The Fifth National Assembly of Forward in Faith (Camden Centre, Bidborough Street, WC1, September 25-26) saw the constituency in excellent form. It was, quite simply the best Assembly ever, and one which showed a unanimity of purpose and downright good humour which will stand us in good stead in the struggles which lie ahead.
In particular the Assembly passed, nem. con., a motion recommending for study, by clergy chapters, diocesan assemblies and other groups, the draft document ‘The Case for a Free Province’. That document will now be debated at grass roots throughout the Forward in Faith Regions, and at special regional Assemblies convened by the Management Executive over the coming months.
It is as well to say what the document is, and what it is not.
The headline writers, in whose limited vocabulary ‘rebel’, ‘split’ and ‘schism’ are key words, will do their best to sensationalise – and the more doctrinaire proponents of women priests and bishops will make common cause with them, as they always do. But the document is not about rebellion, division or schism.
It is the attempt of a group of loyal and faithful Anglicans (whose loyalty and faithfulness have been sorely tried, but not yet to breaking) to enquire whether it might be possible to remain Anglicans in the face of the inevitable developments of the next twenty years.
It is an attempt to think through the implications of an ‘open period of reception’ – one which is truly open both for proponents and opponents of the innovation. And, pace Eames, that thinking has yet to begin; for it must be admitted that there is a certain inherent ‘closedness’ to the present arrangements, which provide flying bishops for the one party and deny women bishops to the other.
It is an attempt to link the ecclesiology of a church divided on this issue to the developing ecclesiology of a communion likewise divided. At a time when one part of the communion (the South-East) is beginning to see the other part of the communion (the North-West) as missionary territory, in which it can legitimately license priests for the spread of the gospel, such an attempt is timely and urgent.
It is an attempt to mediate between extremes. There are those on both sides of this dispute who want clear, clean, surgical solutions. Many proponents of the priestly and episcopal ministry of women are for tightening up the regulations, withdrawing what are seen as concessions, and inexorably imposing the will of a righteous majority. But ours is not a world in which ethnic cleansing has any glamour. Many opponents are for definitive withdrawal, in the firm conviction that a church with women bishops will be one which will be obliged, even against its better nature, to persecute them into oblivion. But a failure to negotiate in trust and hope is a denial of the spirit of a humane age, and of an inclusive Church.
It is an attempt to solve (before even it presents itself) the ecumenical conundrum which the Anglican / Methodist talks will surely pose. For our Methodist friends have made it clear that they could not conscientiously embrace an episcopate which did not include women; and the Church of England, cannot in good faith begin a second round of negotiations which will predeterminedly end in the catastrophe of the first. Nor would it make sense to unite with the Methodists and lose an equivalent number of Anglicans in the process.
The British Isles – the home of four independent autonomous Anglican Provinces, each of which, under the guidance of Almighty God, has come into existence more by the pressure of circumstances than by reflective ecclesiology or theological fore-thought – are, we believe, an ideal arena for further developments.
The Churchwardens measure is shortly to come before Parliament. If passed it will allow the Bishop to remove from office the elected representatives of any parish in his diocese and replace him with a person of his own choosing. The Bishop need give no reason for this and the victims, warden and parish, have no right of appeal.
Members of Parliament will be assured that this measure is a result of widespread consultation. Not true. It is difficult to find a Churchwarden who has heard of this measure and the majority of clergy and parishioners are similarly ignorant of this impending assault.
What reason could there be for this measure? After all the church is hardly awash with cases of fraudulent or lunatic wardens clinging grimly to office. Besides every year there is a democratic opportunity to remove them – which is more than can be said of the Episcopal architects of this measure.
If, as they claim, it would only be used rarely why not use Consistory Court or its mooted replacement? If it is to remove paedophiles or those disqualified under the Charities Act, why not amend the 1964 Churchwardens Measure?
The measure proposed is draconian and antidemocratic – nothing like this has been seen since the brief and unhappy period of the Commonwealth. And what appeal does a man, thus dismissed, have? As the general public may then suspect him of something grotesque will he have recourse to the courts to clear his name?
So why are they doing it?
It is, of course, partly the obsession with power. In too many areas of church life the present Episcopal bench gives the unpleasant impression of being control freaks. They refuse to accept the lesson of the last fifty years that centralisation and decline go hand in hand.
But, in particular, there are areas of parish life over which it would suit the diocese to have control. Imagine the advantage of being able to remove wardens from an orthodox parish and replace them with stooges at times of critical decision e.g. votes for alternative oversight or interregnum.
Furthermore those churches that still possess historic monies and trust funds unplundered by central authorities usually have, as trustees, Vicar and Churchwardens. The rampant abuse of the Pastoral Measure, control of clergy by the replacement of freehold by short term contract and now the removal of the democratic lay representation opens whole new possibilities of institutional theft.
There is a measure that has recently passed through parliament allowing conviction on the word of a senior officer, without evidence and without appeal. It was passed after great agonising and in defence of the realm. It was to remove terrorists from a free society. This measure puts Churchwardens in the same category and must be rejected.
It is vital that every one of us write to our M.P.
The results of the elections to the Church of England’s Cabinet, the Archbishops Council, give comfort to no-one keen to see a revival of our church or of the faith in these islands.
The House of Bishops has chosen to be represented by two liberal Protestants (Durham and Guildford). Ironically, while they, no doubt, represent the true make up of the Episcopal bench, they also stand, as Lambeth demonstrated, for the party which has been powerfully instrumental in the decline of the western church.
In the House of Clergy, in addition to the Prolocutors, we have elected Michael Perham, a liturgist with enthusiasm for inclusive language and feminization, and Comrade Broadbent whose years as a hard left Islington Councillor proved perfect preparation to become Archdeacon of Northolt. The House of Laity has returned Christina Rees, the leading feminist spokesman, Christina Baxter, an academic whose vocal support of traditional values seldom translates into votes. and Brian McHenry, a lawyer, member of the liberal Southwark ascendancy. With the probable exception of Philip Giddings, a decent independent minded evangelical whose vote belongs to no-one it is difficult to imagine a group less representative of grass roots C of E, less representative of the growing parts of the church, less capable by record or temperament of reviving the institution.