For “Overseer” read “Adviser-with-Oversight”

The Reform conference last month took a further definite step, albeit with some trepidation, down the road of providing a parallel support system within the Church for its own membership with the offer of such support for others who might request it.

The lurid presentation of this fairly prosaic action in one of the religious papers would have suggested to its readers that up and down the country Reform clergy are checking the cost of purple shirts. In fact, at the conference it was the laity rather than the clergy who were appealing for more decisive action. Led by council member Tony Higton, the moderates were tending to the immoderate in their fear, sloganising with statements like “The Church will see our advisers as proto-bishops and if we go on to appoint Reform bishops all hell will break loose.”

Listening to the debate, which ran over two sessions in an atmosphere of relative good humour, were two Forward in Faith leaders, Robbie Low and Francis Gardom. Having already appointed regional deans who are functioning smoothly, even building tolerable working relationships with bishops who started out wanting to deprive them of their licences, Forward in Faith failed to understand the anxiety complex some in Reform were developing.

“Reform has been told that it will not get a flying bishop. A friendly diocesan appointment would at this stage constitute a miracle. If you are serious about the reform of the episcopate, and the proper care and representation of your people, then we would encourage you to take this moderate and necessary step,” said the FiF men.

One delegate urged Reform to draw back from schism. All bishops would feel threatened by what was proposed, but were all bishops defective? Tony Higton said that a special case might be made out for Southwark diocese, where so many evangelicals were already in impaired communion with Bishop Roy Williamson on a crucial gospel issue, the ordination of practising homosexuals.

Another delegate said when the Church Pastoral Aid Society eliminated the role of its area secretaries as pastoral and practical advisers for thousands of evangelical parishes and clergy, a vacuum was waiting to be filled. Reform advisers would be very welcome in that capacity.

Evangelicals had tabled the reform of the episcopate at NEAC in 1977 and it had been raised several times since, but the most vociferous opponents of such reform now were the evangelical bishops who had been at NEAC and voted for it then, alleged a delegate.

Hadley Wood vicar Alan Purser argued for the retention of the title ‘overseer’ as originally proposed, rather than adviser: “Our constituency is beginning to ask what Reform is going to do and when. Members need the encouragement a development of this kind will give them. The title ‘overseer’ is pregnant with meaning.”

So it went on, and the vote went by nearly two to one for “we appoint regional advisers who, in the process of our commitment to the reform of the episcopate, will exercise oversight on behalf of those wishing it.” The advisers will also: