Nigel Elbourne is not hurrying to leave the Church of England but wants to sit tight and be obstructive to the church of his birth
I read the article Stop dithering! with mixed feelings. David Nicholl pricked my somewhat tender conscience, as I recognized myself in his description of those who wish to remain in the Church of England until death (or retirement) releases us. Others than David Nicholl have already described this to me as ‘not an honourable position.’ Colleagues who have warmly embraced the innovation, as well as former colleagues who have left for Rome or Constantinople, have tried to persuade me to join them in what they perceive as their more honourable position. Several things, however, have dissuaded me.
Stability is one of the rules enjoined on those who follow a Benedictine spirituality. The Latin word stabo summarizes Nicholl’s phrase ‘standing firm on our convictions and making a nuisance of ourselves,’ especially if you take it as an acronym for ‘Sit Tight And Be Obstructive’!
Forms of loyalty
What is available to a priest is not so readily available to the flock he is called to lead, especially in the rural setting where I have served the greatest part of my ministry. The parochial system, which still flourishes in much of the country, despite the centralizing mania of recent decades, works because the loyalty to the God we cannot see finds its focus in our loyalty to the church and worshipping community that we can see. A devout French RC friend roundly castigated me for suggesting, in 1989, that I could always leave the Church of England if women were ordained: ‘Would you really treat God’s call to serve your parishioners with such contempt?’
I cannot see into the future. Like Nicholl, I hope that there will always be ‘a proper ecclesial solution for our children and their children.’ Neither he nor I, however, can be sure that God wills this to be in the Church of England. When I was reeling from the Synod’s decision in 1992, I wrote to my local suffragan, a supporter of the innovation: ‘The fundamental problem is that for centuries the Church of England has been living a sort of lie. It has held together because different people have used certain key words – Church, Priest, Unity, and many others – as if they all meant the same by them, whereas in reality they interpreted them in different, often mutually exclusive, ways. Since November 11 this pretence is over, and the CofE is under sentence of death. This could conceivably be God’s will for the greater ultimate unity of his Church – part of the pruning process promised in the Parable of the Vine.’ I still stand by this last sentence. We have all prayed and worked earnestly for the unity of the Church – the death of the Church of England might be his answer to our prayer.
I also wrote, in that letter to the bishop, ‘I am certainly not hurrying into any decision about my future, although the temptation to ‘cut and run’ is very strong. That, however, would be sheer cowardice and a denial of my Ordination and Induction promises which, thank God, were made before this fateful step was contemplated.’
Many of us live with the current ecclesial compromise, and the brickbats that accompany it, because of our faithfulness to commitments made under God.
When retirement alters the terms of those commitments, then we may think again whether or not to stay in the church of our ordination. I believe this to be an honourable position and, although they may be disappointed, so do my closest friends who have taken a different position.
This is not dithering. To have stayed in the Church of England beyond the cut-off point for compensation is to have shown more than a mercenary loyalty. To serve, to the best of one’s ability, the flock God has called one to lead (despite, perhaps, one’s personal preference) should be seen as laudable. To entrust the future to God’s merciful guidance is merely common sense.
Stabo – I, for my part, can do no other!