If plans to consecrate a group of Conservative Evangelical bishops come
to fruition, openness and sensitivity will be needed, writes Julian Mann
The voices calling for a group of Conservative Evangelical bishops to be consecrated for the UK are undeniably getting louder. Fuelling the growing sense among Reformed Anglicans that the CofE is going the way of TEC is the near certainty that there will be no legal provision for opponents of women bishops whilst civil partnerships are gaining institutional recognition. The discussions are said to involve ‘senior figures’. Only time can tell whether the talk will turn into action. But this parish plodder would make two appeals if an agreed plan emerges.
Firstly, there should be no secrecy over the consecrations. There needs to be a strong local mandate from as many as possible within our constituency in the Church of England. Whilst one understands the need to safeguard the position of those men who volunteer to be bishops, the process does need to be as open as possible, with consultation about the individuals and good advance notice of the consecrations. Simply to be told at a gathering of the clans hastily convened by the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans that the consecrations are taking place the following weekend and asked for an endorsement would be very far from providing a positive mandate. It would leave the new bishops vulnerable to the charge that they had been parachuted in by the big churches and their church plants, and the lack of ownership would effectively kibosh their ministry from the start.
Secondly, there should be real sensitivity to those incumbents in small non-evangelical parish churches. Not only do they minister in net-receiving churches, but their PCCs and congregations are not going to be sympathetic to the new bishops. These ministers are surely Christ’s vulnerable ‘little ones’ in all of this. Writing them off as mediocrities without the management skills to get their PCCs on side is just ignorance talking about the reality of ministry in a church where the Word has not been taught and there are few shared spiritual priorities. It takes a lot longer now to turn a non-evangelical church around than it did even thirty years ago.
Clearly, there are many outstanding questions to be addressed over the practicalities and legalities. If the bishops to be consecrated are already ministers who hold a bishop’s licence to officiate, presumably those licences would have to be forfeited. Effectively, the new bishops would leave the institutional Church of England but would have a pastoral relationship with clergy and churches that remained in. It is likely therefore that the new bishops would be senior clergy about to retire and/or younger episcopally-ordained church planters already ministering without a bishop’s licence.
There could be some interesting alliances once, God willing, they come on stream. The growing army of dogmatic neo-liberals in the institutional hierarchy are bound to be furiously opposed. Any incumbent presenting Confirmation candidates to one of the new bishops should expect to be threatened with the Clergy Discipline Measure. The Open-Evangelical Fulcrum constituency is also likely to provide vocal opposition. But some old-school liberal bishops could well be inclined to cut deals with the new cats on the block. They have not got the same axe to grind as anti-FCA evangelicals, coupled with the fact that old-school liberals are often generous people. What is the merit in driving out a financially generous and lively congregation?
Those courageous enough to undertake this process on our behalf deserve our prayers. May their ‘love abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment’ [Phil 1.9].