X The Right Reverend Andrew Burnham, Bishop of Ebbsfleet, reflects on an experiment on pastoral oversight

On the feast of St Catherine of Siena this year, 29th April 2010, the See of Ebbsfleet had its sixteenth birthday and, on 30th November, St Andrew’s Day, it will be ten years since I became its bishop. As with human years, sixteen is an age not without its anxiety. The Ebbsfleet project is young enough to cause quite a few patronising remarks but a bit too old to ignore. It thinks it has come of age, but what do sixteen year olds know about anything?

In the life of the universal Church sixteen years is hardly the blinking of an eye: in the economy of God it is not long enough to wipe away a tear. We shall have to live for quite a while longer to discover how temporary ‘flying bishops’ will prove to have been. My suspicion, however, is that, whatever happens to the women bishops’ legislation, there will continue to be bishops around whose job it is, somehow, to offer comfort, solace, and protection to those who persist in taking a particular line on Catholic Faith and Order. We may be talking twenty years. We may be talking fifty years. We may be talking longer. Meanwhile, one man’s Anglo-catholic ecclesiology is ‘as a dream when one awaketh’ (Ps. 73), whilst another’s is simply the triumph of English pragmatism.

A ‘Flying Diocese’?

Rather than add to the considerable discussion of women bishops’ legislation (whether or not codes of practice will do, whether or not the innovation can be defeated, whether or not, if it were defeated, it would simply come back until it were finally accepted) it seems a good idea to look at some of the lessons of the ‘flying bishop’ experiment, as experienced in what I am increasingly calling the ‘Ebbsfleet Project’. I used to refer to it as the ‘Ebbsfleet Apostolic District’ and the reasons why I no longer do so will become evident.

What has been fairly obvious all along – as my driver would say to me on more than one occasion on one of our two and a half hour journeys, as we covered a territory which covered a third of England – is that a ‘flying bishop’ needs a ‘flying diocese’. He needs this as surely as a ‘flying doctor’ needs a terrain like Australia to fly around. It has also been fairly obvious all along that the one thing no one has been prepared to concede to a ‘flying bishop’, however, is a ‘flying diocese’. My driver took the view also that, when two bishops operate together – on what I have always referred to as ‘a battle of the crosiers occasion’ – I should get the best one out. It is a matter of brand promotion, he would tell me, and analogies would be drawn – for this as in many other areas of life – from the world of Premier League Football. Wear your best shirt! But, of course, it was never a matter of brand promotion; more a challenge to demonstrate that, in the life of the Kingdom, co-operation is better than conflict.

If we are not going to consider here the whole matter of women’s ordination, nor are we going to look in depth at the issues raised by Anglicanorum coetibus and the Pope’s offer of an Ordinariate to Anglo-catholics wishing to convert. Again, there has been no shortage of discussion of this and there will be much more. We note in passing that a ‘flying diocese’, that is, a diocese which overlaps the territory of several other dioceses is exactly what the Church of England, inclusive as it is, cannot offer. Meanwhile that monolith, the Catholic Church, by way of an ‘Ordinariate’, has offered a diocese by another name, that is, a local church presided over by an Ordinary. The irony is enjoyable to say the least.

A ‘Light Touch’

To look at what the lessons are of the ‘flying bishop’ experiment, it is worth noticing what a ‘flying diocese’ obviously lacks – or, one should say, ‘would lack’. It might be thought futile to explore this further: after all, the General Synod heavily defeated the possibility of new dioceses for traditionalists in July 2010. It could be argued, though, that the Church of England has not for the first time missed a trick, that the ‘flying bishop’ experiment has had far more lessons to teach, potentially, than how to handle diversity in matters of Faith and Order. For a start, there are all those stories about how ‘flying bishops’ have been proper bishops, pastors to their people, in a way that those in the normal diocesan structure have not.

Quite often these stories have been distorted by suggesting that ‘flying bishops’ are the good guys and other bishops the bad guys. In truth, any of the ‘flying bishops’ landed with a desk-full of paperwork and a diary full of committees would have performed as other bishops do. Similarly, there are many other bishops who would love to be able to sit loose to the bureaucracy in the way that ‘flying bishops’ have been able to. The question is, then, has the ‘flying bishop’ scheme, and all it has to teach us, simply been lost on a Faith and Order vote? To examine this, let us stay with what might have been.

