I thank Dave of The Cartoon Blog (which is often more serious than one might imagine) for this story relating to the Church of England diocese of Chelmsford, to which both of us are in some way attached – that is, we are both Anglicans living and worshipping within it. It seems that the Bishop of Chelmsford refused to ordain an ordination candidate, Richard Wood, because this candidate refused to take communion from him. I was actually at the service on 1st July where Richard was to have been ordained, supporting another candidate; Richard’s name was on the service sheet, and the service went ahead without him, with no explanation given.
Why did this strange situation arise? Why would anyone want to be ordained by a bishop from whom they would not take communion? The issue is best explained in an open letter written by the vicar under whom Richard Wood would have served. To summarise, Richard refused to take communion from the bishop
because of the Bishop’s patronage of the campaigning group ‘Changing Attitude’ (an organisation that campaigns for the inclusion of practicing [sic] homosexuals in every area of church life).
Now I agree in not approving of the bishops’ patronage of such a group. Despite what some might think from my recent post at Better Bibles Blog, I consider homosexual activity incompatible with the Christian life and, if not repented of, a disqualification from ministry in the church. I take exactly the same view of heterosexual activity outside marriage.
But I consider the bishop to be entirely justified in refusing to ordain Richard Wood. Bishop Gladwin has been legally appointed to oversee the church in the Chelmsford diocese. He cannot do an effective job as such if the ministers within his diocese are working against him and not accepting his authority, as symbolised by taking communion from him. Indeed it seems very strange that Richard was prepared to submit to the bishop in ordination, and in fact actually did swear canonical obedience to him, but was not prepared to take communion from him. Nevertheless it was clear that he was planning to be part of a group within the diocese which is undermining the bishop’s authority. The bishop is right not to give sustenance to such a group.
In a comment on the Chelmsford Mainstream blog, I suggested that those who take the view which Richard Wood takes should leave the Church of England, or at least the Diocese of Chelmsford. In reply Rev John Richardson writes:
The Church of England, as far as I am concerned, is exactly ‘what it says on the tin’: the Church of England. There is no more reason to leave it because I believe it is mismanaged than to apply for citizenship of another country because I don’t like Labour. It is my Church.
Well, as regular readers of this blog will know, I have fundamental problems with this kind of conception of the church as somehow identified with the nation. But if we follow up this analogy of the church to the state, ministers within the church must be analogous either to government ministers or to civil servants. Government ministers are members of a particular party, and lose their jobs when a government changes; they do not keep their ministries while working against the governing party. Civil servants are expected to be non-political and are not allowed to openly oppose the government; if required to do something they fundamentally disapprove of they have the option of resigning. So, according to this model of the church and following this analogy, Richard Wood and John Richardson should either continue their ministry in a non-political way, accepting the bishop’s authority and keeping their opposition private, or they should resign and become ordinary church members who can express their views as they wish. What they should not do is expect to remain in posts under the bishop’s oversight while openly undermining his authority.
On my own preferred model of the church, these two and the rest of their group who do not accept the bishop’s authority should separate themselves from his diocese and organise their own congregations. I would say the same about the closely linked group in the Church of England, a very small minority now, who do not accept the ordination of women. The Church of England fudged that issue in a characteristic but very unsatisfactory manner more than a decade ago. It should not accept the continuing presence among its ministers of those who do not fully accept the validity of the ministry of others of its ministers.
This whole thing is of course closely linked to the situation in the Anglican Communion over gay bishops. The issue is too complicated to go into here, and I’m not quite sure where I stand on it. But this matter threatens to tear the Church of England apart. Those with John Richardson’s view of the church will no doubt take more and more desperate measures to preserve notional unity, in ways which satisfy absolutely nobody. But it seems to me that the time should come soon for Anglicans to accept that the old system of dioceses and parishes is no longer sustainable or appropriate, and to move on to a completely new model of the church, allowing multiple and separate organisational arrangements in the same geographical area. Hopefully this can be done with an agreement to coexist with mutual recognition of ministries and sacraments, rather than with recriminations and excommunications.