THREE YEARS ON
John Richards has enjoyed being the Bishop of a community which enjoys having a bishop like him
A WEEK IN POLITICS may be a very long time, but three years of the life of a Provincial Episcopal Visitor (PEV) seems like a whole ministry in itself. It now seems an eternity away that, as an archdeacon, I was preoccupied with the care of parsonage houses, the raising of quota and handling the academic members on a diocesan advisory committee. No doubt part of the reason why it seems such a long time since my consecration as a bishop has been the very varied and much travelled life I have lived since that remarkable day in April 1994 when I was consecrated in St. Paul’s Cathedral. I do not remember too much about my ordination to the diaconate and the priesthood, but having been used to large occasions as a canon of a cathedral I felt entirely relaxed at St. Paul’s and the memory of the whole service remains extremely vivid, not least the enormous support I received from my friends and those to whom I was soon going to minister.
As I look back over the three years the first and abiding impression is the enormous warmth with which I have been greeted by members of Forward in Faith right across the Province of Canterbury. My work has necessarily depended upon a great deal of hospitality, and I cannot exaggerate how deeply indebted I feel to so many clergy, and particularly clergy wives, who have made me so welcome and been so considerate in their care. When I began my ministry it would be fair to say that a very substantial proportion of the traditionalist constituency was extremely demoralized and wondered whether it would be possible to have any future in the Church of England. I entirely concur with the observation by the Bishop of Fulham in a recent edition of New Directions that there is now a very marked recovery of confidence. Anxieties necessarily and undoubtedly remain, but nevertheless many clergy and their parishes are facing the future with confidence, and above all responding to a call I made early in my ministry, that traditionalist parishes must seek to establish themselves as centres of excellence.
It has become increasingly clear to me where this excellence should lie. First and foremost in the life of any Christian is the worship of God, and therefore it should be the first priority of any parish to strive to make its worship of the highest quality. My experience of worship in traditionalist parishes, whether it be those who are in the modern Catholic tradition drawing on all the riches of Catholic Christendom, or those who are more in the Prayer Book tradition, is that their worship is of a very high order. In particular it reflects a dignity and sense of splendour that befits a risen and ascended Lord, and yet is often accompanied by a joy and an awareness that there is a place for the informal and the personal touch.
One of the outstanding features of the last few years has been the many great acts of Catholic worship in various parts of the country attended by large numbers of priests and people. These occasions have recalled the spirit of the Anglo-Catholic congresses that were such a feature of the inter-war years. The first such occasion at which I was present was at St. Agatha’s, Sparkbrook, a great Catholic shrine in the diocese of Birmingham. I found myself participating in an act of worship which was extraordinarily well organized and exuded a great sense of joy and exuberance. A feature I shall always remember was the offertory hymn “Shine Jesus Shine” being sung with enormous zest, and yet at the same time the communion was followed by a beautiful rendering of Zadok the Priest. The whole event reflected the ability of the Catholic movement to take advantage of the best in terms of liturgy and music that the Church has to offer. That experience has been repeated on many occasions, varying from a great Midland Festival in Lichfield Cathedral to a whole range of Chrism Masses in various centres.
I have always thought it churlish to criticize other communions and other traditions whether they be within the Church of England or outside it. Nevertheless, I think it can fairly be claimed that within Western Christendom, Catholic worship in the Church of England is as dignified and glorious an expression of Christian worship as can be found anywhere. It is a very precious heritage reflecting both the transcendence and immanence of God which the Church of England would lose at its peril. It remains firmly centered on the Eucharist, and this needs to be stressed at a time when a substantial proportion of Anglican churches have retreated from making the Eucharist the central service of the day.
