Sense over women bishops

For once the Church of England seems to have made a very sensible decision. The General Synod last night passed a motion (see Ruth Gledhill’s blog for a detailed account of the debate) affirming its intention to move towards having women bishops and agreeing these two important safeguards:

this Synod…

(b) affirm its view that special arrangements be available, within the existing structures of the Church of England, for those who as a matter of theological conviction will not be able to receive the ministry of women as bishops or priests;

(c) affirm that these should be contained in a statutory national code of practice to which all concerned would be required to have regard …

Thus the church has gone out of its way to make proper provision, through a binding code of practice, for those who do not accept women as bishops. What more does that small minority in the church want? The code of practice is still to be drafted, but these people are not interested in trying to make it work as well as it can in their favour. Apparently they will not accept anything called a code of practice but only something enshrined in detail in parliamentary legislation.

This is what I have condemned as Caesaropapism, putting the church under the control of the church. This is what I fundamentally cannot accept in the Church of England. But I am astonished to find this position being espoused not just by Anglo-Catholics but by the conservative evangelical John Richardson, who quotes with approval Thomas Cranmer’s argument that the apostles did not have the right to appoint ministers to churches but that the secular authorities do have this right. The problem is that this right of the secular authorities is not a God-given one but one asserted by Henry VIII, under the guidance of the same Cranmer. Henry and Cranmer did what they may have needed to do in their time, but Cranmer was wrong if he intended to elevate this to a permanent general principle. Over the centuries the headship of the sovereign and parliament over the Church of England has quite properly dwindled away to something largely nominal. Some of us would like to see even the remaining vestiges swept away. I am sure that even more of us have serious problems with the attempts of people like John Richardson to reassert and extend state control of the church. That is why the church rightly rejected the amendments yesterday calling for such matters to be enshrined in legislation and agreed on the principle of a binding code of practice.

Caesaropapism, a dangerous path for the Church of England

In a previous post I mentioned how the GAFCON process seemed to be straying into the error of Donatism. Meanwhile it is somewhat ironic to find that another group of conservative Anglicans, this time only in the Church of England, are falling into the error of the opponents of Donatism, Caesaropapism, the teaching that the secular authorities have authority over the church.

One of the first historical examples of Caesaropapism was when the emperor Constantine banished the Donatists in Carthage. But actually, if this account is accurate, it was the Donatists who first appealed to the imperial commissioners to overrule the decision of the church council, only to have the emperor also find against them and enforce his findings.

Ruth Gledhill writes today, in The Times and on her blog (see my comment), of what could easily turn into a similar situation. The opponents of women bishops she writes about are not the same people as the organisers of GAFCON, but they are certainly linked. And it is these opponents who are apparently appealing to the state over the head of the church. She writes, in The Times:

The letter’s signatories – who represent 10 per cent of practising clergy and hundreds of retired priests – will accept women bishops only if they have a legal right to separate havens within the Church.

Now it is not entirely clear from the actual letter that the signatories really meant that the only safeguard they would accept would be a law enacted by Parliament, but that seems to be Ruth’s understanding of the situation. The signatories do write with approval of the safeguard they currently have in the 1993 legislation on ordination of women to the priesthood, as

the framework which has allowed us to continue to live and work in a church which has taken the decision to allow women to be ordained, but which has also made room for us, and honoured our beliefs and convictions.

And now they are requesting a similar framework for a future with women bishops, as

provision which offers us real ecclesial integrity and security.

Implicitly if not explicitly, what they are demanding is new legislation, with a threat to leave the Church of England if their demands are not met. That is to say, they are demanding Caesaropapism, that the state extends its authority over the church.

These people had better be careful, as they might find, as the Donatists did, that their appeal to the state backfires on them. The current British government is not likely to be sympathetic to any request from the church to institutionalise gender discrimination, as this would be seen from their secular viewpoint. If the government is wise, it will take the attitude of Gallio the Roman proconsul, who told the Christians and Jews to sort out their own problems without involving the state, Acts 18:12-17. But the current government, one of the most anti-clerical in British history, cannot necessarily be trusted to show this wisdom. If it is asked to intervene in this matter, it may well choose to do so not in the way requested but according to its own principles. If it does that, we can expect to see legislation removing the exemption of the church from discrimination legislation. That would imply that it is forced to appoint women, gays, lesbians, and perhaps even adherents of other religions to all church positions without discrimination. This is surely not what the opponents of women bishops want. But if they want to minimise the danger of this, they should avoid tempting the state to intervene.

