you make upon your flocks?' His answer was his theory of apostolic succession:

The Lord Jesus Christ gave His Spirit to His Apostles; they in turn laid their hands on those who would succeed them; and these again on others and these again on others; and so the sacred gift has been handed down to our present Bishops, who have appointed us as their assistants, and in some sense representatives.

Newman acknowledged the implication: 'We must necessarily consider none to be ordained who have not been thus ordained.'[2] His concern was to establish that authority to appoint bishops lay with the Church, not the Government. Nevertheless by providing an alternative way of judging who was a true bishop it paved the way for future disputes. The logic of the theory is clearly expressed in Carleton's The King's Highway, a classic anglo-catholic text:

The true reception of spiritual life, and the maintenance of it in us, are assured to us through valid sacraments; and the validity of the sacraments through valid priesthood; and the validity of the priesthood through valid ordination by a bishop who has received his power to ordain in direct and unbroken line from the apostles and from Christ.
Therefore a first requisite in every part of the Church is to have a valid episcopate. Where there are no true bishops, there can be no true priesthood, no real presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the holy Eucharist, no real setting forth on earth of the availing sacrifice, no ministry of sacramental reconciliation of penitent sinners, no sacramental maintaining or restoring of the eternal life. Where there are no bishops, there is no Church.[3]

This theology is echoed in recent writings by Forward in Faith. Thus Arthur Middleton argues in New Directions that 'Catholic means first of all the inner wholeness and integrity of the Church's life, and belongs, not to the phenomenal and empirical but to the noumenal and ontological plane.'

To the theory of sacramental validity Forward in Faith makes two additions. One is, of course, that sacramental validity fails whenever the priest or the bishop is a woman. The other is often described as the 'doctrine of taint': a bishop who in every other respect fits the criteria of 'sacramental assurance' would fail if he has ever ordained a woman to the priesthood. This additional obstacle to sacramental validity, over and above the others,[4] is often judged the oddest part of Forward in Faith's position. Elsewhere it has upheld the traditional catholic emphasis on the objective validity of the sacraments regardless of the spiritual state of the minister. Here it seems to swing to the other extreme: critics complain that on this theory a bishop's sacraments remain valid if he robs or even murders, but are permanently invalidated if he ever ordains a woman.

These additions accentuate the significance of sacramental validity. The core claim is a radical distinction: valid sacraments provide divine grace needed by humans while invalid sacraments achieve nothing. Therefore 'sacramental assurance' is needed.

Reason and revelation

As a theology it is different in kind from the others described above. Both the mainstream view that women may be bishops and the conservative evangelical view that headship should be restricted to men are publicly based claims, open to examination and debate. The anglo-catholic theory of sacramental validity is not: it is a faith-claim without empirical support.

There is nothing unusual about such faith-claims in religious traditions. There is a long history of debate between 'natural' and 'revealed' theology, where the proponents of revelation claim that their doctrines and practices have been given directly by God and transcend all rational or empirical considerations. Within the Church of England, protestants and catholics alike often appeal to such reason-transcending revelations.

However, church unity is often threatened by competing revelation claims. Reason-based dialogue appealing to public criteria enables churches such as the Church of England to permit open debate without excluding dissidents, and to change over time in the light of any new consensus. Appeals to reason-transcending divine revelations, on the other hand, face individuals with a personal choice between accepting or rejecting any one revelation, knowing that to reject the revelation is to reject the raison d'être of that particular church. Churches committed to specific revelation-claims therefore characteristically depend on uniformity of belief and see themselves as voluntary societies of the like-minded with no obligation to accommodate dissidents. This in turn means that when differences of opinion emerge they produce schisms. The history of confessional protestant churches has witnessed to this schismatic tendency many times. The anglo-catholic theory of sacramental validity is of this type. Adherents make no claim to empirical evidence: they believe it true because of a revelation-claim. Theories of this type inevitably draw sharp dividing lines between insiders who accept the revelation and outsiders who do not.

The difference between the two systems is often misinterpreted. Atheists have often accused religious belief of being entirely based on irrational belief-claims; and many Christians have agreed with them, dismissing more 'liberal' versions of Christianity as weaker. This is not the case: for the Church of England to declare at one time that it does not accept women bishops, and at a later time that it does, reveals a willingness to learn new insights; it does not reveal a lack of concern for religious truth. In no sense is it a weaker faith than that of opponents unwilling to alter inherited doctrines.

The effects of the Clause

It separates instead of keeping together

Modern Church is committed to maintaining the Church as open, tolerant and inclusive. It should (a) allow for the widest practicable range of theological opinions so that questions may be debated without fear of discrimination, and (b) have a coherent authority structure which protects freedom of opinion against those who would suppress it. Combining the two will inevitably mean that some will disagree with the Church's authority structure, but this is quite normal; we often belong to organisations without agreeing with all their procedures.