When a priest is licensed to a parish the Bishop continues to say “take your cure and mine”. My anxiety in recent years has been that the concept of the cure of souls has been badly eroded. There is nothing more distasteful than the Bishop or priest who denigrates his own profession. It is no doubt true that in the past the Church of England has been over-clericalised, and it is to be entirely welcomed that the gifts of the laity are now being used on an extensive scale. Nevertheless, although the parish priest has a unique sacramental role as a representative of our Lord at the altar, the very centre of his ministry, his pastoral role should not be forgotten or diminished. Nothing has done the Catholic cause more harm in the past than the priest who has taken the view that his pastoral role is purely reactive. The statements “if they want me they know where they can find me”, has been a most damaging view of ministry. It is difficult to deny the view of many experienced priests whom I have met that the increasing secularisation of society has made the pastoral task of the priest much harder. The majority of our fellow countrymen have very little or no sense of the things of God. Nevertheless, conversation with parishioners over coffee after a service reveals time and again those who have been brought to a realization of the love of Christ at a crisis in their lives when the Church has offered pastoral love and care. This has sometimes come in the first instance from the clergy and sometimes from the laity. In all cases however it has required the pastoral skill of the parish priest to enable such people to interpret their experience theologically, and to grow in the knowledge of the Faith. As part of this desire for excellence to which I have pointed, it is crucial that the clergy occupy a high profile in the parishes they serve, are readily available to their parishioners, and are seen out and about in their parishes. That pastoral leadership lies at the heart of a lively parish.
The Catholic movement within the Church of England, resting as its does upon the doctrine that God became man and revealed his concern for every aspect of human life, has always been deeply concerned with the needs of the whole man, and therefore profoundly involved in social issues. Today the varying use to which the Church puts its buildings and resources to meet the needs of a community in parishes such as St. Peter’s, Plymouth and St. James’, Wednesbury is deeply impressive. However, in the recent history of the church there seems to have grown up a breed of clergy almost totally preoccupied with social issues, and with a very diminished concern for the spiritual growth of their parishioners. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that at the heart of this malaise is an uncertainty about the centrality of salvation in Christ. There is that very telling passage in the Ordinal where the priest is reminded that he ministers to those for whom our blessed Lord died. At the heart of the priest’s ministry needs to be a zeal that the people of God entrusted to his charge should grow in the knowledge of God’s love, and be conscious of their pilgrimage towards eternity. The whole of the Catholic scheme of devotional life is geared to this and the clergy need to be expert as spiritual guides. I have met in the course of my travels many very devout clergy who clearly are extremely disciplined in their own prayer life, and have the competence to guide others. As a regular part of the life of all parishes, there needs to be an emphasis on quiet days, retreats, sacramental confession and spiritual direction.
In the early 1990s the Archdeacon of York and others laid great emphasis on the fact that the teaching and the ethical practice of the Church of England were being undermined by secularisation and political correctness. He and others who made these observations were often the objects of derision. Nevertheless, as the decade progresses, their prophetic words are seen to be very close to the mark. The pressure on the Church of England to change its stance on important ethical issues such as homosexuality, abortion and marriage discipline all stem from a willingness to compromise with the standards of the world. The Church of England more than most churches faces the problem of being deeply embedded in contemporary culture. When its bishops speak in the legislature, necessarily they have to take into account in passing judgment on legislation what is practicable in contemporary society. The problem is that what is practicable is unlikely to be Christian. A bishop may come to the conclusion that it is not possible to reform the abortion law because public opinion is unwilling to accommodate such a reform. It can then be assumed however that his view reflects that of the Christian church as far as its own membership is concerned. We are constantly told that the church should not be a ghetto. It is one thing to argue that the Church needs to play a very active part in the world; it is not appropriate for the members of the church to adopt the standards of that world. As contemporary society becomes increasingly secularised it becomes all the more important for the members of the Church to have a real sense of discipleship and to recognize that in corporate and individual behaviour Christian people need to be seen to be a race apart, holding fast to the standards and mind of Christ which almost inevitably conflict sharply with the world. Christian discipleship if it is genuine will become increasingly costly, whether it be for young people at school or older people in their work and in the community. It is crucial that in traditionalist parishes the demands of discipleship are presented uncompromisingly, recognizing that it needs a great deal of mutual support within the Christian community to hold fast to them. It is also likely that clergy and people in traditionalist parishes will sadly have to recognise that they are part of a church where many of the leaders and members are only too willing to compromise. Our Lord shows deep compassion when we fail, but he also makes uncompromising demands on our discipleship. The contemporary Church lays great emphasis on the comfortable words in the Gospel, whilst far too often disregarding the uncomfortable ones.