The best way forward here is surely for the church to make its own binding and enforceable rules about such matters. Regrettably these signatories don’t seem to trust the General Synod to make its own rules and enforce them, but insist instead that the state does it for them. It is a sad day when Gordon Brown is considered a more trustworthy church leader than Rowan Williams.

The Donatists, GAFCON, and the Todd Bentley critics

The Donatists were a schismatic group in the early church, mainly in North Africa, who, to put things simply, broke away from the mainstream church because they rejected the authority of leaders, such as bishops, who had sinned. The specific problem was with Christian leaders who had compromised during a period of persecution:

The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority of the priests and bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution.

They refused to accept the repentance of these traditors and held that sacraments performed by them were invalid.

This is known as: ex opere operantis — Latin for from the work of the one doing the working, that is, that the validity of the sacrament depends upon the worthiness and holiness of the minister confecting it. The Catholic position was (and is): ex opere operato — from the work having been worked, in other words, that the validity of the sacrament depends upon the holiness of God, the minister being a mere instrument of God’s work, so that any priest or bishop, even one in a state of mortal sin, who speaks the formula of the sacrament with valid matter and the intent of causing the sacrament to occur acts validly.

At the Reformation, although some of the radicals may have taken the Donatist position, the majority continued to hold that it was wrong. Article XXVI of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England condemns Donatism, and extends the ex opere operato principle to preaching as well as sacraments:

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Doug Chaplin calls this The least believed article, and he may be right. It certainly seems to be the least believed by the GAFCON participants, who in their Final Statement, the same one I reported and commented on here, write:

4. We uphold the Thirty-nine Articles as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today.

How do they reconcile their affirmation of Article XXVI with the following part of their statement?:

13. We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed.

It seems that Donatism is still alive and well in Africa, and the other homes of the GAFCON participants.

Another place where Donatism seems to be alive and well is among the critics of Todd Bentley. The Internet, including comments on this blog, is full of savage statements which imply that because Todd allegedly did something wrong, or which might be understood as wrong, this invalidates his whole ministry. It does not. The accusations brought range from his pre-conversion criminal offence, through his tattoos, some questionable teaching about angels several years ago and his occasional use of violent methods while ministering, to his allegedly wrong fundraising methods at Lakeland. Now to those who reject Donatism these charges are of little relevance. Even if all are true and about genuine wrongdoing, this does not invalidate Todd’s preaching except when explicitly in error, nor his other ministry at least to the extent that it is sacramental. And I would hold that Todd’s ministry of healing and of impartation is genuinely sacramental, an outward sign performed by Todd of an inward work which is of the Holy Spirit.

But then could all these Donatists have it right? The anti-Donatist position clearly opens the dangerous way to the church leadership being taken over by those who compromise their faith. Indeed this happened within a generation or so of the original rejection of the Donatist position, as the anti-Donatists quickly made friends with the secular powers led by the new emperor Constantine, leading to an age in which the secular powers had authority over the church. So, if Donatism is rejected, is there any safeguard against the church lapsing into compromise?

On this point, in my opinion, the safest principle to follow is that of the wise Jewish leader Gamaliel, who advised:

Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.

Acts 5:38-39 (TNIV)

In other words, let the bad churches and ministries grow alongside the good ones, without trying to root them out, and let God provide the vindication of those which are good and the judgment on those which are not.