The Church should therefore welcome those who disagree with its stance on women bishops, just as it welcomes those who disagree with other aspects of its teaching. A healthy church is one where people who disagree with each other feel confident enough to sit on the same pew together, kneel at the altar rail together, and develop their faith by listening to each other. Clause 5(1)(c) is, however, designed to achieve the opposite: to provide alternative bishops, alternative priests and alternative congregations so that the opponents of women bishops can feel confident that their own sacraments and services are in no way connected to the rest of the Church.

It thus attempts to maintain a single confessional group within an otherwise open, non-confessional church. By its confessional nature it would inevitably function as an opposition to the rest of the Church, since its identity would be based on exalting its own distinctive revelation-claim above the more rational, public and developing theology of the mainstream Church, thus positively repudiating it. This has been the experience of Resolution C parishes since the 1993 Act providing for opponents of women priests. It may have been a satisfactory arrangement for them, to the extent that it enabled them to ignore the rest of the Church; but that achievement can hardly be called the maintenance of unity. In practice it was institutionalised schism, a schism which Clause 5(1)(c) would extend.

We therefore believe that if there is to be a permanent group repudiating the validity of the Church of England's sacraments, it should be independent of the Church of England, receiving no support from it and owing nothing to it. We suspect that the number of people who would leave the Church for this reason as a matter of conscience is far smaller than the number of Christians who have already decided to have nothing to do with an institution so determined to discriminate against women.

Legislating makes the separation permanent

According to the legislation approved by the dioceses, the diocesan bishop would be responsible for responding to Letters of Request from PCCs. In addition the Clause legally obliges the bishop to provide 'male bishops or male priests the exercise of ministry by whom is consistent with the theological convictions' of the PCC. This change has been welcomed by Forward in Faith:

For traditional catholics, that means bishops ordained into the historic episcopate as we understand it. The draft Measure now recognises that our position is one of legitimate theological conviction for which the Church of England must provide. This principle will be enshrined in law.[5]

There is a long tradition of Christians being committed to non-negotiable revelation-based theological commitments. In their dealings with other Christians they face two options. One is to modify the non-negotiable nature of their commitments, open themselves up to the contrasting views of others and draw on reason and evidence in the search for resolutions. The other is to refuse any compromise and keep themselves separate. What they cannot legitimately expect is that their refusal to compromise will oblige others to compromise with them. Yet this is what the opponents of women bishops are requesting and what the Clause would provide. While we accept the right of PCCs to develop, if they wish, revelation-based theological commitments which conflict with the mainstream teaching of the Church, we do not think there should be any legal entitlement to by-pass the Church's authority structure with their own alternative.

The Clause would maintain a permanent opposition group denying the Church's authority from within the Church itself. They would have full rights to influence the future direction of the Church even though they rejected its authority. If such a situation were to become permanent it would inevitably become a perpetual source of future tensions. Instead we think provision for opponents of women bishops should be treated as a local pastoral matter, not a matter for legislation.

Choosing one's bishop

Defenders of the clause argue that it only makes explicit what was intended anyway. The House of Bishops' Statement declares that 'the legislation now addresses the fact that for some parishes a male bishop or male priest is necessary but not sufficient'. The Statement from the Archbishops, published in response to the opposition, argues that 'it does not give parishes the right to "choose their own bishop" or insist that their bishop has a particular set of beliefs. It allows them to ask for episcopal ministry... only on the grounds of theological conviction about women's ordained ministry... it attempts to take seriously the fact that, as has been clear all along, simply providing any male bishop would not do justice to the theological convictions lying behind requests from some parishes.'

Thus it is being proposed that local church congregations should be empowered by law to reject the authority of their appointed diocesan bishop and opt into alternative oversight by a bishop they find theologically acceptable.

This principle was first introduced into the Church of England by the 1993 Act of Synod. This Act, while being perhaps the 'thin end of the wedge', remained a thin end in the sense that Resolution C parishes were permitted to opt into oversight by the Provincial Episcopal Visitor; no further options were provided. Clause 5(1)(c) would significantly widen the options. Despite the above denial that parishes would have the right to 'choose their own bishop', the options available to PCCs would certainly increase considerably and no limit is specified. The promoters of the motion have made it clear that their intention is simply to allow for anglo-catholics to request an anglo-catholic bishop and conservative evangelicals to request a conservative evangelical. This in itself would increase every PCC's episcopal options from two to three; but the intentions of the proponents would become irrelevant once the legislation was in force. What would count would be what the clause actually says. A parish would be able to object to a bishop who is a woman; or a man ordained by a woman; or a man consecrated by a woman; or a man consecrated by a man who also consecrates women; etc! We can be quite sure that demands of all these types would indeed be made, and from time to time there would be pressure to consecrate a man who would otherwise have been considered unsuitable. Furthermore, anybody with experience of PCCs will anticipate changes of theological conviction when Bishop X better fits the criteria but Bishop Y has a more agreeable personality.

