Conservative evangelicals risk a future with no bishops of their own. John Richardson urges them to do something positive about the situation to adopt a strategy and to form alliances with the Anglo-Catholics
The recent announcement that the Church of England could have women bishops by as early as 2012 can validly be treated as a glass half-empty or glass half-full scenario. For some, six years may seem depressingly short. By conservative evangelicals, however, it should be regarded as providing a not entirely deserved breathing space.
With a few exceptions, conservative evangelicals have largely avoided addressing the ecclesiological issues which will arise from the consecration of women as bishops. If they start now, however, six years may be just long enough for them to do something positive about the situation in which they find themselves.
Unfortunately, the immediate signs are not good. Indeed, some leaders of larger congregations have already indicated that, just as they have managed to live with liberal bishops, so they envisage no additional difficulties coping with bishops who are women. Yet whilst it is undoubtedly true that these larger congregations will be able to carry on with business as usual, the failure to see the implications for the wider church is symptomatic of thinking in terms of tactics rather than strategy.
This is partly because evangelical ecclesiology is characterized by preserving a few flagship churches in the midst of a flotilla of lesser craft. What does it matter that we cannot field many congregations, so long as we can field the biggest? After all, they provide living proof that we are right and they are always secure against diocesan inroads.
Unfortunately, this does nothing for the smaller congregations. And more importantly, it entirely neglects to do anything which might achieve something like Reform’s stated goal, to win the nation for Christ.
Crucial to this lack of strategic awareness, moreover, is the insistence by conservative evangelicals that they can operate effectively within an episcopally governed Church without the benefit of bishops. And it is not simply that they ignore their local bishops when they are less than committed to orthodoxy. Many of them would insist that their agenda has no need whatsoever either for bishops or for the ministry they exercise.
The important thing, conservative evangelicals rightly observe, is preaching the Gospel. And the future of church growth, they equally rightly observe, lies with church planting. But here is where the weakness of their stance on episcopacy is revealed: when the Co-Mission Initiative in Southwark wanted to authorize new ministers to serve their newly-planted congregations, they imported a bishop.
And in fact, conservative evangelicals are quite happy to make use of bishops of the right sort, such as Greg Venables or Peter Jensen. When it comes to planning further ahead, however, there is an acute lack of joined-up thinking. In an episcopal church, those who are not represented on the bench of bishops are inevitably marginalized. They are not seen as truly part of the institutional processes. And of course they lack anyone to provide formally sanctioned leadership within their own constituency.
Lack of progress
The scandal is that not only is the conservative evangelical constituency currently represented by just one bishop, but they have been told by key figures within the appointments process that their episcopal leadership would be unacceptable to the wider church! Yet despite the fact that they see the need for bishops on occasions and despite the clear evidence of the good being done under effective episcopal leadership elsewhere in the Anglican communion, conservative evangelicals in England do not merely accept their exclusion from the episcopate here, they seem to embrace it!
At the Reform conference in 2004, Phillip Jensen said that all Reform parishes should pass Resolution C straight away, as a matter of course, because it would send an unequivocal signal that they did not want women bishops. It would also, of course, have the effect of increasing the pressure for a conservative evangelical PEV to be appointed. Yet to date very few parishes have taken this step. Thus, as we reach 2006, conservative evangelicals are still stalled in the position they were discussing in 2004. There are proposals on the table, such as talk of a Panel of Reference to recommend people for deployment in ministry, but collectively nothing is happening.
What conservative evangelicals need is a strategy to deliver not just one but three or four bishops from their constituency in the run-up to the consecration of the first women bishops. The first and most obvious means to this is to go back to Dean Jensen’s admonition. Whilst the Act of Synod remains in force, conservative evangelical parishes should pass Resolutions A, B and C, so as to create pressure for one or more PEVs to be provided from within their constituency.
Secondly, it must be recognized that Anglo-Catholics have done their homework with regard to the future of the Church of England. They have on the table a firm proposal and are thus strongly placed to negotiate with the institution. Conservative evangelicals have more or less nothing and should therefore accept that they must sit alongside the Anglo-Catholics in any negotiations if they are not to be left isolated.
Thirdly, conservative evangelicals must be prepared to accept help from the Anglo-Catholic constituency in this country up to and including the consecration of bishops. It is somewhat ironic that visitors to the Province of Uganda’s website will be greeted by a picture of the Archbishop resplendent in cassock and biretta, yet the Ugandans are regarded as allies in the battle for orthodoxy. Similarly, the Kenyans ordain women, but that does not prevent Reform providing funding for theological training in the province.
Conservative evangelicals need to recognize that if they are to find an answer to the problems currently confronting the Church of England, it will most probably emerge within a coalition such as is currently represented by Anglican Mainstream – a coalition not of the theologically pure, but of the essentially orthodox.
This will, of course, be much harder than coming out from among them. But if English history shows us anything, it is that this has a greater chance of long-term success. It may involve a certain irony, but irony and humility may well go hand in hand.