It should be clear how to apply this to Todd Bentley, but perhaps not to the situation GAFCON is addressing. Here in the Church of England there is room for a variety of local congregations and for the Gamaliel principle to be used to separate the good from the bad – although this is threatened by the way in which successful congregations are in effect taxed, through the Parish Share system, to subsidise those which are failing. The real problem is in North America, where Anglican church authorities are making life very difficult for orthodox congregations. My own solution to that kind of situation would not be to set up a new structure, but instead for each orthodox congregation to branch out on its own – if necessary leaving behind the assets which are now being legally disputed, and which can be a burden rather than a help to a faithful congregation. If the Anglican authorities in a certain area do not allow the faithful preaching of the Word of God, then faithful believers should wash their hands of Anglicanism and minister in other structures.

Rowan Williams and NT Wright respond to GAFCON

On Saturday I linked to Ruth Gledhill’s report of the final communiqué from GAFCON, with its veiled plans for schism in the Anglican Communion. She has now reported some interesting episcopal reactions, from Archbishop Rowan Williams and from “+THOMAS DUNELM:”, who for those unfamiliar with Anglican-speak is none other than the infamous NT Wright, Bishop of Durham.

The response from Williams (UPDATE: taken from here) surprises me. A large part of it focuses on the practical difficulties of schism rather than on the principles, almost suggesting that Williams is saying that the GAFCON leaders should make sure they do the schism properly. But he also claims that

The ‘tenets of orthodoxy’ spelled out in the [GAFCON] document will be acceptable to and shared by the vast majority of Anglicans in every province, even if there may be differences of emphasis and perspective on some issues.

Well, if that is true, why not present the document to the Lambeth Conference? If every province accepts it by a large majority as Rowan imagines, the schism is over. But is does Rowan really think that every province will endorse the following, even with “differences of emphasis and perspective”?:

8. We acknowledge God’s creation of humankind as male and female and the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family. We repent of our failures to maintain this standard and call for a renewed commitment to lifelong fidelity in marriage and abstinence for those who are not married.

If so, he is clearly even more out of touch than I had thought. And even more seriously, would there really be near universal acceptance of the following?:

5. We gladly proclaim and submit to the unique and universal Lordship of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, humanity’s only Saviour from sin, judgement and hell, who lived the life we could not live and died the death that we deserve. By his atoning death and glorious resurrection, he secured the redemption of all who come to him in repentance and faith.

In the end all that Rowan can do is to quote completely out of context

the words of the Apostle in I Cor.11.33: ‘wait for one another’.

But how long are people to wait? There needs to be a willingness to wait on both sides. The North American churches were not prepared to wait before ordaining a gay bishop etc. Why should others wait?

Then, after some negative comments by Bishop Chane, presumably of Washington DC, Ruth moves on to quote “+THOMAS DUNELM:”, NT Wright. Wright’s comments (UPDATE: taken from here) are long, and generally very positive about the GAFCON process. This part is interesting:

I fully agree with the GAFCON statement – and with Archbishop Rowan – that the Communion instruments have not been able to deal with the problems, and that we need to find better ways of going about it.

He also puts paid to any suggestion that he has a colonialist attitude:

What’s more, it is enormously exciting to live at a time when new leadership is arising from places completely outside the north Atlantic axis. Africa was one of the great cradles of early Christianity, producing such towering minds as Tertullian and Augustine. Most of us have long ago moved away from any idea that Christianity, or even Anglicanism, somehow ‘belongs’ to England or northern Europe. … I would have hoped, actually, that all this would now go without saying: that we have long moved beyond the sterile stand-off between ‘colonialism’ and ‘post-colonialism’. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s what matters.

Interestingly, he says that he was not invited to GAFCON. But then that may be because he attacked it in the Church Times perhaps before the invitation list was drawn up. In fact now he seems less critical than he was before, but in the end he rejects the whole GAFCON process:

In particular, though, there is something very odd about the proposal to form a ‘Council’ and then to ask such a body to ‘authenticate and recognise confessing Anglican jurisdictions, clergy and congregations’ – and then, as an addition, ‘to encourage all Anglicans to promote the gospel and defend the faith’. Many Anglicans around the world intend to do that in any case, and will not understand why they need to be ‘recognised’ or ‘authenticated’ by a new, self-selected and non-representative body to which they were not invited and which will not itself, it seems be accountable to anyone else.

