Bishops and the Fourth Estate

IT IS A TRUISM to say that you can’t believe what you read in the press. If you have ever read a press report about an event at which you were present, you will know what I mean. The trouble is that unlike our Lord and Master, we mortals can’t be everywhere at once, so we are obliged to live on a diet of other people’s reports and hearsay if we are not to live in total ignorance of what goes on in the world around us.

It is not easy to précis the deliberations of a meeting of a Diocesan or Deanery Synod on to just one sheet of A4, as many of us are all too painfully aware. When we think we have succeeded, there is always the possibility that we have failed to grasp the true significance of the debate. When our report is typed up, the shallowness of our understanding of what went on becomes all too apparent.

Pity the poor journalist of whom the versatility is demanded to report on ballroom dancing competitions today and meetings of the House of Bishops tomorrow. Perhaps we should be more forgiving when there is confusion between the Meissen, the Porvoo and the Pasadoble.

What should we make, then, of a recent report in the Sunday Times that “leading” Anglican bishops want the church to end its centuries old prohibition on “living in sin”? My immediate reaction was to assume that the report must emanate from across the Atlantic where all sorts of liberal innovations appear to be in vogue. It certainly didn’t sound like a postscript to the Kuala Lumpur statement.

Closer inspection found a claim that “a majority of the 44 diocesan bishops of the Church of England no longer believe that cohabiting couples are necessarily committing a sin.”

If the Bishop of Hereford was quoted accurately, he said very properly that “We should not condemn those who cohabit.” That would of course be to usurp the Lord’s prerogative. However he is then reported to have said that “Christian people should recognise the realities of social change.” If indeed that is what he said, one can’t help wondering what he would have said in first century Corinth or Rome. The Christian ethic that was established in the first century was radically different from the paganism of the world around. The early church hardly made efforts to blend in with the wallpaper.

The Bishop of Manchester was reported as saying that if an unmarried couple came to him privately, he would be prepared to pray with them and give them a blessing – and also counsel them about the advantages of marriage! I know I haven’t been to theological college, but the logic here does seem to be rather muddled. People make all sorts of domestic arrangements for themselves, and that is perfectly reasonable. However God has revealed his thinking to us through his Word and it would appear that he wholeheartedly approves of certain forms of domestic arrangements and thoroughly disapproves of others. I would have thought the Bishop is a brave man if he is prepared to offer his blessing to any arrangements other than those of which God clearly approves. The Kuala Lumpur statement lists the ground rules comprehensively and succinctly in just a few lines. If Anglican Bishops in the South can call a spade a spade, what’s the problem up North? I do hope it is a journalistic misunderstanding rather than an episcopal one.

One begins to suspect that it must be the journalists rather than the bishops who are getting in a pickle. The report notes that “despite the majority opinion” the Archbishop of Canterbury has emphasised his belief that for Christians, sexual activity should be confined to marriage. This “tough line” (whatever would Jesus have said?) is now apparently only supported by the Archbishop of York and a “few” other bishops including the Bishop of Wakefield. It really is puzzling that a journalist should apply the designation of “leading bishops” to Hereford and Manchester and not to Canterbury or York.

The most outrageous quote is kept right to the end of the article. I’m surprised it was printed because I’m sure it must be libellous. The article ascribes to the Bishop of Bath and Wells the assertion that “most clergy have children who cohabit” and that “they (the clergy) know their children are not wicked or sinful.”

If those assertions contain even a modicum of truth, it would appear that the Church of England has long since removed 1 Timothy 3 from the canon of Scripture. Paul asks Timothy the (rhetorical) question, “If a church leader does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of the church of God?” To say that those who think they know better than God how to run their lives are not rebelling against his kingly rule, is to strip plain English words of their meanings.

So will Bishop Jim sue The Sunday Times for defamation, or will his clergy sue him? Apparently this whole subject was due for another airing at the October meeting of the House of Bishops. Members of General Synod will learn little of what went on from the uninformative minutes that will be circulated, but perhaps a journalist or two will unearth what really happened. Bridget Rowe of The Sunday Mirror might be interested.

In the meantime, let us pray that our Archbishops will call the House of Bishops to order and remind them that they are to banish rather than propagate “erroneous and strange opinions.”

Gerry O’Brien is a member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.

