Robbie Low suggests we have been looking in the wrong direction

In all the excitement about the appointment and disappointment of the Bishop of Reading, one major factor seems to have slipped off the radar of most of the protagonists and commentators alike. A bishop is a guardian, defender and transmitter of the apostolic faith.

Only by being in and of the tradition, the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church of God, can a bishop hope to be the focus of unity and the celebrant of the mysteries of redemption for his people and the fount of the wisdom of the Word of God.

A conservative role

It is a profoundly conservative role which, properly and lovingly exercised, gives true meaning to the glorious liberty of the children of God, rather than the fatuous and destructive permissiveness which currently obtains. Anglicans have, sadly all too often, had to get used to bishops being no such thing. Indeed, in the Carey settlement orthodoxy became virtually an automatic disqualification from office.

The question of Dr John’s suitability for office hovered insistently around his homosexuality and/or celibacy. As dear old Peter Tatchell, whose recent pantomime tactics briefly achieved the impossible by uniting General Synod, will tell anyone who cares to listen, there are several bishops, married and single, whose proclivities are ‘Johannine’ and whose celibacy is considerably more doubtful than that of Dr John.

The problem with Dr John, as with many other bishops of the current CofE, is rather more serious. Friend and foe alike seemed determined to slog it out over ‘homosexuality’. Friend and foe alike seemed to accept as given that, ‘apart from that he is entirely orthodox’. If he is, he must be tragically disappointed with what he and his very old friend, Dr Williams, have achieved.


They were, along with Richard Holloway and Frank Griswold (Presiding Bishop ECUSA), founding fathers of Affirming Catholicism. The organization was formed to get away from the ‘negativity’ of conservative Catholics and positively support developments in doctrine. To nobody’s great surprise this turned out to be shorthand for women priests and the homosexual agenda. Dr John became its scribe and propagandist.

Affirming Catholicism has never cut much ice with the laity – its lay membership is just a few hundred. Its appeal is to the clergy and its genius lies in two things:

1. On a theological level it has always used Catholic language to express very un-catholic ideas, thereby giving them an apparent familiarity and plausibility they otherwise lack.

2. In the wake of the 1992 disordering of the Church, the establishment was only too anxious to fill ‘Catholic’ vacancies with plausible ‘Catholic’ candidates, who would nevertheless be compliant with the governing liberal regime.

Affirming Catholicism could have been created for such a purpose. Clerical membership shot up to one thousand. Very soon one quarter of all bishops were Aff/Caths, an astonishing figure, and that was just the openly declared. Unkind wags dubbed Affirming Catholicism ‘Former Catholics in search of a job’ and ‘the Sadducees’. In truth few of them were ever really Catholic but they have effectively become the Court party.

But is all this just sour grapes from bitter old Forward in Faith types? Judge for yourselves.

The Catholic Faith

Last year Cost of Conscience commissioned Christian Research to conduct the most comprehensive survey of belief in the Church of England. Its findings were shocking and appeared over five weeks on TV, radio and in the press.

One of the clearest results of the research was to indicate two wholly different and competing churches within the CofE. Conservative evangelicals and Catholics united in a massive confidence in the apostolic faith and traditional scriptural morality. Liberal Anglicans were united in a burgeoning agnosticism and a huge rejection of Christian moral teaching. Chief among these latter groupings was Affirming Catholicism.

Its clerical members, who returned their questionnaires in hugely impressive numbers, recorded the following confidence in credal orthodoxy / their credal orthodoxy as outlined in the box below. These figures would not even give a simple majority on the central tenets of the faith.

express their faith in



On salvation in Christ, a General Synod made up of Affirming Catholic clergy would be able to deliver a two thirds majority – against!

On critical catholic issues like the sanctity of life, Affirming Catholic clergy are almost equally divided, for and against, on euthanasia and abortion.

On divorce, Aff/Cath clergy enthusiastically embrace the culture, with 90% happy to ordain divorcees, and 70% content with a divorced and remarried bishop.

Perhaps surprisingly only 64% support the ordination of practising homosexuals.

Faith not practice

The inescapable conclusion is that the brainchild of Dr John and Dr Williams, Affirming Catholicism, does not affirm very much – and certainly not Catholicism. To his credit, Dr John always bemoaned this tendency.

While Evangelicals and liberals were whipping themselves into a frenzy about Dr John’s bedroom activities or lack of them, a more fundamental question went unasked: how did a man with these credentials get to be the star candidate of the Archbishops’ Appointment Secretary, and leap-frog the Bishop of Oxford’s entire original list?

Or was the original list simply made up of less talented members of the same caucus? No doubt when the Bishop of Oxford regains his equilibrium we shall discover. The hot money is on the fact that all these bishops’ lists have one thing in common. They are an orthodox-free zone.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath, in the Diocese of St Alban’s.