Stephen Parkinson explains the Forward in Faith Regional Deans and the work they will do

“Thirty-four per cent of male priests reject women priests” Thus ran a headline in the February 1994 issue of the Swedish equivalent of the Church Times.

That liberals in the Swedish Church were shocked by the results of a survey that revealed this statistic is an understatement. Thirty-five years after women priests had been ordained in the Church of Sweden, it as apparent that opposition was stronger than ever.

That it is an important part of Forward in Faith’s agenda to increase the number of those opposed to women’s ordination goes without saying. And so, in recent months, the Council of Forward in Faith has been looking at the Swedish experience – and comparing it to the experience of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world – to see what lessons there are for us to learn in this country.

What has become clear to us is the necessity to build up a corporate identity in such a way that a subtle, but important, change comes over constituency. In the future, surely, our first loyalty must be to each other, rather than to the structures of the Establishment.

Those who were fortunate enough to be present in York Minster on May 20th, 1995 will testify to the tremendous enthusiasm engendered by the experience of joining with the Bishop of Beverley and 5,000 or more fellow Christians in a singular act of prayer and praise at the Northern Provincial Festival Christ our Cornerstone. The reason why those present left the Minster so buoyed-up was because – for an hour or two – they had succeeded in distancing themselves entirely from an Establishment which is intent on belittling us; an Establishment whose vision must surely be that one day there will be no Bishop of Beverley, no Provincial Episcopal Visitors, no Forward in Faith, no one opposed to the ordination of women priests.

Long-time readers of the Church Times will recall, over the years, reports of the death of the last of any number of so-called eccentrics: the last priest to ride around his parish in a pony and trap, the last archdeacon to wear gaiters, the last priest to impose the Church Rate on his parishioners. One day, if the Establishment gets its way, you will read of the death of poor old Fr So-and-So – the last priest in the Church of England to believe that women cannot be priests. Be in no doubt: that is inevitably their vision. Distance our

selves from it, and those who hold it, we certainly must if we are to live and grow!

Inspired by the example of our orthodox sisters and brothers in the Church of Sweden, the Forward in Faith Council has decided to set up a pattern of Regional Deans. (See map) Each Dean will be a senior priest of proven competence, successful in his own parish or pastoral charge, and one who has made a contribution to the wider life of his diocese or of the national church.

The country has been divided into sixteen regions, each in most instances comprising two or three dioceses. It will be the task of the Regional Dean to be the leader of Forward in Faith in the region committed to his care and he will be responsible to local

clergy and laity and answerable to the Council of Forward in Faith. His oversight and leadership will in particular be in six areas.

First, it will be his task to ensure that the Forward in Faith organisation in each of the dioceses in his region works – that Assemblies meet with proper regularity and transact that business which our Constitution requires.

Second, he will ensure that Forward in Faith Clergy Chapters meet regularly in each diocese and that they provide the mutual spiritual and intellectual support that our clergy so desperately need.

Then, he will work in the closest co-operation with the Provincial Episcopal Visitor, referring matters of pastoral concern to the Bishop and acting with him or for him where that is appropriate.

Next, he will have the task of organising events in his region which will foster a sense of community among Forward in Faith

supporters in the region.

Fifthly, he will have responsibility for Forward in Faith parishes in his region as well as any others which need his help. He will have a particular care for parishes during interregna, and for any parish having difficulty over an appointment or Pastoral Scheme.

Lastly, he will have the task of searching out those laity for whom no adequate pastoral provision has yet been made, and of providing for them, where necessary organising them into a local eucharistic fellowship under a suitable priest. In short, he will establish himself as friend, counsellor and adviser to those of our integrity in his region and encourage that proper sense of mutual concern and care on which our future growth will necessarily be based.

Over the past few months, Fr John Broadhurst and Fr Geoffrey Kirk, National Chairman and Secretary of Forward in Faith, have travelled with me to the sixteen regions, consulting in all several hundred priests and deacons about our plans. We have found enormous enthusiasm from the clergy, whom we have asked to meet in Chapter, to consult across each region and to submit their choice for Regional Dean to the Council. Already some names are with us and we envisage commissioning the sixteen Deans at our National Assembly Eucharist on October 7th in Westminster.

From the outset, Forward in Faith has held that what we are faced with is an ecclesial problem which requires an ecclesial solution. Such a solution will only be possible if we are able to achieve that distancing about which our Statement on Communion spoke, so that our loyalties are clear. our loyalty to the faith received from the Apostles; set down for us in Holy Scripture, and the writings of the Fathers; our loyalty to all who hold and who teach that faith – in short, our loyalty to each other and to all our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe, who hold to the teaching and tradition of the Universal Church.

Please pray for, and support, our Regional Deans, as they begin their ministry among us later this year and give them the loyalty they will need for the task to which, by the Council and by their brother priests, they will have been called.

Stephen Parkinson is the full-time Director of Forward in Faith.