John Richardson on the privatization of episcopacy
It has for some time been the practice of bishops when instituting clergy to refer to the cure of souls as being ‘yours and mine’. In reality, however, the parish clergyman soon discovers that the ‘yours’ bit of this responsibility substantially outweighs the ‘mine’. As regards ‘Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad’, the reach of the bishop’s crook generally extends only far enough to confirm them after they have been rescued by the local vicar from ‘this naughty world’.
It is a romantic, but unrealistic, notion that local pastoral care is shared with already over-busy bishops. Nevertheless, the Church of England is ‘episcopally governed’, and so the bishops do have a significant influence. Unfortunately, that influence does not currently seem to include leadership as commonly understood.
Leadership is a fascinating subject, not least because leaders are fascinating people. True leaders have a unique talent of gathering around themselves others who thereby find new inspiration, frequently achieving things which would otherwise have seemed elusive or impossible.
Such leadership is not, however, the same thing as merely being ‘in charge’. The student of military history can cite numerous, and frequently tragic, examples of men who were in charge, but failed to lead. Sadly, the same seems to have been true recently of most English bishops. Naturally there are exceptions. In my own experience, Hugh Montefiore is memorable for giving the Diocese of Birmingham a sense of unity, direction and purpose. In spite of my massive disagreements with his theology, ‘Monty’ impressed me as a leader. For the most part, however, English bishops seem to be at best a benign background influence.
In particular, their policy seems to entail the avoidance of controversial public commitment. And nowhere is this clearer, of course, than in the present crisis concerning homosexuality. Ironically, one of the most astute observations in this regard comes from the pen of Jeffrey John:
‘[T]he bishops themselves must realize that no effective process of education will begin in the Church until they see to it that ‘what is whispered in private rooms is shouted from the housetops.’ This means taking their episcopal teaching office seriously, and finding the courage to let even ‘difficult’ conservative Evangelicals know their real views. The gospel does not allow a divergence between public and private moralities, and political expediency is not a Christian virtue – rather the opposite’ (Permanent, Faithful, Stable, 47–48).
Whether John himself would have shown such courage must remain a matter of conjecture. What is certain is that for the most part our bishops successfully resist his plea.
In my own Diocese of Chelmsford, for example, there had been no generally publicized comment from any of our three Area bishops between the approval of same-sex blessings in New Westminster, via the Jeffrey John affair, up to the appointment of Gene Robinson. It was thus that I and several others eventually wrote to them, more in a spirit of duty than hope, seeking clarification of their position. After some specific observations about Anglican doctrines, we concluded thus:
‘We therefore respectfully call on you to indicate to us and to the diocese as a whole your response, whether individually or collectively, to the election of Mr Robinson, so that we may be clear as to the stance being taken by our own leaders under God.’
At the time of writing (five weeks on), David Hawkins of Barking had yet to reply. Christopher Morgan of Colchester was willing to state that he felt the appointment of Gene Robinson was ‘a step too far’ in the light of Lambeth 1998, but made much of the forthcoming October meeting of Primates, the need for restraint and a sense of perspective, and the priority of unity. (Our own letter, incidentally, was clear in asking for a public, and therefore publishable, response.)
A long reply was also received from Laurie Green, the Bishop of Bradwell and acting diocesan. This drew attention to the ‘vast differences of opinion’ which exist amongst Christians. It also highlighted a series of seminars he said he had instigated across the diocese in the previous year to look at the issue of human sexuality (seminars, incidentally, which I helped organize and for which I wrote some of the study material). But as regards the appointment of Gene Robinson (which was, of course, the substance of our request), he declined to comment, calling us instead to exercise ‘deep Christian patience’.
It would not be strictly true, however, to say that we have no idea where Laurie Green stands, since he also referred us to www.bishoplauriegreen.com. Here can be found statements by John Gladwin (the diocesan bishop designate) and Rowan Williams, as well as one by himself in which he makes this interesting comment:
‘Having attended a series of seminars in Harvard University on [the Bible and homosexuality] some years ago, I am more than aware of how meagre our understandings of the text have been – and perhaps continue to be – when at first sight the English translations seem superficially to be so clear.’
In contrast with what he says about the Bible, however, the bishop’s own meaning is relatively transparent. Since Scripture ‘superficially’ seems to be saying that all homosexual practice is wrong, the bishop presumably does not believe this is necessarily the case. An e-mail to him seeking clarification of this conclusion has, unfortunately, met with no response.