One thing the ‘flying diocese’ would seem to lack is the curial infrastructure of the territorial diocese. ‘Flying dioceses’ – and it might help to imagine, for this purpose, that Beverley, Ebbsfleet and Richborough had formed three dioceses, North, West and East – might need an office between them for certain things and, for others, might piggy-back on the territorial dioceses. What they would certainly not need is three boards of finance, three boards of education, three sets of property specialists, and so on. The

The Ebbsfleet Project

kind of co-operation which is springing up between territorial dioceses in economically straitened times would be part of the ‘light touch’ of ‘flying dioceses’, part of their DNA, as it were. Nor would there be an obvious need to find three mediaeval or quasi-mediaeval piles to serve as cathedrals. The ‘flying bishop’ discovers a cathedra on the North side of every sanctuary and no one building would suffice easily to serve such a large area. A third thing might be to discover – and that partially means to ‘re-discover’ – something of the ‘light touch’ of earlier times. Time was when the bishop opened his own front door, phoned up his priests with a suggestion that they consider suchand-such a parish, got his archdeacon (well, there has to be some delegation) to speak to the parish about such-andsuch a candidate whom the bishop would like them to meet. Some of this cannot be recovered but the world of beauty contests and competitive interviews, consultation and appraisal already looks less inevitable in a changed political climate than it did in the highly bureaucratic administration of the last dozen or so years.


One of the snags of the ‘flying bishop’ experiment has been that the bishop becomes a very churchy person, and his work becomes very churchy. There has been little or no interface, in my job, with local government, business and commerce, national politics or some of the consensual issues of justice and peace. Broadly, no one cares what a ‘flying bishop’ thinks about prison reform, the school curriculum, or ecology, though, to be honest, all of these are more interesting and worthwhile than most ecclesiastical concerns. Nor is there much interest from the rest of the Church of England.

One became a consultant to, rather than appointee of, the Liturgical Commission. True, one has served on the Advisory Council for Religious, but by co-option rather than appointment. One’s colleagues have fared scarcely better, though the Bishop of Beverley has been elected to Synod and been a member of the Urban Bishops’ Panel (and one thing ‘flying bishops’ know about is the inner city).

The marginalisation is not only in secular and temporal matters. I have preached at a cathedral – and I am associated with fourteen – on fewer than half a dozen occasions in ten years, and each time at the behest not of the Dean and Chapter but of some outside organisation. Despite having been a theological educator, I have been invited only once in ten years to a college or course, other than where I trained and worked. Being a ‘flying bishop’ has been a very churchy business indeed. That is not to blame anyone: ‘flying bishops’ are simply off most people’s radar and no doubt priest-archivists or hospice chaplains have stories about never being asked to do anything else or not being kept informed about what is going on.

But it ain’t necessarily so

To describe the marginalisation of the ‘flying bishop’ might be to feel sorry for oneself or indulge in sour grapes. That is not how one should feel. It has been obvious throughout the sixteen years that all the talk about ‘an honoured place’ for traditionalists and the ordination of women being a doctrine ‘in reception’ until such time as the Universal Church endorses what the Church of England has prophetically done has been a rhetoric which few have been able to live up to and even fewer have believed. The expectation was surely that clergy who did not take the compensation in the early 1990s would soon be getting used to the new ways, or at any rate retiring, and that the influx of new traditionalist clergy, a trickle rather than a flow, would dwindle further, indeed that some of these new and inexperienced clergy would learn to overcome what were perceived to be personal problems about having women colleagues. This has been the process and this has been the expectation. And even now, when the rhetoric is changing, no one wants anyone to leave, no one wants the elderly who remain entrenched in their opposition – not of course all the elderly are opposed – to be uncared for. But we have the Whig view of history: change is development; change is for the better.

So, in saying that being a ‘flying bishop’ is a very churchy business, I may be describing how it has been but that is not to say that it is how it needed – or needs – to be. Take, for example, the interface with ‘the world’. A ‘flying bishop’, covering a third of the country, has an experience – potentially at least – of relating whole cultures to each other. One of the most illuminating experiences has been celebrating West Country Tractarianism one Sunday, in a very established community, and inner-urban Anglo-catholicism the next, in an area of immense deprivation. But there is more to it than that because, at the ham tea afterwards, there is the very different experience of cultures which seem years apart, and not just miles apart.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of being Bishop of Ebbsfleet has been to be part of the West Midlands’ Bishops, one of the more successful regional groups. The friendship and support have been good and the sense of common purpose strong. However much a Provincial Episcopal Visitor is ‘provincial’ he is also deeply immersed regionally. There is potentially a cash value, so to speak, in this in terms of ‘the world’. It may never have been tried but it is there for trying.

