The recent emergence of plans for reform of the Church of England’s episcopate has caused alarm in some quarters and has even led to frontpage coverage from a national newspaper. Is there going to be a greater geographical focus for bishops or, alternatively, more of a specialist portfolio approach, characterised by the press as a ‘Bishop for Brexit’? And will there be house-for-duty serving bishops and even bishops on fixed-term contracts? What does this mean for worshippers in parishes and how can some apparently contradictory proposals be held in parallel?
The first thing to say is that we should not rush to judgement. There needs to be time for explanation and consultation. And an improved geographical focus – what we would call pastoral and sacramental care – is, if done properly, exactly what we would advocate. The dire confirmation numbers (even pre-Covid) in many dioceses require nothing less.
The circumstances which brought about the advent of our own dedicated bishops, known as principal episcopal visitors (or PEVs), remain lamentable and painful for our movement, particularly as we approach the thirtieth anniversary of the General Synod vote which necessitated such special arrangements.
However, the Church’s history tells us that adversity can bring greater steadfastness in matters of faith and the operation of the PEVs have something very useful to add to this debate. The workings of the PEVs have demonstrated that an episcopal ministry can flourish with little by way of bureaucratic or other support and can do so by prioritising the pastoral and the sacramental over all else.
We know that such an approach, outside of the usual structures and often with scant resources, can enable vocations to flourish, disciples to be formed, and friendships to develop. Without the panoply of advisers, publicists and other inventions of our modern-day office culture, there can be a sense of belonging, a prophetic preaching of the Gospel, and a prevailing feeling that we are living out the lives to which we are called by God. That is, there can an outpouring of theology as opposed to managerialism.
Just as there has been room for imagination and ingenuity in our approach to the episcopate, so should it be with the parish. As I have already noted, the Church is often at its most dynamic when it is at its least comfortable in its wider circumstances. Similarly, the most transformative movements in the Church of England have tended to utilise the parish but have demonstrated flexibility in doing so while also seeking to create new places of worship. We know this from our own mission huts of years gone by, and we can see it in the current mission initiatives emanating from the Church of England’s evangelical wing.
I imagine many readers will note with interest the synodical ‘conversation’ being embarked upon by the Roman Catholic Church. Like me, you might well hope – in the finest ecumenical tradition – that the worst excess of the Church of England in this respect, and some of the other constituents of the Anglican Communion, are avoided by Rome. (see p.9.)
The challenges posed by these various issues can be distilled into one simple question: What does it mean to be Catholic in the secular western world?
You may be reassured to hear that I do not possess any straightforward answers or easy solutions to these struggles. My own experience is one of the centrality of the Eucharist, backed up by a solid teaching of the Faith and a living out of the historic apostolic succession. I know of the importance of pilgrimages in all their different manifestations – whatever, whenever and however we can make them. And I know of the necessity of fellowship and encouragement in what we seek to do, often amidst indifference or hostility.
The first letter of John tells us that ‘What existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we observed and touched with our own hands—this is the Word of life!’ Lent is a truly special time for Catholics which we take to heart and observe deeply.
So, as we enter into the wilderness and desert through this holy season and pray for the appointment of our two new PEVs, and as we are forced to confront views which depart ever more from our received understanding of ecclesiastical practice and doctrine (the latest such being the so-called ‘Zoom Eucharist’), let us journey through Lent with renewed commitment, resolution and resolve. We know that to be our duty and vocation.