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The Church of England is currently embarked on the process of revising all its services. The most recent development was the release for road-testing of draft Marriage and Funeral Services. In November the General Synod will be asked to give final approval to the new Initiation Services, consider the revision of the rites for the Lord’s Supper and give general approval to a service of Extended Communion. In addition there will be motions brought on the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalter.

In the wake of all this and the incredibly short time scales that members of General Synod are given to respond to lengthy texts, it is easy to get bewildered by the whole exercise. Many people have serious concerns about particular parts of the revision and indeed, about the whole process of revision, but proper debate is efficiently stifled by the mechanisms of Synod. A number of people have already voiced deep concerns. This article is a brief attempt to look at the whole revision package as it has so far materialised in order to identify some of the key features and voice some of the main concerns.

Never mind the quality…

It is part of the spirit of the age that truth matters far less than experience. Therefore one of the aims in road-testing the new services is that people will grow to like the way the services ‘feel’ and therefore not be too bothered about what is actually being said in them. It is to be hoped that biblically minded believers will want to resist the passing fads of the age and say that what matters far more than ‘feel’ is whether the liturgy of the Church of God is faithful to the revealed will of God in scripture. This will be portrayed by others as nit-picking.

…feel the width.

All the services so far unveiled are far more extensive than the ASB or the BCP. The new draft Marriage Service booklet has some 40 pages and the Funeral Service booklet some 102 pages! In part this is due to typesetting etc. but it represents a trebling of material as against the ASB and perhaps as much as a five-fold increase over the simple provision of the BCP. Although it is likely that some material will be cut out, more may be included. The laity of the Church have already expressed, through General Synod, their dismay at this proliferation by (amongst other things) rejecting the six experimental Eucharistic Prayers.

Meeting a need?

All this new material is obviously meeting a need. It is a matter of debate as to whether this is the need of those who want such provision or the need of Liturgists to keep themselves in business. The complexity of all the new liturgy will necessitate far more training of clergy and a return to the pre-reformation manuals. The wide range of courses now run by Praxis and the new Sarum college, together with other bodies and local initiatives will no doubt be accompanied by a whole range of books explaining how to use the services. It is to be anticipated therefore that Clergy will become more and more the full-time maintainers of the cultic worship of the Church, in much the same way that the Priests and Levites maintained the Old Covenant worship of Israel, rather than concentrating their efforts on being ministers of the New Covenant preaching the gospel and pastoring and teaching the faithful.

Chips with everything.

The pattern of Marriage, Funeral, Baptism and Confirmation has been to increase the expectation that they will be celebrated within the context of Holy Communion. Indeed, in some instances it will require some ingenuity to work out how to do it otherwise. Moreover, the services are written in such a way that they not only accommodate this naturally, but they are also structured along the same lines as the now normative Communion order.

Liturgical Bartering.

It is worth recognising what happens in the passage of new liturgy through General Synod. The Liturgical Commission produces material that moves significantly further away from the doctrine and practice of the Book of Common Prayer (i.e. Anglican doctrine). Those seeking to keep the Church of England faithful to its reformed heritage kick up a fuss about the more horrendous features.

During the synodical process some of these battles are won, the new services are changed and we think we have done rather well. In fact, whilst we think we have done well, what comes out of it all is a service that is less reformed than what we have at present.

Overloading the memory banks.

The last of the introductory notes to the Draft Funeral service is rather ironic. ‘Wherever possible, care should be taken to use a version of the text familiar to the dying person.’ In fact the Church of England has done a fairly good job of ensuring that no-one is familiar with anything. In some churches it is hard to go two weeks running and find anything in common. For Liturgy 2000 the synod took the decision that it will, unless there is good reason for the contrary, adopt texts produced by ELLC – an international committee which revises common texts in a politically correct way. This means that people will now have to become familiar with another form of the Nicene Creed and we are waiting with bated breath to learn of the proposals for the Lord’s Prayer.

Along the way, particularly amongst the fringe of our churches, people are losing their store of liturgical texts. Most clergy will know of elderly people who can recite BCP prayers from memory, (it is even reported that some can do this with ASB texts), but we will soon put a stop to that. The note quoted is a laudable aim – whether we will listen to it is another matter.

It is easy to become negative towards all change. However, to criticise what is being produced is not to long for the past or to be stuck in the mud, but rather should spring from a deep desire to see both quality and revealed truth enshrined in the liturgy of the Church.

Rev David Phillips is a member of the General Synod representing Manchester Diocese and is on the Revision Committee for Rites A & B Revised.