What has seemed self-evident for much of the ten years one has served as a ‘flying bishop’ is that ‘light touch’ dioceses would be a very good idea in general. Regionalisation of the bureaucracy – recognising that some of the larger dioceses are regions in themselves – might allow some much more ‘light touch’ episcope to emerge. One thinks of those Northern dioceses, several of which one can travel through within an hour or two. Or the West Country, where Truro was carved out of Exeter (and that can’t have been because a mechanised age made the distances less manageable!). It could not all be achieved by the rationalisation of boards and councils, officers and offices. Some would need a radical cultural change: perhaps a reversion to a notion that the ministry of the laity is not to run the Church but to evangelise the world. Less consultation about churchy matters might mean more energy to care, heal, nurture, proclaim and teach beyond the walls of church and committee room.

The Culture of Choice

One of the criticisms of the ‘flying bishop’ scheme is that it allows people effectively to choose their bishop. It is tempting to think that every time a new challenge comes along, a new set of

‘flying bishops’ could be created. Why not ‘flying bishops’ for those who insist that their bishops ought to be women? Why not ‘flying bishops’ for those who want to promote civil partnerships into same-sex marriage? Why not ‘flying bishops’ for those who prefer things to be ‘low’ when their bishop is ‘high’, or ‘high’ when their bishop is low? This is a somewhat disingenuous argument. The ‘flying bishop’ scheme was invented not to provide for an innovation but to provide continuity for those who were unable to accept the innovation. In a sense the ‘flying bishop’ scheme is similar to the provision for the Book of Common Prayer to remain normative. Most churches hardly use the Book of Common Prayer but those that do need to be reassured that that tradition is continuing, recognised, and permanently available.

Apostolic District

and Local Church

Finally one must give some account of why the ‘Ebbsfleet Apostolic District’ is no more and it is safer to talk of the ‘Ebbsfleet Project’. As I took on responsibility for the ‘See of Ebbsfleet’, as my predecessor Bishop Michael Houghton called it, I noticed that there had been a developing pattern. The first Bishop of Ebbsfleet, Bishop John Richards, had been a West Country archdeacon, and was very much a Church of England loyalist, a Tractarian to his finger-tips, deeply suspicious of papalist versions of Anglo-catholicism. He ran Ebbsfleet as a faithful remnant, constantly striving to strengthen the cause. Every parish should be encouraged to have a male priest. Every parish with a male priest should be encouraged to pass Resolutions A and B. Every parish with Resolutions A and B should be encouraged to petition for ‘extended episcopal care’.

Everywhere was in his sights and he was a doughty warrior. One day, he thought, the Church of England would come to its senses and ‘see off’ the innovation of women priests. He became more appreciative – but remained suspicious – of Anglopapalism, seeing, perhaps, as John Shelton Reed in Glorious Battle puts it, that that branch of the movement is congenitally counter-cultural and could not be mainstream if it tried. Bishop Michael Houghton had dreams of Ebbsfleet becoming one day a diocese. Amongst his papers were jottings about the kind of framework a diocesan curia would have.

My own vision was that, rather like the Roman Catholic Church in England before the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, or in the mission field, a group of parishes and priests ranged round a bishop, but not formally a diocese, constituted an ‘Apostolic District’, a diocese-in-embryo. Nowadays Catholic Canon Law calls this an ‘Apostolic Administration’ but administration – jurisdiction – is precisely what Ebbsfleet has lacked. It seemed to me that, though I could see the political value of the campaign, the Forward in Faith ‘Free Province’ notion, trumpeted as ‘a Catholic solution to a Catholic problem’, was in fact yet another Protestant solution. It entailed forming a smaller, purer, sounder fellowship – the basis of every separatist movement since the Protestant Reformation. What I myself have believed in, and hoped and worked for, was the very thing the General Synod heavily defeated in July 2010. I don’t mean the Archbishops’ amendment, a commendable attempt to rescue something from the ecclesiological wreckage, but the new dioceses’ motion.

Three ‘light touch’ dioceses, not wrested from the Church of England (as in ‘Free Province’), but set up by the Church of England, much like the Pope’s Ordinariate, would have been an experiment in managing diversity in matters of Faith and Order. Had it been successful, this new instrument would have helped the Church of England to maintain its historic task as a bridge between Catholic and Reformed and to continue to explore ecumenically the Common Treasure it has with the pre-Reformation Church of the West, expressed now, in continuity, in the Roman Catholic Church.

The vision for the ‘Ebbsfleet Apostolic District’ has not been fruitful in the most obvious way – though the fruits over sixteen years have been rich and plentiful in the lives of the faithful and in the increase of the harvest – and what we must see now is what becomes of ‘the Ebbsfleet Project’. ND