The Reform letter on women bishops: a threat of schism?

John Richardson and Dave Walker both post the full text of a letter from Reform, a conservative evangelical pressure group in the Church of England, to the General Synod of that Church which is meeting this week. The letter is signed by “50 incumbents of Church of England churches”, two of whom I know personally. I suspect John is not a signatory only because he is not technically an incumbent.

The letter is a contribution to the ongoing debate over women bishops in the Church of England. As the Bishop of Manchester reported to the General Synod yesterday (his draft text here, see also this report), the committee discussions have proved more complex and time-consuming than expected, and so the final decision has been delayed. But the outline now seems clear of the way ahead which will be put to a vote at the next meeting of the Synod, in July. As reported in The Times today,

any women consecrated bishops will be asked to “delegate” authority to another bishop, such as a suffragan, to carry out confirmations and other episcopal duties in parishes that refuse to accept her ministry. …

even where opponents opt for the ministry of the bishop delegated to look after them, there will be no alternative hierarchical structure of oversight that could make it appear as though the mother church of the Anglican Communion was being half-hearted about women bishops, or in any way doubting the integrity of their orders.

This is good news for the supporters of women bishops, who have seen rejected by the committee various proposals for more formal alternative episcopal oversight.

But it is this situation which prompted a strong response in the letter from Reform. The letter starts with a defence of Reform’s unreformed position on women in leadership, with appeals to Scripture interpreted in a particular way – a way which, as regular readers here will know, I have good arguments for rejecting. The authors make one interesting point here:

we emphasise again that we are NOT for a moment saying women are less valuable than men, and nor does the Scripture. … For the Bible separates roles and worth: our Lord Jesus himself submitted to the Father, but is, of course, no less God than he is.

Well, yes, but Jesus submitted himself voluntarily and temporarily, and so this cannot be used as an argument to force women to accept only submissive roles against their will and permanently.

The Reform letter writers then go on to explain how they might respond if the Church of England introduces women bishops without the kinds of safeguards they are demanding:

At the moment we are encouraging young men into the ordained ministry … However, we will be unable to do this if inadequately protective legislation is passed. The issue that will then arise is how to encourage these men to develop their ministries if they cannot do so within the formal structures of the Church of England. The answer must be to encourage them to undertake training for ministries outside those formal structures, although hopefully still within an Anglican tradition. We will, of course, have to help them with the financing of their training. …

Since we cannot take an oath of canonical obedience to a female bishop, we are unlikely to be appointed to future incumbencies. We see nothing but difficulty facing us. In these circumstances we will have to discuss with our congregations how to foster and protect the ministry they wish to receive. This is likely to generate a need for the creation of new independent charitable trusts whose purpose will be to finance our future ministries, when the need arises.

In other words, if they don’t get their own way, that is, if the democratically elected Synod rejects their position with a two-thirds majority, they will set up their own parallel ministry “within an Anglican tradition” but outside the Church of England system. They continue:

These twin developments will need to be financed from current congregational giving. This will inevitably put a severe strain on our ability to continue to contribute financially to Diocesan funds. Where we are unable to contribute as before …

In other words, they will fund their new parallel ministry by not paying what they are expected to pay to their dioceses. Potentially they could withhold the £22 million they have contributed between them over the last ten years.

So this letter can easily be perceived as an attempt to pervert the democratic processes of the Church of England by making financial threats.

But how real would these threats be? The potential loss to the dioceses averages out at £44,000 per parish per year. But much of that loss could be offset by the diocese by not replacing or making redundant the incumbent and any assistants they (well, in this case “he”) might have, thereby saving their stipends; by selling or letting the clergy houses; and by cutting off any grants those parishes might benefit from. And the percentage of the total diocesan budget under threat is probably quite small – after all, those signing the letter are only 50 clergy out of 12,000.

The greater threat to the Church of England is probably from the new structures, training institutions and “independent charitable trusts”, which Reform proposes setting up. While parish infrastructure is not mentioned, in practice the Church of England can never allow an independently trained and financed group of ministers to lead congregations within its buildings. So the route which Reform is starting on can only lead to a new group of local churches, in other words, to schism. Recent developments in the USA and in Canada have shown a way in which this schism might develop.

While the Church of England could survive the loss of 50 parishes, the danger is that many more, perhaps the majority of its evangelicals, might decide that the new structures are more supportive of them than the old ones are. At a time when many Anglo-Catholics are departing, the C of E could hardly survive the loss of its entire evangelical wing.

So what is to be done? The Church could submit to these threats from Reform and turn back from allowing women bishops at all. In fact it only needs just over one third of General Synod to see that as the best course for any proposals to be defeated in July. This now seems more likely than that Synod will choose to allow women bishops with the kinds of safeguards which Reform might accept.

But a better response is no response at all. The General Synod should simply ignore these veiled threats from Reform and treat them as what they are, a rather small pressure group. And if some of them do leave, the church authorities should be very careful not to do anything which might alienate that great majority of evangelical Anglicans who, even if they are uncomfortable in various ways, don’t see women bishops as a compelling reason to leave the Church of England. In this way there is a future ahead for the Church of England in which, in retrospect, it has lost a few troublesome extremists and gained new strength and unity as well as the benefits of women as well as men in its top leadership.

0 thoughts on “The Reform letter on women bishops: a threat of schism?