He fears that the document

offers a blank cheque to anyone who wants to defy a bishop for whatever reasons, even if the bishop in question is scrupulously orthodox, and then to claim the right to alternative jurisdictional oversight. This cannot be the way forward; nor do I think most of those at GAFCON intended such a thing. …

… if GAFCON is to join up with the great majority of faithful, joyful Anglicans around the world, rather than to invite them to leave their present allegiance and sign up to a movement which is as yet – to put it mildly – strange in form and uncertain in destination, it is not so much that GAFCON needs to invite others to sign up and join in. Bishops, clergy and congregations should think very carefully before taking such a step, which will have enormous and confusing consequences. Rather, GAFCON itself needs to bring its rich experience and gospel-driven exuberance to the larger party where the rest of us are working day and night for the same gospel, the same biblical wisdom, the same Lord.

Indeed it would be wonderful if GAFCON could bring its experience and exuberance to the larger party. But the problem is that some of those at the party seem not to be working for the same gospel, some might wonder if even for the same Lord. If the people working together cannot even agree on their goals, there is little point in them working together as they will simply undo one another’s work. Williams and Wright claim that this is not what will happen, but Williams has failed to reassure the GAFCON primates of this. Again, Williams is saying too little, too late. Unfortunately the result is a momentum towards schism which he seems powerless to stop.

Chelmsford parishes to break away?

I have been catching up on news about GAFCON, especially through John Richardson’s Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream blog and the Church Times Blog run by another Essex Anglican, Dave Walker. The latest news is a denial that GAFCON will cause schism in the Anglican Communion.

But there is one important news report, by Ruth Gledhill in the Times, whose significance for Essex Anglicans neither of these bloggers seems to have noticed; John ignores it completely, while Dave links to it by title without mention of the relevant part. Here is that relevant part of what Ruth writes, concerning an international conservative Anglican Fellowship which may be set up in the aftermath of GAFCON:

Members of the fellowship could attempt to opt out of the pastoral care of their diocesan bishop and seek oversight from a more conservative archbishop, either from their own country or abroad.

The success of the fellowship in averting schism will depend on the response of the local leadership.

It is understood that hundreds of parishes in England could be interested in joining such a fellowship, if it did not mean schism from the Church of England.

The dioceses most affected by parishes looking for more conservative leadership are understood to include Chelmsford, St Albans and Southwark.

Graham Kings reports this on the Fulcrum GAFCON forum, “Monday 23 June 2008 – 09:12am”, but has little to add himself.

So we are talking about hundreds of parishes in England, and Chelmsford as one of the most affected dioceses. That means, I suppose, dozens of parishes in Essex and east London expected to join such a Fellowship and possibly “attempt to opt out of the pastoral care of their diocesan bishop”. If this happens, it will indeed be big news. But if so, why is it being announced in hints by Ruth Gledhill, and why is John Richardson, who as spokesman for Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream is certain to be close to the heart of this, making no mention of this story?

But then perhaps John was alluding to intentions of this kind when, on his personal blog The Ugley Vicar, he quoted with apparent approval the following words of Nigel Atkinson:

What will we have then achieved? We will have formed ourselves into a coherent ecclesial body. We will have our bishops, our clergy, our parishes, our people and our money welded together.

This was outwardly in a different context, that of women bishops. But could there be a plan to bring the two aspects together, to set up, formally within the Anglican Communion, “a coherent ecclesial body” with its own bishops, clergy and parishes, united not only by opposition to women bishops but also by a broader opposition to liberal trends in the Church of England?

The problem with that plan is, where would it leave the large number of us Anglicans who support ordination of women but reject what really is creeping liberalism?

Impartation and Ordination

Henry Neufeld asked the question, in this post at Threads from Henry’s Web, whether there is some kind of impartation, analogous to what Todd Bentley offers, in ordination to the priesthood or pastorate. The following is adapted and expanded from a comment I made on that post.

First I want to look at some biblical material which links impartation and what might be considered the biblical prototype of ordination.

We do have at least one mass impartation meeting in the Bible, in Acts 8:15-17, where Peter and John placed their hands on large numbers of people in Samaria and they each received the Holy Spirit. In verse 18 we read specifically that “the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands” (TNIV). These people were already baptised believers but had not experienced the Holy Spirit in their own lives. This sounds all very like Lakeland to me, although I am sure many of the people receiving an impartation from Todd Bentley have been filled with the Spirit before and are seeking a refilling (cf Acts 4:31, Ephesians 5:18) or greater power.

Within church tradition (at least Anglican and I think Roman Catholic) this event in Samaria is seen as the prototype of confirmation, rather than of ordination – a blessing imparted by the apostles and so now to be imparted only by bishops, but offered to all believers and not just those chosen for office in the church; also it is not transferable in that those confirmed do not acquire the power to confirm others. In fact not even Philip who evangelised Samaria seems to have the power to impart this blessing; he had been commissioned by the apostles with the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6) but for a different role as a prototype deacon, in what is understood in the tradition as the first ordination to the diaconate – not to the episcopate, so he could not confirm people. Note, however, that Philip had received the power to perform signs and wonders (Acts 8:6-7), something which is in principle available to all Spirit-filled believers, not just ordained clergy.

Now it is interesting to see what Simon the sorcerer made of this, in Acts 8:18-19. Presumably he received along with all the others the impartation which was not transferable, analogous to confirmation. But he wanted more, and made the serious mistake of offering money for it. What he wanted was the transferred power to impart the Holy Spirit to others, or in the terms of church tradition he wanted to be ordained or consecrated to the episcopate so that he could confirm others. Peter and John, as apostles, could presumably have performed this impartation, but for very good reasons refused to do so. So, whereas the non-transferable impartation was offered to freely to all who believed, the transferable impartation was carefully guarded.

It is not entirely clear how, if by any human means, the power to impart the Holy Spirit was passed outside the immediate circle of the apostles. We can surmise that when the apostles sent Barnabas to Antioch (Acts 11:22) he was given this power of transferable impartation; or, in traditional terms, he was consecrated bishop. When later (Acts 13:2-3) he and Saul/Paul were commissioned with laying on of hands for their missionary journeys, it may be that Saul was also given this power; certainly by the time he gets to Ephesus (Acts 19:6) Paul is able to pray for people to be filled with the Holy Spirit. However, Paul insists that he received his apostleship direct from the risen Christ, and not from the original apostles (Galatians 1:1). Paul seems to have passed his commissioning on to Timothy in some kind of ceremony of impartation (2 Timothy 1:6), and he and Titus (Titus 1:5) seem to have had the right to appoint elders and “bishops”.

This is, I suppose, the biblical basis for the (Roman and Anglo-) Catholic concept of the apostolic succession, that true bishops and priests must be ordained through an unbroken succession of laying on of hands from the apostles. Most Protestant Christians do not consider this necessary, and indeed do not have bishops. The ordination Henry Neufeld referred to was into the United Methodist Church which does have bishops, but they are not in the proper apostolic succession because the first American Methodist bishops were ordained by John Wesley, who was a priest, not a bishop. Interestingly, some charismatic and Pentecostal denominations, such as the one which consecrated Bishop Michael Reid, do consider it important to have bishops in a genuine apostolic succession.

Now while I would be surprised if Todd Bentley actually considers the apostolic succession to be important, his concept of transferable impartation seems to be in the same tradition. He believes in and practises laying hands, or cloths, on people so that they receive for themselves not only filling with the Holy Spirit but also the power to pass this impartation on to others.

Now an interesting corollary of the traditional apostolic succession teaching is that if one rogue bishop chose to ordain or consecrate everyone at mass meetings and taught them to do the same, a situation could quite quickly come about in which millions of believers worldwide became bishops and would have to be recognised as such by the Catholic churches. One might however argue that this rogue bishop would be doing the right thing, in fulfilment of Moses’ prayer in Numbers 11:29 and Joel’s prophecy quoted in Acts 2:17-21, which foresee a universal outpouring of the Holy Spirit not restricted by the limited number of apostles who could mediate it.

