EVANGELICALS, FLYING BISHOPS AND THE FUTURE

Roger Beckwith deals with a perennial issue

 

EVANGELICALS are not renowned for the important place in their thinking which they give to bishops. The local congregation and its pastor, with his traditional freehold, are much more central for them. In the local parish they can provide biblical teaching and worship as they think suitable, and can maintain fellowship with like-minded parishes elsewhere, in and out of the diocese. The role of the bishop is apt to be seen as just providing diocesan administration, especially of a financial sort, and making occasional visits to confirm adolescent and adult believers. Such a long-range and intermittent relationship with the bishop is very different from the theological ideal, according to which the bishop, like the presbyter, is a pastor and teacher, and should be the chief pastor and teacher in his diocese. Both bishop and presbyter find their origin in the presbyter-bishop of the New Testament, and should be doing similar work to each other, co-operatively, even if in somewhat different spheres. The problem is that, with so many bishops and Evangelical clergy out of sympathy with one another because of their conflicting views, the bishop is often regarded by the incumbent as a threat more than a support, and close relations are consequently avoided.

The Anglo-Catholic incumbent sees the bishop in a rather different light. Since the Anglo-Catholic's primary concern is not for the ministry of the word but for the ministry of the sacraments, he can contemplate close relations even with a bishop of very different views, provided that he too ministers valid sacraments. With that proviso, he can fairly happily think of himself as the delegate in his parish of the diocesan bishop, and as a member of the bishop's team of clergy, working towards common goals throughout the diocese.

When, however, a bishop starts to ordain or license women priests, he is seen by the Anglo-Catholic as causing a schism in his diocesan team, by introducing among them those who will minister sacraments which are at the very least dubious, and quite possibly invalid. In the Anglo-Catholic's eyes, this is even more serious than false teaching, and causes him to look for a different bishop. The creation of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors (PEVs), popularly called 'Flying Bishops', under the 1993 Act of Synod has been a response to this quest, and since the PEVs appointed have all up to now been Anglo-Catholics, Anglo-Catholic clergy have naturally developed a very close relationship with them, closer indeed than they may ever have known with a bishop before. Busy though the PEVs have undoubtedly been, it has been a business with pastoral work, since they have not been burdened with diocesan administration, and this has maximized their close relation with their clergy and parishes.

Evangelical Difficulties

Evangelicals, however, have had a threefold difficulty in availing themselves of the ministry of the PEVs, despite the generous willingness of the PEVs to provide it.

The first difficulty has been the characteristic Evangelical attitude of wanting to keep bishops at long distance, and to run the work of the parish with a minimum of intervention from outside.

The second difficulty has been the hesitancy of Evangelical clergy to ask their parishes to pass the resolutions against the ministry of women priests, one or both of which is required by the Act of Synod to be passed before a request is made for alternative episcopal oversight. This hesitancy is due to the fact that even those many Evangelicals who consider the ordination of women as presbyters unbiblical would not regard it as the greatest problem facing the church, with homosexual activity and multi-faith worship being allowed and encouraged as well. To concentrate on the ordination of women would seem to show the lack of a due sense of proportion. The third difficulty has been the fact that the existing PEVs, though excellent men, are all Anglo-Catholics, the repeated requests for an Evangelical PEV having been refused. Particularly in dioceses where the diocesan bishop is an Evangelical, sound in all respects except the ordination of women, an Evangelical parish would not be easily persuaded to ask for an Anglo-Catholic PEV instead.

But though Evangelicals have, with some exceptions, hesitated to avail themselves of the ministry of the PEVs, it is hardly possible for them to be satisfied with the status quo.

For one thing, to belong to an episcopal church but to shun the ministry of bishops is an inconsistency, which only exceptional circumstances could justify. If a bishop also is a teacher and pastor, parishes really need their bishop as well as their incumbent.

For a second thing, recent legislation has made it more important than ever for parishes to have the support of a friendly bishop. An unfriendly diocesan now has great power to interfere with the work of even strong parishes when a vacancy occurs. Under the Pastoral Measure he can suspend presentation and appoint a priest-in-charge of his own choosing; and under the Benefices Measure, even if he does not suspend presentation, he can veto the patron's and parish's choice of a new incumbent. It would be much more difficult for him to do either of these things, however, against the determimed opposition of a PEV.

And for a third thing, the repeated requests for an Evangelical PEV are tacit acknowledgement of the great benefit that this ministry has brought to Anglo-Catholics; and the desperate measures to which Evangelicals in the Newcastle and Worcester dioceses have recently been driven in the absence of any such provision (however justified in the circumstances those measures may have been) could not provide permanent solutions to the problem, except in terms of a further serious weakening of discipline and order, and might even lead to complete separation from the Church of England.

