No Free Province for Reform

LAST MONTH was something of a watershed for Reform. Its Council stepped decisively away from accusations of schism (fostered by headlines such as Jonathan Petre in the Sunday Telegraph: ‘Evangelical wing ready to split the Church’). At the same time, it took a decisive step forward in its plans for reform of the Episcopate.

The Council’s resolution (see below) bears careful reading. Its rejection of schism is apparent not only in its restated commitment to the Church of England and its reform but also in the way it makes clear that changed arrangements for episcopal oversight will not necessarily apply across the board but only ” where necessary and desirable”. Many Reform members will presumably wish to keep firmly within existing diocesan structures.

The Council is also clear that it is not going to be rushed into hasty decisions, despite the need of parishes like St Oswald’s in Newcastle for their ‘ oversight’ problem to be resolved: it wishes to proceed by agreement with the two English provinces; any action it takes will be contingent on a consensus amongst reformed evangelicals; and there will be thoroughgoing consultation about options. That said, by identifying a date by which progress must be achieved, Reform is making clear that there is no room for prevarication. Some may argue that Reform should give Lambeth more time to impact the CofE, but by 2001 – the date set by Reform – it will be too late to start planning. By then, the prospect of female bishops will again be raising questions about biblical headship, and the current campaign against the results of Lambeth by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement will be bearing fruit.

The December resolution of the Reform Council was:

1) restates its commitment to the Church of England and its reform;
2) rejoices in the Lambeth Conference Resolutions that endorsed the biblical, apostolic and historic doctrines of the Anglican church;
3) regrets that the Lambeth Resolutions, particularly on human sexuality, have not commanded support from all the bishops in the Anglican Communion (including bishops from the Church of England);
4) in the light of the decision of the Council in December 1996 to develop alternative strategies for episcopal oversight (see note), resolves to consult its members and the two Archbishops in depth about episcopal oversight and the way forward in the light of episcopal “defects” (Canon C 17.2) in doctrinal, ethical and pastoral matters and the failure by some bishops to fulfil their duty “to drive away all erroneous and strange opinions’ (Canon C 18.1);
5) determines, on the assumption that:
a) there is a consensus in the Reform constituency and the wider “Church of God” (Ordinal) and
b) other bishops in the historic succession (whether the Archbishops of the Church of England or bishops of the wider Anglican Communion) believe this is of God and will facilitate the oversight we seek, to ensure that by January 2001 there should be the “election and consecration, after due process, of bishops from the Reform constituency” (Council, Dec 1996) or from others committed to the apostolic, biblical, reformed tradition (the tradition of the 39 Articles) to serve the Reform constituency, where necessary and desirable, and, as far as possible, the wider church;
6) will propose options, with a preferred option, by Spring/Summer 1999 for debate in the Constituency, especially at the National Conference in Autumn 1999;
7) realizes that such arrangements cannot properly be made for January 2001 unless the elections are confirmed by, or by the time of, the National Conference in the Autumn of 2000.

The Council decided to plan three strategies to help where necessary and when requested:
1) the employment where necessary, desirable and possible, of retired or other godly bishops in good standing with the church;
2) the employment where necessary, desirable and possible, of the PEV’s (“flying bishops”) already consecrated or a future evangelical PEV as already requested; the election and consecration, after due process, of bishops from the Reform constituency who can be employed where necessary and desirable.