Bishop refuses to ordain candidate who won't take communion from him

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.

0 thoughts on “Bishop refuses to ordain candidate who won't take communion from him

  1. Peter, I think this argument, which says so much about what I should do, fails to understand what I mean by saying the Church of England is simply ‘the’ Church ‘of’ England.

    You have rightly taken this to mean that it is “somehow identified with the nation”, but wrongly interpreted the “somehow”.

    By an identity with England, I mean essentially a place. The Church of England is the Church ‘here’, in England. Being ‘in England’, the Church reflects past history and present circumstances in its structures. One result of this is the ‘lawful authority’ of the bishop, imparted to him by the Crown, which I (and, I think, Richard Wood) accept. I don’t actually have much choice in that anyway. The terms of that authority are, however, limited by the phrase ‘lawful and honest’ in the oath of canonical obedience. (This is not to say that I would set out to be disloyal, but a wider ‘loyalty’ than to the letter of the law requires a less formal situation of trust.)

    Being ‘the Church’, however, means there is a flexibility to what we are and what we may become. Ultimately, our identity comes from Christ and our unity is in him, just as our ability to live and work together in the gospel comes from being of “the same mind and the same judgement” (1 Cor 1).

    Being the Church of England does not mean drawing a line across history and saying nothing must alter after this, or even ‘there is no going back after this’.

    This is also why I believe we must find a way to be one Church with different views on women’s ministry. And while we’re on that point, I find it odd that the ‘minority’ on this issue must go (purifying the church?) – because it is a minority – whilst it is argued elsewhere that other minorities must not only stay but be ensured ‘full representation’.

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  3. Are you really surprised John that the ones they want out are those who are prepared to stand by the truth and not compromise?

  4. Glenn, I don’t know who you mean by “they”. If you are speaking of what I have written, personally and without consultation with others, the ones I suggest leave are those who work against their leader, undermining his authority and the work of all the churches under him.

    In your New Frontiers churches, what would happen to a group of church leaders who publicly opposed Terry Virgo and his teaching and practices, called him “evil” and refused to have fellowship with him, but insisted on remaining within New Frontiers? Do you think they would be allowed to remain? To me, a lot of the problems in the Church of England is that those in authority allow anything to go, on any side of the spectrum.

    Meanwhile I am working on a fuller response to John.

  5. John, I accept that I may not have fully understood your view of the church. But I still cannot accept it. I do not accept that the Church of England, as a visible unit, is to be identified with the church in England, which consists of the sum of all Christian believers in England, many of whom are not C of E, and may exclude some who call themselves C of E but are not true believers. Anyway I do not consider “the church in England” to be a meaningful entity, since the political boundaries of England are not entity boundaries within the church of God.

    I accept the Church of England as an administrative convenience only, and only in so far as it actually is convenient and does not become a hindrance. For, as you say, “our identity comes from Christ and our unity is in him”, not in any denominational structure. That is why I would not consider it a disaster for the Church of England to divide over matters like this into separate organisational structures, each with their own hierarchies, but remaining in communion with one another and perhaps inside a reformed (with a small “r”) Anglican Communion.

    Indeed the whole parish system, whereby everyone is expected to go to their local parish church and each church’s work is restricted to that parish, has become a total anachronism. In fact it has been for more than a century, since people started to attend High Church or Evangelical churches based on preference rather than geography. In today’s highly mobile society it has become a joke; I understand that it is now a rare church which draws more than half its congregation from within its parish boundaries. All it means is that churches have to restrict their work arbitrarily, leaving “dead zones” for the gospel where a local church is liberal or simply lazy.

    So, I think it is time for the diocese and parish system to go. It has become a noose in which the Church of England is strangling itself. It is time to cut the noose.

  6. Peter
    It’s clear that a leader wouldn’t have to go as far as opposing Terry Virgo publicly or calling him evil, to be forced out of Newfrontiers, they would be removed for far less

  7. Quote: ‘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.’ (Peter)

    I agree with you on this Peter. I also share your view that the bishop could not be expected to ordain a person with whom he is not in communion.

    I don’t want to comment on the candidate’s motives, but I don’t see that taking communion reflects submission to the church authority of the one overseeing and administering the elements. It would, however, reflect an acknowledgement that the one overseeing the communion is suitably qualified.

    The question raised by John Wood’s decision is really whether or not the bishop has disqualified himself from ministry by allegedly giving patronage to the group ‘Changing Attitude’. On this, I don’t have enough information to form a
    judgement. I hope the answer is no.

    Norman McIlwain

  8. Thank you, Norman. I didn’t mean to imply that in general accepting communion from someone implies submitting to their authority. My point was rather that in this case refusal to accept communion from the bishop implies rejection of his authority. The Church of England position, from Article 26, is clear, that a bishop’s personal actions do not in themselves disqualify him from ministry. This has been the consistent position of the church at least since the Donatist controversy. It is certainly not up to individuals or pressure groups to judge a bishop; if he has done wrong, the matter should be taken up through the ordinary channels of discipline of the church. And if, in the opinion of these people, those channels are fatally flawed, I suggest that they look for another church which exercises what they consider to be proper discipline.

  9. One more point: People will form judgements about others – we do it all the time – and people will judge bishops by what they say and do publically. We are not to ‘condemn’ – that is a different matter.

    Church discipline, of course, should be applied by the church elders and, as you say, if we feel that it is seriously misapplied or honoured more in the breach then we should go elsewhere.

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  11. “Ugley” is not … mis-spelled (quote)

    “publically” is! … How did I do that??

    In the Anglican Church, as I understand it, communicants recognize the rightness of the office of those administering, not the person. So, even if the the overseer is a reprobate (not suggesting that the bishop is), communion can still be received. Although Richard Wood believes the bishop to be in error, the bishop is still a Christian and one aspect of communion that should be stressed is that we are spiritually united in Christ – in spite of our differences. However, if he were troubled in conscience, then he was right to forego – sad though this must have been.

    I think you are right about diocese boundaries. Richard Wood could have happily received communion and ordination from another bishop of the Anglican Church.

    This may yet happen.

    Norman McIlwain

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