Necessary Developments

What, then, is the right way forward? Surely it is to work for a development of the ministry of PEVs, such as would provide for the needs of Evangelicals, without ceasing to provide for the needs of Anglo-Catholics. A development of what already exists is always easier to achieve than something completely new, and in this case the kinds of development needed are logical extensions, which ought not to be highly controversial. Regretfully, the cautious report of the Bishop of Blackburn's working party to the House of Bishops on the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod, recently published, has not proposed any of these developments, and even what it has proposed has not been warmly received by those unfriendly to the Act of Synod; but that is no reason why Evangelicals, from quite outside the working party, should not propose them, or why the Archbishops (who appoint the PEVs) or the PEVs themselves should not sympathise with what they propose. Certainly, the Archbishops would rather see Evangelicals embracing the concept of PEVs in some form, than engaging any further in irregular ordinations or confirmations. And, to make this possible, as well as to give logical completeness and consistency to the concept of a PEV, the following proposals in particular would seem to be called for.

1. It would be logical to extend the duties of PEVs to all pastoral tasks performed by bishops, not only the confirmation of the laity (the task originally envisaged for PEVs) but also the selection of ordinands and the ordination and institution or licensing of the clergy. In some dioceses the PEVs already play a part, by permission, in selecting ordinands and in ordaining clergy, and though institution and licensing are at present withheld from them, there are insistent requests that within their constituency all these tasks should be conceded, and the Bishop of Blackburn's working party has made a slight move in this direction. The PEVs cannot ordain candidates without considering their suitability for ordination, or for the sphere where they hope to serve, so why should the diocesan bishop duplicate the PEV's role here? And the PEVs are the natural choice to institute or license clergy to the parishes in their care, especially clergy whom they have themselves ordained. From the parish's point of view, moreover, a parish needs to be able to relate to one and the same bishop on all pastoral matters.

2. It would be logical to extend the grounds on which parishes may request the ministry of a PEV from the fact that the diocesan bishop ordains women priests to the fact that he engages in other controversial forms of teaching and activity which are widely regarded by Anglicans as being in conflict with Holy Scripture, and which cause deep offence at the parochial level. Topical examples concern sexual morality and multi-faith worship. (One notes that it was homosexual permissiveness and not the ordination of women which motivated the appointment in January of "missionary bishops" for the USA by the Archbishops of Singapore and Rwanda). Frivolous or trivial objections to the diocesan bishop's ministry would of course be rejected. But sadly we live in a generation when the grounds for complaint about bishops are sometimes anything but frivolous or trivial. This extension of grounds would not prevent the parish, in appropriate cases, calling for the diocesan bishop's resignation, but it would take account of the fact that unorthodox bishops usually do not resign, even when called upon to do so by the two Archbishops (as in the case of the late Bishop E.W. Barnes of Birmingham).

3. It would be logical to provide that in future the parish's request for alternative episcopal oversight should be addressed not to the diocesan bishop (an interested party) but to the Archbishop, who would discuss it with one of his PEVs before deciding on his answer. (Technically, it would then not be "extended episcopal oversight", as it is officially called, but "extended archiepiscopal oversight", and at the same time "alternative episcopal oversight" - the popular name).

The first and third of these proposals would put the PEVs on a parity with the diocesan bishops in all important pastoral matters, though administrative matters would remain for the present with the diocesan bishop. In the long run, and with sufficient back-up, the PEVs ought probably to be willing to take on administrative burdens as well, and the diocesan bishops ought to be willing to surrender them. The idea of the geographical integrity of dioceses, stressed once again by the Bishop of Blackburn's working party, is an obstacle to this, but the geographical integrity of dioceses is an entirely modern phenomenon in England (formerly dioceses often contained peculiars in the jurisdiction of bishops from elsewhere); and since the Archbishop commissions the PEV to work throughout his province, the PEV ought to be free to do so without constantly deferring to the local diocesan bishop. It should be borne in mind that the PEV is not a suffragan in the diocese of Canterbury or the diocese of York - he is a provincial suffragan, like a diocesan bishop, and ought to have the same degree of independence, subject always to his duty to the Archbishop.

4. It would be logical for the Archbishops to say publicly (what has already been said privately) that, just as they have appointed Anglo-Catholic PEVs to minister to Anglo-Catholic parishes, so they would be willing to appoint PEVs of other schools of thought to minister to their own constituency, if there were sufficient demand for them from parishes. (We would then need to show that there is.)

These proposals could be discussed with others in the church working to promote alternative episcopal oversight (notably with the Third Province Movement and Forward in Faith) and then, hopefully, be put forward to the Archbishops with their support. It seems quite possible that the Archbishops, who are known to appreciate the ministry of the PEVs, would sympathise with all four proposals (though there would obviously be some in the General Synod and the Archbishops' Council who would not). The question of a third province belongs to the future, but these four modest proposals could be implemented, perhaps by amendments to the Act of Synod, straight away. With determination on the part of those making the proposals, and goodwill on the part of the authorities, they can be.

Roger Beckwith was until recently the Reform representative on the Forward in Faith Council.

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