Comment: January 2002

 

Media interest in the Church of England is running at an all-time low. Religious correspondents struggle to get anything in most weeks and even the revelation, in the publication of the bishops' expenses, that the Archbishop of Canterbury is a million pound bargain, was relegated to the deep inside pages. In a desperate effort to enthuse their editors the Holy Hacks have been revisiting the ‘Carey to Retire’ story. They are currently preparing to ‘make a book’ for 2002 and ‘The Canterbury Stakes’.

The current thinking runs something like this. With a third of the current bench in the throes of retirement and a goodly number of others heading towards the free bus pass, the field is not vast. The Bishop of London is widely regarded as more than capable and charismatic. He is, however, not regarded as a team player and certainly not a Synod enthusiast. Also, in spite of his inclusivity in episcopal appointments (Broadbent, Colclough and Sentamu), his lack of enthusiasm for ordaining women may rule him out. After all, the next Archbishop may well be the first to have to consecrate a woman.

The Bishop of Winchester is also a thoughtful and pastoral man, whose oft stated inclusivity will be measured by his appointment to the suffragancy at Basingstoke. His candidacy may be fatally handicapped, however, by the thankless task of determining a workable marriage policy for the Church of England.

The hot money among the hacks is on three men. James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, a liberal evangelical who is thought to be both ambitious and a favourite of the Prime Minister. Jones was originally reckoned to be a great media man, but outings over the last eighteen months have not confirmed initial promise.

Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, is regarded, on all sides, as intellectually capable. For the politically correct, the appointment of an Asian Archbishop for a multicultural England would seem a dream ticket. Nazir-Ali was a bishop at 35 in Pakistan for only two years, before hastily returning to Britain to become the late Robert Runcie's personal assistant. His great drawback though must be that he has never been a real vicar.

And finally there is Christopher Herbert, Bishop of St Albans. Herbert runs the diocese with the most women priests in England (135 in the most recent diocesan book) and has been responsible for the bishops' media brief. His appointment would almost certainly end the Church's public pretence of a commitment to the Act of Synod.

While senior journalists confess privately to being shocked at the paucity of the field of serious contenders, this will come as little surprise to the long-term inmates of the Church of England. What is deeply shocking to us is that this selection procedure (and that of one third of the episcopal bench, now pending) will be conducted under an appointments system held in widespread contempt and roundly condemned by the recent independent inquiry. While Lady Perry's report sits gathering dust on the bishops’ shelves, the Church of England is about to undergo another cynical round of death by episcopal cloning. The CofE cannot afford another ten years of unaccountable ‘leadership ’which does not enjoy the confidence of the people of God.

 

While the Home Secretary was recently trying to steamroller the ill thought out and inadequately defined ‘religious hatred’ measure through Parliament, he let slip, under questioning, an interesting insight into the Government's motivation. This highly contentious clause of the Anti-Terrorism Bill was not, of course, intended to protect all religions from offence (Monty Python is OK, Salman Rushdie isn't). Nor was it deemed necessary to dissuade people from advocating violence. (After all there is more than adequate cover under the incitement laws to prosecute anyone seriously trying to foment hostility.)

The measure, it emerged, was part of a deal with the Islamic governments to keep them generally on-side in the current crisis.

Perhaps the next time the Government is negotiating a deal with leaders of the Muslim world, it should ask for a quid pro quo – legislation and action in Islamic countries that would prevent Christian minorities from the ceaseless persecution that has become their lot with the rise of militant Islam.

As news emerges from the hitherto secret talks about Methodist Reunion, questions are naturally being asked.

The Methodists have let it be known that the whole project is off if the Church of England rejects women bishops. What implications, we wonder, does this ultimatum have for the deliberations of the Rochester Commission?

Rochester was appointed to consider the theological implications of the ordination of women to the episcopate. It would clearly be a nonsense for it to be unduly influenced in its deliberations by a body which has rejected the three-fold ministry as surplus to requirements – one which, in the cant phraseology of modern theological discussion, has had no ‘contemporary experience’ of episcopacy. But at the same time it might be argued that it would be quite improper for the Commission to ignore the protestations of a major ecumenical partner.

Not so. We suggest that the truly Anglican way forward would be completely to ignore these Methodist protestations. This would follow the precedent set with regard to similar pressure brought to bear by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches in the discussions about women in the presbyterate.

More interesting (and more problematical) would be the shape and nature of an episcopate which included both Methodists and women. How would such a body be organised and constituted?

The US solution, in the concordat with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, was the establishment of parallel episcopates, equivalent in orders but distinct in jurisdiction. In England, however, with Forward in Faith’s proposals for a Free Province on the table (and the alleged objections to those proposals being what they are) such a proceeding would cause more problems than it solved. And how in any case could it be squared with the Porvoo Agreement, with its curious insistence on the ‘bums on seats’ notion of episcopacy? Poor Methodists, who would be lacking, on that theology, both sanctifying seats and consequent legitimacy – unless, of course, a new meaning could be given to the term ‘episcopal bench’!

It seems that the Methodist conversations are the writing on the wall for the Church of England. Here is the parting of the ways. Is the CofE interested in Catholic continuity or pan-Protestant unity? Perhaps the decision was taken in 1992; but its implications are still slowly unfolding. If the Methodists continue to insist that the price of healing one schism is the opening of another, then the Council for Christian Unity will have to reconcile itself to a new title: the Council for Anglican Disunity.

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