The nature of episcopacy

'Simply providing any male bishop', now declared inadequate, has been normal practice since New Testament times. In Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy there is no process for parishes to seek and secure alternative episcopal oversight; nor was there in the Church of England before 1993. The proposed clause would not only make this change permanent, but would extend it by subordinating the bishop's role to the PCC's declared convictions.

The role of bishops has varied but the most persistent elements have been two. Firstly the bishop has been the chief representative of the Church within the diocese, with authority to administer the diocese and declare the Church's teaching within it. Secondly only bishops have had authority to ordain priests and consecrate other bishops.

With the 1993 Act Resolution C parishes were granted the legal right to reject the authority of their diocesan bishop with respect to both. The Clause would extend this right of rejection, thereby shifting ecclesial authority decisively away from bishops and towards PCCs. The Church of England would become a bit more like Baptist Churches, each of which is free to join or leave the Baptist Union as it sees fit.

Baptists have no bishops. If the Church of England is indeed to move in this direction questions will increasingly arise as to why we need bishops at all. The current proposal stipulates that the only basis for requesting an alternative bishop would be opposition to women's ministry. However the direction of travel will be clear: the diocesan bishop's authority to administer the diocese, declare the Church's teaching and ordain priests will be subjected to formally authorised opposition from within the Church itself. Unless a consensus develops about a clear limiting principle, the trend is unlikely to stop there. Opponents of gay bishops have already seized on the precedent set by the 1993 Act to demand their own bishops and other lobbyists will no doubt do the same. If additional controversies over new issues add to the pressure for alternative episcopal oversight the authority of bishops is bound to decline. If the ministry of bishops is to depend on personal approval by each PCC, in the long run the bishop could end up becoming just one more diocesan officer.

Conclusion

We believe the Church of England needs to reaffirm its identity as an open, tolerant and inclusive church. It should

  1. allow for the widest practicable range of theological opinions so that questions may be debated without fear of discrimination, and
  2. have a coherent authority structure which protects freedom of opinion against those who would suppress it and encourages communication between those of different persuasions.

Its inherited authority structure makes a bishop responsible for the administration of each diocese. As long as there is no proposal to abolish bishops or to abandon the diocesan structure, the legislation should retain the authority of bishops without any distinction between men and women. Any decision to limit the authority of bishops should be based on a consistent principle (e.g. greater accountability), not on special concessions to a specific lobby - least of all one which rejects the Church's authority structure.

From this perspective our reasons for opposing Clause 5(1)(c) are as follows.

  1. It would allow PCCs to subordinate the Church of England's open, inclusive and developing theology to their own minority convictions on women's ministry.
  2. It would reinforce this subordination by giving dissident PCCs a legal right to demand alternative episcopal oversight.
  3. Instead of encouraging Anglicans of diverse views to worship with each other and learn from each other, it would encourage division into separate parishes.
  4. It would not only continue, but expand, the present situation in which the Church is helping to maintain within itself a group of churches whose primary feature is its opposition to the main body.
  5. By granting legal rights to PCCs to override the wishes of their bishops it would ensure that such opposition becomes permanent, and therefore a continual source of tension.
  6. The provision of exemption from the Church's authority structure in the 1993 Act of Synod has already set an unfortunate precedent, inviting campaigners on other issues to demand alternative episcopal oversight. If maintained, the exemption would inevitably encourage similar demands in future.
  7. It would weaken the authority of bishops, not out of a considered decision to do so but as a by-product of a dispute about women's ministry.

Modern Church logo
Jonathan Clatworthy
on behalf of Modern Church
June 2012
 

Notes

[1] Chapman, Mark, Anglo-Catholics and the Myths of Episcopacy, Liverpool: Modern Churchpeople's Union, 2006, p. 9.

[2] Chapman, Anglo-Catholics, pp. 1-2.

[3] Carleton, G D, The King's Highway, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1940 edition, pp. 124-125. First published in 1924 this book's fourth and last edition, published in 1940, has been reprinted no fewer than eight times.

[4] This is one of Forward in Faith's Agreed Statements: 'The priests of a diocese act on behalf of its bishop, standing in his place. Every eucharist celebrated by his authority is his eucharist. The priests of a diocese act as alternates one of another because all act on behalf of the one bishop. It follows that if that bishop introduces into his college of priests those whose orders are in doubt, this fellowship and the guarantees it mediates are fractured. A priest who cannot in conscience recognize the orders of one ordained by his bishop cannot in conscience act on behalf of that person or of that bishop. He is obliged to seek fellowship with a bishop whom he can with integrity represent, and in whose college of priests he can wholeheartedly participate. A diocese is not merely an administrative territorial unit; it is also, properly and necessarily, a fellowship based on doctrinal agreement and sacramental assurance.'

[5] www.forwardinfaith.com/artman/publish/article_554.shtml.
 

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.