Colin Podmore notes some confused episcopal identities

A mid the joy surrounding the Bishop of Burnley’s episcopal ordination on Candlemas Day 2015, one detail may have escaped notice. When Fr Philip North was presented for ordination at the beginning of the service, the Archbishop was addressed not as ‘Reverend Father in God’– as the Common Worship ordination liturgy requires – but as ‘Archbishop Sentamu.’

Canon B5 permits the minister conducting a service to make ‘variations’ in the form of service,’ providing they are ‘not of substantial importance,’ are ‘reverent and seemly,’ and are ‘neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter.’ The Archbishop presumably believed that removing the reference in our liturgy to the fatherhood of bishops met all of these tests.

The liturgical requirement to address the Archbishop as ‘Reverend Father in God’ had been a deliberate decision. The 1662 Ordinal has ‘Reverend Father in God’ at the ordination of deacons and priests and ‘Most Reverend Father in God’ at the ordination of bishops. The Alternative Service Book 1980 used ‘Reverend Father in God’ on both occasions, but (as is often the case with Common Worship) the Liturgical Commission’s draft reverted to the 1662 precedent. Back in 2004, some submissions to the synodical revision committee objected to ‘Most Reverend Father in God,’ while others rejected use of the term ‘Father’ at all.

The Revision Committee agreed (by 7 votes to 3) to drop ‘Most Reverend’ as being ‘unnecessarily hierarchical’ – apparently believing hierarchy (defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘an organized body of priests or clergy in successive orders or grades’), which some of us thought was inherent in the threefold ordering of the Church’s ministry, to be a ‘bad thing.’ In what way the difference between archbishops and other bishops could be thought to be other than ‘hierarchical’ was not explained. (As Secretary of the Committee, it was my role to record the majority’s reasoning in each case, not to interrogate it.)

However, the Revision Committee robustly defended the concept of the fatherhood of the bishop. Pointing out that St Paul told the Corinthians, ‘I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel’ (1 Cor. 4.15), it observed: ‘The term “Father” is appropriately used of those who succeed to the apostolic ministry.’(The 1662 Ordinal tells us that bishops are the successors of the Apostles.) It also noted that Canon C18 proclaims: ‘Every bishop is the chief pastor of all that are within his diocese, as well laity as clergy, and their father in God.’

The Committee considered the alternatives and rejected each of them in turn. None of the members supported a ‘hierarchical form of address’ (such as ‘My Lord’ or ‘Your Grace’), or a ‘functional’ one like ‘Bishop’ or ‘Archbishop.’ The majority were also concerned that ‘Bishop N’ or ‘Archbishop N’ at this early point in the rite might ‘tend to replace the sense of a bishop ordaining for the Church of God with an unarticulated sense of the diocese as the bishop’s personal fiefdom.’ ‘Father,’ they commented, ‘is a relational term,’ and ‘the form of address should be relational.’ Believing that a successor of the Apostles is appropriately called ‘Father,’ and unable to think of a ‘relational’ form of address other than ‘Reverend Father in God,’ the Committee voted by 10 votes to 2 to retain it.

At the Revision Stage, synod members put down fourteen motions calling for decisions by the Committee to be referred back for further consideration, but no one asked for this one to be reconsidered. Nor, when the House of Bishops considered possible amendments before submitting the rites for final approval, did any member of the House raise this issue.

The Revision Committee had commented that ‘if the law were changed to permit the ordination of women to the episcopate, this wording would have to be changed or an alternative allowed’ and that ‘the same would apply to Canon C18,’ but throughout the entire synodical process leading to the ordination of women to the episcopate, no one suggested that either the Ordination Services or Canon C18 – or indeed the oath of canonical obedience to the ‘Lord Bishop of X’ (Canon C14) – should be amended. Both the canonical definition of a diocesan bishop and the liturgical form for addressing bishops therefore remain unchanged. Consequently, the Church of England’s official position must be that, just as a woman can be a Lord Mayor, so she can be both a ‘Lord Bishop’ and a ‘Father in God’ (though not, in the context of same-sex marriage, a husband).

This apparently came as a surprise to the first female diocesan bishop, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester. When she received a writ of summons to the House of Lords referring to her as ‘Right Reverend Father in God,’ she sent it back. In doing so, she expressed a wish to be referred not to as ‘Mother’ either but simply as ‘Bishop.’ She explained to The Guardian: ‘There’s something about the whole connotation of ‘mother’ that has a sense of dependency for me. It’s not how I want to be looked at. I see myself as a leader, as leading from among people.’

In the Today programme’s ‘Thought for the Day’ Canon Giles Fraser leapt to Bishop Treweek’s defence. ‘Right Reverend Father in God,’ he opined, was ‘an overly grand title for anyone, but doubly preposterous for a woman.’ He pointed out that the innovation of using ‘Father’ to refer to all priests began in Ireland in the first half of the nineteenth century; but as a philosopher he will recognize that even if a fact is true that does not make it relevant to a discussion. The legal forms’ reference to bishops as ‘Father in God’ was not invented in the nineteenth century. Like the liturgical address, it derives not from Irish colloquialism but from mediaeval precedent. Neither has much to do with the question of how to address a priest. Every Church of England ordinal there has ever been has called for the bishop or archbishop to be addressed as ‘Father in God’ because that is what the pre-Reformation Sarum liturgy said. Nor was the concept of the bishop as ‘Father in God’ a mediaeval invention: it forms part of an unbroken tradition stemming from the biblical concept of God as Father and the early second-century patristic concept of the bishop as (in the words of St Ignatius of Antioch) a ‘type of the Father.’

The Church of England seems to have rejected relational language rooted in Scripture, and a tradition of nomenclature and typology that stems from the early Church and from St Paul’s self-description as a father in the Church, in favour of functional language and the modern, non-biblical concept of ‘leadership.’ This seems to have occurred not by synodical decision but merely by the personal choice of an archbishop and a diocesan bishop, both from an evangelical background.

If the General Synod had been invited to consider the matter, as the 2004 Revision Committee envisaged, this would, admittedly, have required it to face a perhaps unpalatable choice. Is the episcopate, as it is defined in the liturgy and canons of our church, an order to which women can be ordained, or must the definition of the episcopate be changed in order to facilitate such ordinations? Archbishop Ramsey famously said of the Anglican Church that it ‘baffles neatness and logic,’ but – given what our liturgy and canons say about bishops – surely it must either be the case that women can be bishops because they can be fathers in God, or the liturgical and canonical definitions of the episcopate must be amended as a consequence of ordaining women as bishops?

Catholics in the Church of England in general and in the Diocese of Gloucester in particular have reason to be grateful to both the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Gloucester, but they would not imagine that this required us to agree with them in everything. It is no disrespect to either of them to say that, despite the Church of England’s legendary capacity to ‘have it both ways,’ they and the Church of England’s current canonical and liturgical definition of the episcopate cannot both be right.

Dr Colin Podmore is Director of Forward in Faith. Fathers in God? is available to members of Forward in Faith at £12.50 (inc. p&p). Please send a cheque, payable to Forward in Faith, to the office.