One of the more significant and encouraging features in recent months has been the renewed number of those considering ordination. It will be clear from the previous paragraphs that traditionalist parishes require leadership from parish priests of the highest possible calibre. The immediate challenge to all our congregations is to encourage men, and particularly young men, to offer themselves for the sacred ministry, recognizing the nobility of that particular calling. Good priests produce new priests, and this is therefore a particular challenge to the clergy. We need to be deeply concerned that the training of the clergy contains a proper concept of “priestly formation” based upon an orthodox theology.
What does the future hold? The Archbishop of Canterbury in the course of his recent visit to the Pope, recognized that the doctrine of reception means that the issue of women priests is one in which the discernment of the whole of Christendom is involved. This inevitably will be a lengthy process, and almost certainly not accomplished in my lifetime. I have detected in recent months a certain impatience amongst those who are convinced that the Church of England took the right decision in 1992, that the church faces a very long period where the consequences of that divisive decision have to be accepted. There is no quick solution, and that needs to be deeply embedded in the consciousness of all church members, not least in the leadership. At the heart of the matter is the future nature of the Church of England itself. It has always claimed to be Catholic and reformed, and it is to be hoped that all genuine Anglicans recognise the value of that difficult balance, even though they may be personally attracted to one side of that equation, rather than the other. If the Anglican Church is to retain its true nature then in one form or another the present divisions have to be accommodated and lived with. This will require a very substantial generosity of spirit, greater than I believe exists at present. There is a very real danger of people believing that their own particular position represents the whole truth, and becoming impatient with those who do not share it. Largeness of spirit and an awareness of the need to listen to and accommodate the position of other people is the demand that charity makes upon the contemporary church.
Since I wrote the preceding paragraph, the Archbishop of York has made a passionate plea that the Church of England should retain its Catholic and reformed character, which requires that the Catholic wing should not be in retreat. I would echo this rallying call. However, exhortation by itself is insufficient. The Church of England in its new situation has to be seen to be creating conditions where Catholics can retain confidence that their position is valued.
There are two crucial developments that are necessary. The work of the PEVs has to continue to be fully recognized and welcomed. Inevitably it has taken time for Diocesan Bishops to come to terms with working with Bishops not of their choice, and who do not share their views. This situation requires mutual trust and respect. We need to move to an atmosphere where Diocesan Bishops not only themselves, but also their staff that every level, have the confidence not just to accept with a reasonable grace the presence of PEVs in their Dioceses, but very positively to encourage and welcome that presence. This would ensure that an important section of the Church is fully valued and enabled to play a properly active part in every aspect of church life.
The second crucial development is that Diocesan Bishops should be prepared to appoint to their staff those of a traditionalist position. Since 1992 this section of the Bonds of Peace document has been flagrantly disregarded. This has led to a sad neglect of men of talent, and a sense that a traditionalist viewpoint is rarely if ever heard round a staff room table. One of the arguments most frequently advanced by supporters of the ordination of women is the need to satisfy the demands of natural justice. It is not only the women who may reasonably expect the Church to honour that particular demand.
The two Archbishops have no direct powers over Diocesan appointments. They do however exercise considerable influence, not least through their Appointments Advisor. It will only be when the trend noted in the previous paragraph is reversed, that the momentum towards a recovery of confidence by traditionalists will fully accelerate.
John Richards is Bishop of Ebbsfleet.
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