REFORM’S FLYING BISHOP – WILL HE EVER GET OFF THE GROUND?

The myth that Reform is somehow a monolithic evangelical body with a unified line on every issue of the day has never been true and fault lines are apparent in how the group’s leaders have responded to the news of the appointment of Canon Edwin Barnes as the third flying bishop.

At heart, of course, a majority in Reform want a total rethink on the status and behaviour of bishops, flying bishops included. The Reform model is of a presbyter, not a prelate, linked with a local congregation where he receives spiritual nurture, oversight and, when necessary, correction. The bishop in his palace, moated in, with his domestic chaplain alone providing pastoral support is anathema to Reform. In an unpublished letter to the then unselected Archbishop of York, Reform urged Bishop David Hope – as he later turned out to be – to join a parish in York and get along as often as he could to a housegroup. “They’ll soon forget you’re and archbishop and treat you just like any other Christian who needs to grow!” the letter advised, claiming seclusion in Bishopsthorpe could lead to spiritual atrophy.

One Reform council member regrets the failure to appoint an evangelical as a Provincial Episcopal Visitor, though he appreciates few evangelical parishes were willing to sign the opt-out clauses inviting alternative oversight and thus Lambeth could dismiss the plea on such minimal evidence of need.

“They didn’t sign because they felt they would be committing themselves to a catholic bishop. They wanted an evangelical man. Now they have no one. I regret this state of affairs and people need to know that Parliament actually requires proper care to be given to minorities in the Church of England,” he explained.

Another Council member said conservative evangelicals were not being treated fairly as theirs was the one voice which could claim to be the most authentic in the Church of England in terms of the Thirty-Nine Articles.

Down the road, however, when Reform’s working party reports in the autumn, the alternative oversight question will emerge again, he added.

“Reform cannot evade this issue, any more than the Anglo-Catholics can if they are to remain in the Church of England as we are going to do. Perhaps we can work together, perhaps our theologies will prevent it, but we both need bishops ready to ordain so that the work we are doing can go forward,” said another council member. A hint of exasperation showed through with his comment that Reform had done a lot of talking but had so far been “very pussyfooted” in terms of action!

Reform’s chairman, Philip Hacking of Sheffield has already made his stance public. He feels many in Reform aren’t too concerned about a flying bishop because “we don’t need bishops like others do, and we don’t go in for the ‘tainted hands’ doctrine.”

He said Reform’s longing was for a diocesan bishop who would unashamedly hold to the movement’s convictions. If no such person were to be appointed, then Mr Hacking could see a day when Reform would opt as a group for alternative episcopal ministry and that could come from anywhere in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Offers to provide such ministry have already been received, which explains the chairman’s composure while knowing the range and forcefulness of opinion within his council!