What Todd seems to be doing is what the rogue bishop might do. Now I don’t mean to suggest that Todd actually stands in any literal apostolic succession, although that is possible. But he seems to be offering a transferable impartation to all, and teaching all to pass it on to others. On the traditional understanding he is consecrating all and sundry as bishops. In this way the impartation will soon make its way to every Christian worldwide who is willing to receive it.

Of course this begs the question of whether the impartation, what is passed on by laying on of hands, is in any way real in the spiritual realm. On that issue all I can say is that this kind of impartation does seem to have been significant to the apostles – also that thousands of people including myself have experienced something real if subjective when given the Todd Bentley impartation either directly or indirectly.

One lesson we can learn from all this is that there are no neat rules or formulae for how this kind of impartation works. God is not bound the apostolic succession but can do a new thing. As he raised up Paul independently of the established apostles, so he can also raise up new leaders even from stones (compare Luke 3:8), people like John Wesley, who was never a bishop, and apparently Todd Bentley. And given the weakness and apostasy of so many bishops in what remains of the original apostolic succession, at least the Anglican branch of it, it would hardly be surprising if God raised up a new source of transferable impartation which he chooses to use to pour out his Spirit on a needy world.

Women don't want to be bishops with protection

It seems an age, but is actually little more than two weeks, since I wrote about Possibly another hopeful moment in the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion, referring to the Manchester report on how the Church of England might accept women as bishops. I welcomed this report not because of how it related to women bishops (or female bishops, as some prefer to say), but because of its

acceptance … of the principle that, in effect, a congregation or parish may choose to separate from the diocese in which it is geographically located and join [another] one

– what some have called the Swiss cheese model of dioceses with holes in them.

But my welcome for the Manchester report is not shared by the women who might become bishops. John Richardson and Ruth Gledhill both post a statement from WATCH (Women and the Church) which has, according to John, now been signed by nearly half of the ordained women in the Church of England. They write, among other things:

We believe that it should be possible for women to be consecrated as bishops, but not at any price. The price of legal “safeguards” for those opposed is simply too high, diminishing not just the women concerned, but the catholicity, integrity and mission of the episcopate and of the Church as a whole. We cannot countenance any proposal that would, once again, enshrine and formalise discrimination against women in legislation. …

The language of “protection” and “safeguard” is offensive to women, and we believe the existing disciplinary procedures are enough for women or men to be brought to account if they behave inappropriately. We would commend the good practice over the past 20 years of the 15 Anglican Provinces which have already opened the episcopate to women: none of these has passed discriminatory legislation. …

We long to see the consecration of women bishops in the Church of England, and believe it is right both in principle and in timing. But because we love the Church, we are not willing to assent to a further fracture in our communion and threat to our unity. If it is to be episcopacy for women qualified by legal arrangements to “protect” others from our oversight, then our answer, respectfully, is thank you, but no.

I understand and share the ordained women’s objections to proposals such as the Swiss cheese model which treat them as less than equals within the Church of England. It is appropriate to make some kind of accommodation for clergy and others who cannot accept the ministry of a woman bishop, but this should be done without formalised discrimination against women.

My welcome for the Swiss cheese model is restricted to the way in which it is a move away from the geographical principle of dioceses, a relic of the Roman empire which reflects the entirely anti-Christian mediaeval model of the bishop as a secular ruler.

I can also understand why the opponents of women bishops will find it hard to accept the WATCH women’s proposals. Their theological stance will not allow them to accept the nominal authority of a woman even if in practice they are ministered to only by a man sent by the woman.

Is there a way forward here? The issues are not only about women’s ministry, for very similar ones come up concerning acceptance of homosexuality and broader theological matters. In the long term the only kind of model which I can see working, for the Church of England and the Anglican Communion as a whole, is one in which congregations are under the authority of bishops on a non-geographical basis, in effect each deciding which of a number of bishops to relate to. If this situation is not formally accepted, it will surely happen anyway. Indeed it is already happening the United States and Canada, with the affiliation of many parishes to provinces outside North America. The Anglican Communion needs to accept this as a legitimate way ahead, or else to prepare for its own demise.

A Bishop on Woman Bishops

Recently I have been writing a lot about bishops, Anglican and otherwise, on this blog. And, sadly, most of it has been negative. But I don’t want my readers to think that I have something against bishops in principle. I will show this by for once quoting a bishop very positively.

