Bishops without borders, including women

Anglican Mainstream reports these words of Bishop Don Harvey, leader of the Anglican Network in Canada which is breaking away from the official Anglican Church of Canada:

There is no reference in the Bible to a diocese, border, or boundary.  I have heard ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel’. We have lawyers and doctors and engineers without borders. We are launching bishops without borders.

But it is not just in Canada that bishops are soon going to be operating without borders. Last night I attended an open meeting the synod of my deanery (local group of Anglican churches) to discuss the issue of women bishops. The discussion was not really about the principle of consecrating women to the episcopate, which was accepted on a straw poll by all but one of the 50 or so voting members, and has already been accepted in principle by the General Synod of the Church of England. The real issue, it seems, is what arrangements should be made for the minority who cannot accept the validity of the orders of a woman bishop. These are mostly the same people who cannot accept women priests, but have continued in the Church of England under the special arrangements made for them.

Coincidentally on the same day as our local synod meeting, Ruth Gledhill reported on the options being considered for those who reject women bishops.

Interestingly, neither side in the debate seems to favour an extension of the “flying bishops” scheme used for episcopal oversight of those who object to women priests. One of the “flying bishops” is the Bishop of Ebbsfleet who has commented on Ruth Gledhill’s article. In fact these “flying bishops”, officially known as Provincial Episcopal Visitors, are already “bishops without borders” at least within one province, although technically working by invitation of the diocesan bishop.

It seems that the two most favoured proposals are to offer “conscientious objector” status to those who cannot fully accept women bishops and to create a separate province for them. The “conscientious objector” option is not popular among those who might be expected to take it up, who feel it would leave them with a second class status in the church. They would prefer the “third province” alternative, but, as Ruth Gledhill reports,

This idea has consistently been dismissed by those in ‘leadership’ and authority as a no-hoper and non-starter. I’ve wondered myself whether it had ‘legs’.

But the actions of one Gregory Venables rather change all that.

Yes, this is the same Presiding Bishop Venables of the Southern Cone who has extended his authority to North America. If he can do that, there is nothing to stop him or another Primate from extending their authority also to England to embrace the clergy and parishes here who cannot accept women bishops. If these clergy and parishes cannot accept “conscientious objector” status, this is becomes an alternative open to them, one which some of them may be quick to embrace.

So, while it is understandable that the Church of England hierarchy do not want to approve a separate province operating in England, in practice it is likely to happen whether or not they approve it.

The implication of this is that in England, as already in Canada, there will soon be bishops operating without borders, that is, across the established diocesan boundaries and without reference to the regular diocesan bishops. More and more different reasons are being found for rejecting the authority of the diocesan bishops – not just those who are women and their supporters, but also homosexuals and their supporters.

As far as I can see there is only one possible outcome of this process: a situation in which there are multiple parallel provinces or denominations, all considering themselves Anglican, and each clergy person or local congregation makes their own choice about which of them to affiliate with. The only open question, as far as I can see, is this: Will this situation will be accepted by the Anglican Communion and the Archbishop of Canterbury, such that all of these groups can remain in some sense in communion and fellowship with one another? Or will the currently recognised leaders try to resist the inevitable and fight it with law suits, leading to bitter recriminations and mutual excommunications?

Perhaps the Eastern Orthodox churches can be a useful model here. In principle their authority is divided up on geographical lines as in the Anglican Communion, and they do have rules like

Let no bishop dare confer ordinations outside his own boundaries, in cities and territories not subject to him.

But as I understand it, at least in western countries where there is no traditional Orthodox hierarchy, a situation has become accepted in practice in which several different Orthodox churches operate in the same territory, each with its own network of local congregations, while remaining in communion with one another. Thus the geographical principle of organisation has been lost, and replaced by a non-geographical hierarchy based on historical links and similarity of practice. I see a move within Anglicanism towards this model as not only inevitable but also desirable.

But this idea of crossing diocesan and parish boundaries is not something new in the current controversies. It goes back over 250 years to the early days of Methodism when, starting in 1739, Whitefield and Wesley began preaching in the open air, ignoring parish boundaries. They did that because most parish ministers did not allow the preaching of the true gospel in their churches or parishes. Sadly, this is still the situation in large parts of the Anglican world. A similar situation requires a similar response. To return to Bishop Harvey’s words,

There is no reference in the Bible to a diocese, border, or boundary.  I have heard ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel’.

Indeed, as Christians we should not let borders restrict the preaching of the gospel, but where necessary cross them so that we can obey Jesus’ last command (Mark 16:15, which is textually uncertain but compare the certain Matthew 28:19), to go to preach the gospel not just to those places where we are invited, but into all the world.

If to do so, to obey the word of God, we need to go against the man-made rules of the Church of England, as Wesley did reluctantly, then so be it. Sometimes we need to say to the religious authorities, as Peter and John did,

Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! 20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.

Acts 4:19-20 (TNIV)

0 thoughts on “Bishops without borders, including women

  1. We’re facing similar issues in Oz:

    The view in Sydney seems to be best captured by this quote from one of the female comp’s:

    Lesley Ramsay from Equal but Different has a similar position.

    “We haven’t moved,” she says. “It’s the proponents of women bishops who have stepped away from the traditional biblical teaching of the Anglican Church, so it’s up to them to care for minorities impacted by their decision.”

  2. Thank you, Sam. But what is this “traditional biblical teaching of the Anglican Church”? There is nothing in the Bible against women bishops. Not allowing them is traditional, indeed, but it is in fact a tradition inherited from the pre-Reformation Catholics, and not seriously discussed until recently. I don’t think it has ever been the theological teaching of the Anglican Church that women should not be bishops, it is just that administratively it never happened until rather recently.

  3. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Provinces, dioceses and parishes: relics of mediaeval Christendom which must go

  4. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom » Possibly another hopeful moment in the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image