Yet Laurie Green is not alone in playing his cards close to his chest. The Chelmsford diocesan website now contains a statement by the incoming diocesan, John Gladwin, taken from the Guildford website. He also acknowledges the differences that exist between Christians over homosexuality. Regarding the appointment of Gene Robinson, however, he concludes thus:
‘The ultimate Christian test about the rightness or wrongness of something is whether or not it bears fruit … The American Church has come to this after years of prayer and reflection. We have more work to do in England and many other places have more thinking and praying and debating to do.’
Gladwin’s ‘suck it and see’ approach was also evident in an interview he gave on Channel 4 news on the eve of Gene Robinson’s election:
Interviewer: Either a practising homosexual is to be appointed as a bishop or he is not. Which way should it go?
Gladwin: Well, that’s just exactly the sort of way not to approach this problem and this issue. If this move is something which is good to the Holy Spirit and to the people of God, it will flourish. If it isn’t then time will wither it upon the vine. So I think we need to exercise a little bit of patience and to allow some space to see whether a development like this is going to be wholesome to the Church or otherwise.
Clearly the reply is meant to be diplomatic, but its implications are astonishing. On the face of it, Gladwin believes that the consecration as bishop of someone who has divorced and left his wife and children and who now lives with a male lover could conceivably be ‘good to the Holy Spirit’ and ‘wholesome to the Church’.
Aware, nevertheless, that I may have misunderstood him, I thus wrote to bishop Gladwin. This, however, was no mere request for clarification. On the contrary, I pointed out the very serious consequences for me should I have understood him correctly:
‘If this truly represents your point of view, you would, of course, be entitled to it, but it would place us on opposite, and to my mind opposing, sides of a spiritual fence.’
Readers may guess that I opened the bishop’s reply with considerable trepidation. But of course I need not have worried – at least, not on that score! After reminding me that Christian moral judgement is open to development, the bishop assured me that there are ‘no proposals, at present, to change the teaching of the church on marriage and sexuality’ but rather an ongoing debate which should involve us all in patient listening. And that was pretty much it!
Yet it would again be a mistake to conclude we know nothing of John Gladwin’s personal views. He did, after all, preach at the 20th Anniversary Service of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in Southwark Cathedral (as their website still reminds us) and is a member of the consultative group for the LGCM ‘Halfway to Lambeth’ conference in October this year. He also spoke at the Integrity UK Spring Conference in 2000. (Integrity describe themselves on their website as representing ‘an Evangelical-friendly safe space for lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians’.)
All this, of course, need mean no more than that Gladwin is keen to engage with gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians in the spirit of Lambeth Resolution 1.10. Yet alongside his attitude to Gene Robinson’s appointment, the examples he quotes of comparable past areas of disagreement amongst Christians give cause for anxiety. In his press statement he referred to disputes over divorce, birth control and the ordination of women, and in his letter to me he added usury as another area where ‘a gap opens up between what we have inherited in the tradition thus far and the apparent needs of Christian life today.’ Given his next comment that ‘neither the taking of interest nor the use of contraception causes concern to Anglicanism today’, one could easily conclude that the bishop would be quite happy to see changes.
But of course Gladwin has not actually advocated change! On the contrary, like the majority of English bishops, he has been careful not to declare his own views publicly on the most divisive issue confronting the Anglican Communion.
Naturally I would prefer that all our bishops declared themselves bold traditionalists, but that is not the point. The real issue, as Jeffrey John observed, is that they occupy the positions of leadership but do not lead. Yet one day – perhaps one day soon – they will have to declare their hand. And unless they hide behind the ghastly screen of collegiality (I have seen nothing to match the spectacle of them all rising together in General Synod, having ‘cooked’ their vote beforehand) they will have to own up to their personal convictions.
Just as urgently, Christians are likely to face official sanctions sooner rather than later over the issue of homosexuality. Already, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement has sought to have Archbishop Peter Akinola banned from entering the country. How long before they seek to silence resident traditionalists? Yet without episcopal back-up individual Anglicans will be easy prey for persecutors who, in the past, have recognized the significance of episcopal leadership perhaps more readily than have bishops themselves.
Of course, it may be the case – in fact I believe it is true – that, as Jeffrey John suggests, the majority of our bishops support the homosexual revisionists to a greater or lesser degree. But if that is so, then compassion, as well as honesty, should compel them to declare it, so that the rest of us can prepare our defences against any coming storms. Otherwise the bishops may find that the prisoners Christ one day accuses them of failing to visit are the very sheep and shepherds whose pastoral care they claim to supervise.
John P Richardson is not currently not a guest of Her Majesty