John Richardson considers the rise of episcopalianism

The recent announcement that the Bishop of Oxford is to appoint as Suffragan Bishop of Reading a man chiefly known for his support for gay sexuality unarguably marks a watershed in the recent history of the Church of England.

The central issue is not, however, Canon Jeffrey John’s sexuality. Rather, it is the manner of his appointment which is problematic, illustrating as it does four things: first, the structures of power as they now exist within the Church of England; second, the willingness of those holding that power to use it without compunction; third, the ultimate futility of dialogue between theological liberals and conservatives; fourth, the theological incoherence of the Church of England.


First, the action taken by the Richard Harries illustrates a shift in power in the Church of England which has been taking place steadily since the close of the Reformation period. As I have argued elsewhere, at the Reformation the Church of England embraced a unique understanding of the proper relationship between the monarch and the Church.1

It is commonplace to refer to this as ‘Erastian’, but, as Colin Buchanan has also pointed out, this is a misnomer.2 What Thomas Cranmer and Henry VIII established was an absolute and equivalent headship of the monarch over both state and church such that the Church of England enjoyed what it could not have even during the days of the Apostles – a leadership with lawful authority to rule.


Cranmer’s audacious – albeit flawed – understanding gave a structure to Anglicanism which, whilst often ignored, has never been formally repudiated, even though subsequent developments meant that the arrangement between church and state eventually became truly Erastian. The last forty years, however, have seen the emergence of a de facto disestablishment, even within this semi-Erastian framework.

Until the middle years of the last century, Anglicanism remained wedded to English constitutional structures in a way that, whilst sometimes frustrating for the Church, also allowed it to survive crises of its own creating, such as the Honest to God debate of the 1960s. However, the defeat of the 1928 Prayer Book had stimulated a desire within the Church of England to be self-governing, matched by an increasing willingness to let it be so on the part of the state. Coupled with a widespread ignorance of Cranmer’s heritage this means we are now in dangerous territory.


Cranmer’s settlement ensured that the Church of England was episcopal, but not ‘episcopalian’. It had bishops, but it was governed by the monarch, with the bishops as ministers who were answerable, albeit in an increasingly nominal manner, to the Crown.

Within the last few decades, however, that understanding has given way to a redefinition of the Church as constituted by its diocesan bishops. This came to a head in the document Episcopal Ministry, produced by the Archbishops’ Group on the Episcopate in 1990. Significantly, this passes quickly over the Cranmerian settlement, acknowledging merely that ‘Cranmer himself took a most extreme view of the royal powers’ (para 475). Instead, Episcopal Ministry emphasizes the physicality of the bishop, describing him as ‘the polupletheia (the multitude) in his person, the many in the one’ (para 381). The bishop is thus no longer the appointed instrument of the supreme Governor, but the personal locus of the body of Christ.

As recent events have shown, such a truly ‘episcopalian’ church contains no realistic instruments by which its bishops may be made accountable. On the contrary, it endows them with an almost absolute authority via the notion that membership of the church equals communion with the bishop.


It is the inevitable outcome of this absolutism which is currently being demonstrated by the Bishop of Oxford. His appointment of Jeffrey John at any time might have been a cause for controversy. What is truly breathtaking is that it was announced whilst the Anglican Primates were meeting in Brazil to consider, amongst other things, True Union in the Body, a paper presented by the Archbishop of the West Indies. This challenges precisely the theology represented by Canon John. Yet by his action Harries would sweep aside not only the arguments of the paper but the very process of discussion.

Of course, Harries has claimed that John will publicly ‘uphold the present teaching of the Church’, as Archbishop Rowan Williams has similarly said he would do. Yet what if there were to be not merely two but ten or twenty bishops appointed, all of whom personally disagreed with the teaching of the Church of England even whilst promising to uphold it? Would this not inevitably lead to a change in doctrine – and not by a process of discussion but by the raw exercise of power?