The blogging bishop of Buckingham, Bishop Alan, writes about the background to the Church of England’s latest thoughts on how to introduce women bishops, the Manchester report, which I have already referred to. Thanks to Maggi Dawn for the link. Bishop Alan first affirms the principle of women bishops:

the practical sociology of Christian ministry has always been contextual, not absolute, reflecting the reality of the social structures around it. … Absolutising 12th century cultural assumptions, whilst cutting free from the (frankly ludicrous) anthropology of female subordination that validated them at the time, seems to me historicist weirdness, ignoring truths recovered by the sixteenth century Reformation.

He then notes how the proposed partitioning of the Church of England into pro-women bishop and anti-women bishop dioceses mirrors 20th century British government policy of partitioning colonies before independence. He points out the disastrous results of this partitioning – but I could add that the results of British decolonisation without partitioning has often been just as disastrous, as in Iraq, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Yet he is right that the church needs to learn from history:

We are still struggling with deadly institutionalised schism in the Middle East and India. Of course in Church everything is entirely different, but history is reality written for our learning, and I can’t get enthusiastic about elegant churchy versions of the kind of statesmanship that so delighted 20th Century Sir Humphreys. They got their knighthoods but they also got the big picture dangerously wrong.

3. To return to Church history, formative Anglican theologians did not attempt to build the church by cobbling together some kind of synthetic panjandrum out of the most extreme positions, to keep everyone on board politically. Rather they centred everything back on the Scriptures and the Creeds. This method worked for them, anyway. Perhaps we should try it. This is no time for Ecclesiastical Heath Robinson Engineering.

Amen!

Is there a moral difference between homosexual practice and remarriage after divorce?

John Meunier is, with good reason, Frustrated by gay debate within his own United Methodist denomination, which mirrors that within the Anglican Communion. John’s frustration is firstly that those “On the pro-inclusion side” are arguing from experience, not from proper biblical principles, and secondly that there is a mismatch between attitudes to remarriage after divorce and to homosexual practice. In a comment I pointed John to an older post of mine which suggests a way of treating these last two matters consistently.

Craig L. Adams left a comment on John’s post linking to an interesting post of his own, on a blog which I have not seen before, in which he takes up the same issue. He writes:

Yes, the relationship of the issues of homosexuality and divorce is interesting — and raises troubling issues and (at the very least) apparent inconsistencies for those of us on SideB. If the church prohibits same-gender sex — even between committed partners — why are Christians so permissive about divorce and re-marriage?

… And, given human “hardness of heart” and the circumstances of violent abuse, unfaithfulness and alcoholism, etc. I can see why — for the physical and emotional health of both partners — [some] marriages must sometimes end.

But, in these instances, divorce is “accepted” (so to speak) not as a positive good, but on the basis of an Exception Argument. Yes, marriage should be forever. But, there are circumstances where divorce is preferable to the alternative. As they say, it’s “the lesser of two evils.”

From this grows the commonly-permissive attitude toward remarriage, as well.

But, when we get to same-gender relationships, conservatively-inclined Christians run into a wall. Here deploying an Exception Argument would justify the very thing that is prohibited: same-gender sex!

Thus, the strange inconsistency.

Yes, there is a strange inconsistency. But it seems to me that the inconsistency is not in the argument but in the conclusions which those arguing wish to draw from it.

Divorce and remarriage has become generally acceptable even in socially conservative circles in western countries. So, to meet their congregations’ expectations, the leaders even of conservative churches have often stretched Craig’s “Exception Argument” to the extent that divorced people are remarried almost as a matter of course, and continue to play a full part in church life.

However, homosexual behaviour is still looked down on as unacceptable deviance by socially conservative people in the West, often for reasons not really connected to any religious beliefs. So their church leaders tend to meet the culturally based expectations of their congregations by taking a hard line against homosexuality, not allowing any kind of “Exception Argument” in this case, with the result that homosexuals are alienated from the church.

