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.