Fruitless Dialogue

What Canon John’s appointment does show, however, is the futility of the current dialogue on this matter. Dialogue, in the sense of ‘discussion leading towards the resolution of a problem’, does of course have a place in the church, but only up to a point. Thus if there were still reason to believe that those who wish to revise the Church of England’s present teaching on sexuality were themselves willing to modify their own agenda, dialogue might be worth pursuing. What is now clear, however, is that there is no intention to change, only to persuade.

Yet to engage in such dialogue may be deeply un-Christian. Both the Garden of Eden and the Temptation in the Wilderness, for example, involved ‘dialogue’, but the proper conclusion to it was the Lord’s ‘Away from me!’ To continue talking past the point where it becomes obvious that the intention is to move one from a position which one has every reason to consider godly is to flirt with disobedience. And the advocates of sexual revisionism have made it clear that this is precisely their aim.

In any case, the appointment of Canon John, like the same-sex blessings in New Westminster or the election of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, suggests that if an opportunity to advance the revisionist cause is seen, it will be exploited regardless of the state of any ongoing dialogue. Of course, the revisionists in each case are only doing what they believe to be right, but this simply proves once again the fruitlessness of further discussion when one side is fixed in its views.

Theological Incoherence

What we are seeing worked out on a global scale, however, is the theological incoherence of the Church of England – not that no theological sense is ever made by Anglicans, but that Anglicanism no longer has overall theological coherence. Recent events demonstrate something which has been true for well over a century and which is now obvious to all, except those with a surfeit of wishful thinking (though still largely unacknowledged), namely that Anglicanism develops through principled radicalism, not institutional regulation.

This was not, of course, the intention of the Reformers when they repudiated the authority of the Pope and the Roman magisterium. Their intention was that these would be replaced by the legal authority of the monarch under the spiritual authority of Scripture. Unfortunately, neither of those two authorities have held any real sway in Anglicanism for a considerable period of time, though they created a sufficient momentum to keep the ship more or less on some sort of course, at least in the home country, almost down to the present.

In reality we have simply ignored the erosion of these authorities and consequently have put nothing in their place. On the contrary, the legal structures of Anglicanism, based on the Cranmerian settlement, have conspired to create the illusion of submission to authority where there is none. Thus we have the bizarre spectacle of men who are publicly known to oppose the Church’s teaching giving an undertaking to ‘uphold’ that teaching in public, as if matters of faith were simply to do with outward adherence to certain position statements regardless of private persuasion.

This is not ‘upholding’ the Church’s teaching at all, but it can appear to be so in a church where authority is exercised from the top down through a legal apparatus establishing certain minimum public standards. In a legalistic church, adherence to the letter of the law can appear to be conformity to the principles of the faith.


Meanwhile those with sufficient power or courage to act on their principles have led the process of change in the Anglican Church by radical action, even when contrary to the laws and previous traditions of the institution. It must be admitted by readers of this journal that one of the earliest examples of this was the Oxford Movement, whereby parish clergy – not, be it noted, bishops – broke the laws of church and land, even to the extent of going to prison, and thereby bequeathed to us a renewed Catholic heritage.

The same principled action was taken by American bishops in 1974 when they illegally ordained the first women, and is being taken by numerous parish clergy today who are quietly, and unlawfully, conducting blessings in church for same-sex couples.

In this situation, those who insist that the Anglican way is ‘rule-making whilst keeping the rules’ are kidding only themselves. That may be how Anglican theology comes to be written, but it is no longer how it comes to be made.

The ‘End’ of Anglicanism?

Does all this spell the end of Anglicanism? Perhaps the future lies with the epithet of Dr McCoy, ‘It’s Anglicanism, but not as we know it.’ The Anglican experiment of the Reformation is almost exhausted – a national church governed by its monarch and regulated by his laws enforced by his ministers is now the global ecclesiastical tidemark of a past empire. Disestablishment at home is the final and inevitable conclusion to the process. Whether what remains will be workable as a church is yet to be seen, but the one certainty is that there will be no prizes for the reticent.

Revd John P Richardson is Assistant Minister in Henham, Elsenham and Ugley.


1. ‘No King but Caesar? The Headship of the Church in Anglican Theology’, Churchman, 116, 4, 305-325

2. C O Buchanan, Cut the Connection (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994), 14-15