As Craig suggests, a consistent approach here requires both a less permissive attitude to remarriage and a more permissive one to homosexuality. But of course the analogy with remarriage must be to a long-term committed and formalised “monogamous” homosexual relationship. Unconstrained homosexual practise must be treated like heterosexual promiscuity: the church should declare consistently that both are unacceptable.

I suspect that here in the Church of England the rules on remarriage after divorce are less permissive than they are in some American denominations. At least in my own diocese remarriage requires a bishop’s special permission, and the bishop needs to be satisfied that the relationship between the prospective couple did not cause the breakup of a previous marriage. This is a proper application of the “Exception Argument”. Stricter rules apply to clergy, and rightly so. There are I think no bishops in the Church of England who are remarried after divorce; there is one in the Church of Wales, but another Church of Wales bishop has just been forced to resign over allegations, which he has denied, linking the breakdown of his marriage with a rumoured relationship between him and his (female) chaplain.

I would not be unhappy if the Anglican Communion were to move, with general agreement, to a situation where (at least in some provinces) formalised homosexual partnerships (civil partnerships and gay “marriages”) were treated in the same way as remarriage after divorce, “not as a positive good, but on the basis of an Exception Argument”. Thus clergy might be allowed to perform or bless gay weddings under certain carefully defined circumstances.

But individual provinces or dioceses should not go it alone in such matters. And there should be proper safeguards for clergy and congregations who do not accept these practices.

We should also remember that the Bible expects higher standards of those in church leadership. Thus it might well be right to restrict people both in homosexual partnerships and in remarriages from some areas of Christian ministry, such as being bishops. The details of course need further consideration – and will doubtless cause huge controversy if any proposal like this is ever put forward within the Anglican Communion.

To quote Craig again (his emphasis) with my complete agreement:

To me the teaching of Jesus is a radical call to repentance and commitment and faithfulness. The making and keeping of commitments is a part of our spiritual formation. Accepting ourselves as beings created in the image of God entails a desire to seek God’s will and purpose in all things — including the expressions of my sexuality.

This is not so much a Natural Law / common-sense good as a call to commitment and obedience and discipleship. We are called to seek God’s will in all things.

Possibly another hopeful moment in the Church of England, and the Anglican Communion

Not long ago I wrote about A hopeful moment in the Church of England, hopeful because

the church is beginning to realise part of what I wrote last December, that the parish system is a historical relic which is not helpful in the 21st century and needs to be abolished, or at least radically modified.

Today may be another hopeful moment because of the publication of the Manchester report into women bishops in the Church of England, reported by Ruth Gledhill in The Times. It seems hopeful to me not because it is a step towards the acceptance of women bishops in the church. My welcome for this step is somewhat muted because the path on which the step is being taken is so long and convoluted. But today is hopeful for me because the report fundamentally undermines the principle of geographical dioceses, the other anachronism which I wrote about last December.

Of course this principle has already been seriously, but unofficially, undermined in North America, first in the United States, and more recently in Canada with the defection of several Anglican Church of Canada congregations, and clergy, to the Province of the Southern Cone. But today for the first time there has been acceptance in an official report of the Church of England of the principle that, in effect, a congregation or parish may choose to separate from the diocese in which it is geographically located and join one of, in Ruth Gledhill’s words,

A series of new dioceses that would transcend geographical boundaries.

As Ruth continues, adoption of these proposals

would also set a new precedent in altering for the first time the centuries old principal of dioceses being determined by geographical boundaries. As a precedent adopted by the Church of England, the mother church of the entire Anglican Communion, it could even offer a way forward to a body in the throes of schism over how to accommodate those in favour and against gay ordination.

Indeed. In fact the mixed messages coming from those close to Archbishop Rowan Williams on the situation in North America, as well as the publication of the Manchester report, suggest that at least serious thought is being given to officially accepting this kind of breakup of the diocese and province system internationally. The reason why this idea is perhaps being taken seriously is because, at least as I see things, it is the only way to preserve some semblance of a united Anglican Communion.

But of course this could be seen as the start of a slippery slope towards a situation in which each congregation chooses for itself which bishop to put itself under. That prospect may be seen as too radical and divisive for the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.