  1. I could add that, according to the latest news from the General Synod, Archbishop Rowan Williams is doing about the best he can possibly do to “alienate that great majority of evangelical Anglicans who … don’t see women bishops as a compelling reason to leave the Church of England”, by issuing “a “profound apology” to the lesbian and gay Christian community”. Yes, he “warned that any schism within the Church would represent a betrayal of God’s mission”. But by “ma[king] clear that he regretted recent rhetoric in which he has sought to mollify the fears of the traditionalist wing of the church” he has admitted that his words cannot be trusted and done the very opposite of trying to avoid schism.

    Nevertheless there is heartening news for the opponents of women bishops. According to Ruth Gledhill, Archbishop Rowan has lined up the church’s top five bishops to oppose the Bishop of Manchester’s attempted compromise on the issue. If he takes that attitude it is very unlikely that the Synod will reach a two-thirds majority (separately in each of three houses I think) on any kind of legislation to allow women bishops.

  2. Having now read the text of Archbishop Rowan’s speech, I can’t help thinking that Ruth Gledhill has given undue and misleading prominence to the part where Rowan offers a “profound apology”. This is that part:

    The debate over the status and vocational possibilities of LGBT people in the Church is not helped by ignoring the existing facts, which include many regular worshippers of gay or lesbian orientation and many sacrificial and exemplary priests who share this orientation. There are ways of speaking about the question that seem to ignore these human realities or to undervalue them; I have been criticised for doing just this, and I am profoundly sorry for the carelessness that could give such an impression.

    No one can really object to him apologising for ignoring the existence of these LGBT people. Indeed as a whole, without this one small section being taken out of context, the speech seems good and positive.

    So perhaps Rowan isn’t really trying to alienate evangelicals. Nevertheless he needs to make sure he is not misinterpreted in ways which cause such an alienation. He needs a good press officer.

  3. Peter, it may look differently in your part of the country, but my perception is that the vast majority of Anglican evangelicals would welcome women as bishops and that the Reform reading of the biblical text is a minority position.

    Of course, I went to one of those colleges that Reform regard as not properly evangelical – St John;s Nottingham, whose current head is, er, a woman.

    You may wonder that I went to an evangelical college at all, but I’m still glad as a catholic that I did.

  4. Doug, I agree with you. I am part of that majority of Anglican evangelicals who would welcome women bishops, or at least have no serious problem with them. Reform try to claim that they are the mainstream among evangelicals, but they are not.

  5. I know I’m commenting rather a lot on my own post. But here is another figure to put the issue in perspective. Ruth Gledhill’s latest post implies that the annual running costs of the Church of England are about £1 billion. So the income which Reform is threatening to deny to the church is a mere 0.22% of the total.

  6. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Is Reform divided over women bishops?

  7. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Another reason for Reform churches to withhhold money from the C of E,…

  8. Two thoughts Peter. These aren’t directly connected.

    The first is that I think there’s a deep flaw in Reform’s position.

    It strikes me as a credible position – even though I don’t agree with it – if one has an understanding of the nature of Orders which I don’t have. But I don’t think Reform has that understanding either. If at heart, one really believes that a priest is a heiros rather than a presbyteros, and that a bishop is even more of a heiros than an ordinary one, then it’s possible perhaps to take the line that there can be sacerdotal rules that God himself has made which bar some people from ordination. It seems to me much harder to square such an understanding with a non-sacerdotal understanding of orders.

    Nor do I think the extracts their letter refers to get them off the hook on this one.

    The second thing is more to do with your posts 1 & 2 about Rowan. A burden that Rowan has to bear is that a lot of people, particularly the press, don’t appreciate that, as far as he is concerned, he means exactly what he says, neither more nor less. To him, that is obvious. To others it is not. By saying one thing, he does not mean something else that some commentator wants to attribute to him – usually because it makes a more exciting story. We saw this over sharia. I think we’re seeing this again. I also don’t think he’s the only significant Christian leader on the world stage at the moment who has the same problem – if it is a problem for them rather than those who don’t bother to read what they say carefully.

  9. Dru, thanks for your comment.

    I think the Reform position does have a coherence that you haven’t recognised. Did you see my follow-up post Is Reform divided over women bishops?? There I quoted from the Reform covenant about “the divine order of male headship”, which I think is a credible position – just that it is a profoundly unbiblical one. That position certainly implies rejection of male incumbents and bishops, and I can see why they might somewhat half-heartedly allow female assistant clergy.

    I see what you mean about Rowan. But he could help himself a lot by taking the press more seriously. Nearly two years ago he refused to replace a press officer who left. I don’t know if he has one now. But, as a public figure who doesn’t personally understand the media, he desperately needs to seek and accept advice from those who do.

  10. It turns out that at least some of the Reform threat is entirely empty. One of the incumbent signatories, Jeremy Leffler, of St Ambrose Widnes, in the diocese of Liverpool, admits in a comment at The Ugley Vicar that he has no authority from others in his church to withhold any money, and is unlikely to get the agreement of the church as a whole to do so (it would probably require a PCC decision) as most do not agree with his Reform-oriented position. Anyway his church is “a net receiver of support from other parishes”. I wonder how many of the other signatories and their churches are in a similar position. But obviously some of the signatories are incumbents of large churches.

  11. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » More on Reform: will they consecrate their own bishops?

  12. Pingback: Positive discussions among evangelicals about women leaders - Gentle Wisdom

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