THERE WILL BE ample opportunity, in due course, for our constituency to give high praise and hearty thanks to Bishop John Richards for all that he has achieved during his most remarkable ministry as Bishop of Ebbsfleet over the past four years. No one who has known him during this period would for one moment suppose that his retirement would signal a retreat into obscurity and just as his flock and, indeed, all of us rejoiced at the announcement from Lambeth Palace that there was to be a second Bishop of Ebbsfleet, so I suspect did we all look forward with pleasure to his impending "retirement ministry". But wait: what is this we read?
"JR, as we know him from his 35 years as a priest in the diocese, has been the Provincial Episcopal Visitor for the western half of the Canterbury Province. I have invited him to . . . (become) an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Exeter. This means that the procedure for parishes in our diocese which have petitioned under the Act of Synod will change from section 5 (Provincial Arrangements) to section 3 (Diocesan Arrangements)."
So writes the Right Reverend Geoffrey Hewlett Thompson, by Divine Permission Lord Bishop of Exeter, to his clergy in his New Year 1998 Bulletin.
I don't for one moment believe that I am the only member of Forward in Faith for whom the shine of Lambeth's announcement has been tarnished by this word from Exeter. For, whilst (rightly) so many ask themselves who is to be the second Bishop of Ebbsfleet? I find myself wondering: who - if anyone - will be the third Bishop of Ebbsfleet? And - come to that - who - if anyone - will be the second Bishop of Beverley (well, actually, the third, for the first held office at the turn of the century), or the second Bishop of Richborough, or the third Bishop of Fulham? (No, actually, the eleventh - but you get my drift!) For consider what is now the gossip. (Church of England gossip can always be distinguished from fantasy, for it has a habit of transmuting inexorably - via rumour - into fact.)
Gossip the first: there is to be appointed in the diocese of Salisbury a suffragan bishop of our integrity. Gossip the second: there is to be appointed an assistant bishop of our integrity in the diocese of Newcastle. Gossip the third: the diocese of Portsmouth is to alter the procedure for parishes which have petitioned under the Act of Synod from section 5 (Provincial Arrangements) to section 4 (Regional Arrangements), and that a suffragan from a neighbouring diocese is to take over the care of Resolution C parishes. Gossip the fourth: that the diocese of Guildford is going to do precisely the same as Portsmouth, using another suffragan. There may well be more of the same, but if there isn't, my guess is that there soon will be.
For it is an inescapable fact that significant numbers of bishops, and others, wish to see the Act of Synod repealed. And the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of their achieving that object is the existence of the three Provincial Episcopal Visitors and the Bishop of Fulham. Get rid of the PEVs, the argument runs, and then we shall be free to commence the process of dismantling the Act of Synod. They always saw the Act as a temporary expedient, of course, for we were so few in number that we would die out quite quickly. But the flaw in their reasoning was that we were in fact many and that, furthermore, thanks to the tireless ministry of the PEV's and the Bishop of Fulham, which has given us a cohesion and an identity, we have grown in number.
So, for a moment, put yourself in the place of a diocesan bishop. You want the Forward in Faith constituency to die out, but instead it keeps on growing; the Archbishops insist on appointing new bishops to succeed PEVs who retire, thus ensuring the constituency's continued growth; the Act of Synod cannot simply be repealed and the PEVs made redundant, for that way lies serious dissent (that's dissent with a capital £). The answer is plain, and very simple. What you do - no doubt in consultation with your like-minded neighbours - is to set about a process to remove the cohesion and identity that ensures the objectionable growth and replace it with a lack of those two qualities, which will - in time - guarantee the destruction of that which now lives. And, as an interim bonus, you remove the need for any new PEV.
For what is proposed in Exeter, and what may happen elsewhere, if gossip gives way to rumour, and then to fact, will surely mean the end of the PEVs. Give a man the orthodox in, say, a dozen dioceses to care for - and then, one at a time, take a diocese away from him, and before too long he is left with nothing to do. And although the Church of England has a history of paying men to do nothing, you can be sure that, when the under-utilised bishop retires, an exception will be made and the unreasonableness of paying a new man to do nothing will become blindingly apparent. And before too long, and when there are no PEVs and no Bishop of Fulham, our constituency will look for episcopal leadership to . . . where? To a collection of retired and visiting suffragan bishops - all first rate men, of course - but incapable of providing the collective leadership which has given us the ecclesial structure which we set out to achieve back in November 1992. And then, of course, it won't be too long before the diocesans who have put these orthodox suffragans and retired bishops in place begin to move the game on, and replace them with new men, made in their own image . . .
Of course, one might hope that orthodox bishops will choose not to play ball with diocesans who set this agenda in train. But just in case they do, all concerned might do well to re-visit the Act of Synod - just as no doubt the Bishop of Exeter did before he wrote his New Year Bulletin. For there, as he would have read if he had turned one more page and read section 8, are some vital words which I fear are all too often forgotten or, worse, simply ignored:
" . . . on receiving any such petition the diocesan bishop shall, either personally or through his representative, consult with the minister and the parochial church council of the parish concerned; and having done so he shall make appropriate arrangements for episcopal duties to be carried out in the parish in accordance with this Act of Synod."
The bishop shall consult and then make appropriate arrangements. In the case of Exeter, there appears to have been no consultation whatsoever. Is it any wonder that numbers of people are now asking how the Bishop of Exeter knows that the arrangements he has announced are appropriate? Unless, of course, 'appropriate' is translated as meaning appropriate in so far as they will hasten the day when we can rescind the Act of Synod.
Only time will tell whether schemes to undermine the role of the PEVs will prove successful or even acceptable. In the meantime we have an obligation under the Act of Synod to make our views heard. Consultation, we must make clear, is a two-way process.
Stephen Parkinson is Director of Forward in Faith.
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