COMMENT AUGUST 1999

 

The Bishop of Birkenhead is to become the next Bishop of Exeter in succession to the Rt Revd Hewlett Thompson who, after a tenure lasting fourteen years, vacates the See on attaining his seventieth year on August 14.

Michael Langrish is a bishop who supports the Church of England's decision to ordain women to the priesthood. He is married to Esther, who has been accepted for ordination training.

He has a formidable task ahead, not least in view of his predecessor's accurate description of Exeter as 'a largely catholic diocese, with many traditional parishes (Church Times, Jan 22, 1990). Anyone who seeks to persuade the seventieth bishop of Exeter otherwise will be inviting him to share their delusions.

Perhaps the most obvious mark of this reality is the presence of the largest number of parishes in any diocese that have passed resolutions under the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod, thereby rejecting the ministry of the bishops of the diocese, preferring the care of the provincial Episcopal Visitor. That preference is consolidated by the daily experience of the ministry of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet and of Bishop John Richards.

Many in the diocese will find it beyond belief that the Crown Appointments Commission dared to make such an appointment in the face of such a reality. It was both provocative and a final disavowal of all those kindly words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, assuring opponents of the priesting of women of an honoured place in the life of the Church of England, and that 'senior appointments are open' to them.

In rebuttal of such empty words, they will simple rehearse: Portsmouth, Sheffield, Newcastle Winchester, Gloucester, Truro...and now Exeter. They and their new diocesan will come to see (to the cost of the Gospel itself) that his very arrival will turn a divided diocese into one that is characterised by an unbridgeable chasm.

Throughout the episcopate of the sixty-ninth Bishop of Exeter not one appointment of an opponent of the ordination of women has been made among the senior staff (two suffragans, three archdeacons, dean), or the galaxy of advisory staff. The only hope that Exeter might turn its back on a policy of exclusion, and espouse one of inclusion, was by an act of the national Church. That was hoped for...prayed for...but it has not come to pass.

Now the diocesan Church will continue determinedly down the road of exclusion, relentlessly pursued by the outgoing bishop and firmly supported by his appointees. None of us are easily to be lulled into supposing otherwise. Nor are we impressed or convinced by the great untruth, proclaimed by so many, that in the integrity opposed to the ordination of women 'there is not one with the necessary skills'. The mediocre, the safe and the dull will never persuade us of that. What is meant is that there is no one of our opinion who would do the job as it is being done: and to that we say 'Amen! Alleluia!' Would the Church of England, which is being so well-managed out of existence by the present leadership, be brought back to a vigorous and attractive manner of life and ministry if it had a wholly different style of leadership? Our guess is that it would be, and that the ministry of the Episcopal Visitors is clear evidence of this.

So what now?

First, it is important to say with the greatest emphasis, that all within Forward in Faith, in and beyond the diocese of Exeter, wish Michael Langrish and his family well. He is a man of ability and charm. We hope that amid the stresses of life that will assuredly be his he will have time to enjoy Devon and its people. Above all we hope that he will not take the inevitable distance between himself and us as a personal affront; rather that he will understand our position as being as principled as his own. If he can do that we assure him that there will be mutual respect across the divide.

Secondly, it will now be obvious to everyone in our integrity that the dream of inclusion within the post-92 Church of England is just that - a dream. Many have worked hard at trying to earth the dream in reality, within and beyond the diocese of Exeter. But inclusion was never truly a part of the agenda of those who exercise power. The Crown Appointments Commission will not appoint new members of the House of Bishops from our integrity. They will, perhaps, move existing ones around. And when women arrive in the episcopate, as they most surely will, there will be no scope for inclusion left.

Forward in Faith has a solution to this sad state of affairs: the 'Case for a Free Province of the Church of England', about which we have already consulted widely among the membership. As to our future relationship with the See of Canterbury, it will need to be decided between ourselves and the occupant of that See, but our basic needs have been made clear; namely that a Free Province should have:

Sacramental Integrity
Doctrinal Autonomy,
and
Freedom for ecumenical action.

Nothing less will allow the recovery of a sense of evangelical zeal in our parishes.

The response, in the constituency, to our proposals has been an overwhelming endorsement. If there has been any disagreement among us it has been over the perceived caution of the Council, and the slowness of pace we have set ourselves for the realisation of our aims.

That pace may well be quickened by the repeated failure of the Crown Appointments Commission to be inclusive; and by the advent, on the floor of the Synod, of Judith Rose's motion on women in the episcopate.

The Council is at one with the membership in believing that there will eventually have to be such a re-settlement if the Church of England - both integrities - is to be rescued from the dark and unending tunnel of bickering and hurt, in order to concentrate on her ultimate vocation: the conversion of England.

In the last resort, that is the purpose to which God called us at our baptism. It is time to set about winning souls for Christ.