Bishop Edwin and A Cautionary Tale from California

Life is hard for a retired bishop. Lunch on a private cruiser, a visit to the Getty museum. In between times, though, there was some serious business to be done. Our mission which took us on this whirlwind trip to southern California was to inform some in ECUSA about the workings of the Act of Synod in the CofE, and the role of Provincial Episcopal Visitors (‘PEVs’) in it. We went at the invitation of the traditionalist American Anglican Council (AAC), who are keen that some sort of ‘extended Episcopal oversight’ should become available on that side of the Atlantic too. Our team of three comprised Keith Newton, soon to be Bishop of Richborough, John Broadhurst, the para-PEV of greater London, and myself, on-the-shelf one-time Bishop of Richborough.

Twin Events

The Conference will be written up by the Americans in due time. My aim here is simply to report on how America seems post September 11, and post Accokeek. It might seem trivial to put those two events in the same sentence, but for traditionalist members of the Episcopal Church, the judgement arrived at over Fr Sam Edwards has been almost as devastating as the collapse of the twin towers. For New Directions readers who are still mystified: Accokeek parish called Sam Edwards to be its Rector. He is opposed to women’s ordination, and Washington diocese has Bishop Jane Dixon pending the election of its next diocesan. She had a limited time to state her opposition to the parish’s call. That time expired, she took no action, and Fr Sam moved to the parish and began his work there. Only then did Ms Dixon say he was persona non grata and could not be an incumbent in the diocese.

In this power struggle (and it is all about power) the bishop went to the Civil Court. That court determined effectively that as acting Bishop of the diocese what she said was law, and Fr Sam must go. This has scared the whole of ECUSA for not only may a liberal bishop may ignore the Canons and do as she or he chooses – the same sauce goes for the few surviving traditionalist bishops. The judgement arises from a misunderstanding of the Church and its laws – but if you will ask the State to intervene, it is the sort of outcome you must expect. That battle lost, appeals continue, the war is not concluded.

It’s different in England

The English situation, of course, is very different. The state understands us better, for we are a state church. Until recently, the state has been actively concerned about the Church, and has ensured that no over-mighty bishop can remove a priest simply on a whim. When the law was changed to permit women to be ordained to the priesthood, parliament ensured that proper provision was made for parishes or priests who believed this was wrong or impossible. That concern of parliament for the church is changing. From being ‘The Church of England’, media and parliament now refer to us as ‘Anglicans’, one denomination among many. Disestablishment is in the air, and with it a dis-engagement of parliament from Church. The delicate checks and balances reached over generations are being dismantled. The parson’s freehold, the rights of patrons to nominate priests for their parishes, even the independence of cathedrals, are all being whittled away. Centralization is the name of the game, and soon even Bishop Jane Dixon will appear moderate and considerate compared with our all-powerful bishops.

Disestablishment; disendowment

Or will she? Viewed from America, it seems that our church might be in for rather more than we anticipate. Suppose the CofE really is no longer The Church of England. Whose then are the endowments of the Church? Whose are the buildings? In the past, it only took a monarch’s decision to dismantle the power of the monasteries, and turn the church into an arm of the state. Americans fight, bishop with parish, over property and money. In California they asked us, ‘Who owns your churches?’ That is no easy question to answer. You could say the Incumbent for the time being owns the parish church, having been inducted to the living and given the keys of Church and Vicarage. But when churches become redundant, the state takes some of the proceeds of any sale. At present that is used towards the upkeep of historic buildings – but there might come a time when a little asset-stripping would appeal to a cash-strapped government. There would be few outside the church who would rush to our defence, any more than the monks found laymen to defend them during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. And if a government decided church buildings were state property – which is certainly what Henry assumed – then there would be many in the nation who would think it only fair that our under-used churches were given to those who could use them properly. Claimants might include other churches, other faiths, the National Trust, Hoteliers, Supermarkets, the Disney Corporation. If some cash were raised from this for the Health Service or Schools, then disendowment would be an electoral winner.

The Canterbury Stakes

Our AAC hosts in America were deeply interested in the appointment of a successor to Archbishop George. It had not struck me that this was of any great moment. Our Church is moving towards its moment of schism with women in the episcopate, and the best any Archbishop might do is momentarily slow the juggernaut. But the Americans still have a slim hope that the Presiding Bishop will find a way of giving them ‘extended episcopal care’ (he will not) and they hope that some new Archbishop of Canterbury will ride to the rescue. He also will not. The traditionalist sheep will be abandoned to the liberal wolves.

England is not America. A common language continues to divide us. Who in England would call himself an evangelical, while reserving the sacrament in his church, wearing eucharistic vestments and expecting to be called ‘father’? The outcome here will be very different from that in the States. Certain things, though, are constant. The faithful may fall away, priests may leave to become Roman Catholics or Orthodox, churches close. None of this matters provided the Bishop’s diocese is inviolable. Pray God this will change. Pray that Canterbury may exercise pastoral authority while he still has some. If he does not, the situations of ECUSA and of the CofE are parlous, each church as vulnerable as those once magnificent twin towers.

We are pleased to welcome Bishop Edwin to our team of international correspondents