COMMENT

 

Some events – simple, trivial in themselves – prove to be a watershed. The announcement of Trevor Willmott’s appointment as Bishop of Basingstoke is one of those events.

No one will be surprised that Willmott was a candidate. His name has been on lists before and was rumoured to be one of those considered for the diocese of Europe, where (first of all in Oslo and then in Naples) he served for about five years. As an archdeacon in Durham he gained a marketable reputation as an ardent apparatchik of the one party state.

But this appointment, following so closely on the elevation of his fellow archdeacon to Brixworth, makes it abundantly clear that the failure of diocesans in favour of women’s ordination to appoint suffragans opposed is a clearly articulated policy. Bishops are self-consciously rendering unworkable the diocesan and regional arrangements in the Act of Synod, which they themselves proposed, and are thereby extending the role and importance of the PEVs. Why?

Since this is obviously against their short-term interests (who, in their right mind would want to throw intransigents like us the life-line of a corporate identity?) we need to ask serious questions about the episcopal endgame. How do our chief pastors propose to get themselves out of the mess they got themselves into?

There can, we think, (apart from an unconscionable degree of incompetence) be only two answers. They either intend to postpone the consecration of women bishops for as long as circumstances will allow, and to rely on time alone to emasculate the opposition. Or they intend to go ahead speedily with new legislation which will finally end the present mixed economy.

The first option is risky; but it has the obvious advantage that all the bishops who adopted it would be retired or dead before they could be proved wrong. The danger with such a course of action, needless to say, is that instead of declining gracefully, the opponents might grow in determination and numbers. The PEVs (and there is already quite a college of them, active and retired) might become the permanent nucleus of an ecclesiola in ecclesia.

The second course could easily result in outright rebellion. Parishes up and down the country, who had been assured of a ‘secure place’ in the Church of England (Michael Adie’s words, not ours) might well find themselves unable to contribute financially to a Church which had effectively outlawed them; and bishops who could no longer look to their Archbishop for support and authority might feel obliged to seek it (as FiF North America is in process of doing) from another province.

The judicious appointment of tame suffragans, to limit the influence of the Flying Bishops and shepherd the recalcitrant into gentle oblivion, was clearly the original (and we think the safest) plan. Now that it has changed we can expect, according to the old Chinese curse, far more ‘interesting times’.

 

Three cheers for Bishop Broadbent! (This is not a misprint). Peter Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, has published his expenses, complete with an analysis.

Readers of this magazine will be all too familiar with the masonic secrecy that has surrounded episcopal expenses. They will remember the bully boy tactics and the shabby legal threats that were employed to attempt to silence our campaign to make the bishops as publicly accountable as the ordinary parish priest. To add insult to injury, it then emerged that the cost of episcopal upkeep almost exactly matched the hole in the clergy pension funds.

We have argued consistently that the culture of secrecy is damaging to the outsider's perception of the Church of England, undermines the confidence of its supporters and persistently saps the morale of its employees. Openness, we maintain, would lead to debate, understanding and the development of best practice.

Bishop Broadbent is a shrewd politician and he well understands that transparency is in the bishops' own best interests as well as the interests of the Church. He has set a precedent which, we can only hope, the others will now follow and we applaud him for his ground-breaking initiative.

 

The Scottish Parliament has banned hunting with dogs. As the vermin that can no longer be culled in this way will have to be trapped, poisoned or shot, Brer Fox will have little cause for celebration. The legislation itself is a tribute to the bizarre mixture of urban sentimentalism and manufactured and misplaced class hatred that permeates modern political life. The Beatrix Potter School of Theology is alive and well.

Whether our readers hold a brief for or against hunting, one immense and tragic irony cannot have escaped the orthodox Christian mind. This whole procedure was presided over by Lord David Steel, son of the Manse and former leader of the Liberal Party. Steel's sole parliamentary achievements, you will recall, were to prop up the rotting corpse of a bankrupt and discredited Labour government and to propose and steer through Parliament the 1967 Abortion Bill.

How many foxes Lord Steel's Toy Town Parliament will save is a moot point. His original legislation has already cost the lives of over 5 million unborn children.

An interim report on theological training has emerged from the fledgling Archbishops’ Council. The proposals are for a radical centralization, and (inevitable) homogenization.

‘One general principle can be articulated’, says the report. ‘Training must … be training for ordained ministry in the Church of England as a whole and not just part of it … A reconsideration of the institutional forms of our training provision could be a very creative opportunity to revitalize the connections between our institutions and the wider life of the Church.’

The code is hardly impenetrable. A power struggle is being initiated for the very future of the Church of England. For make no mistake, those who control ‘the institutional forms of our training provision’ control its doctrine, its pastoral style, its social involvement and ultimately the very patterns of its spirituality. They control admission to training, and they control what those who are being trained will learn and know.

Such control, critics of the proposals are already saying, will adversely affect the diversity and comprehensiveness of the Church of England. Worse than that, they will stifle its very vitality.

It is the enduring paradox of the CofE that it is managed by parasites – those middling men who make the institution their career, and in remarkable numbers, rise to dizzy heights within it, whilst never themselves having endured long in any of its pastoral cures. The life of the Church, its missionary zeal and increasingly its financial viability, has come from elsewhere. It has come from those who, instead of hovering on the doubtful fringes of academe awaiting preferment, have got stuck in and got on with the job.

Those men have been raised, over the last century and a half at least, on the theologically hard margins of the church, and seldom at its soft centre. They have been motivated by beliefs and passions which their superiors have been too stylish to endorse.

If theological training is henceforth to be exclusively in the hands of the ‘centre’, the future of the Church of England is doubtful indeed. Chiefs need Indians and institutions need finance. Those needs will most certainly not be met by cloning from the top.

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