In the last edition of Crossway and a recent edition of The Church of England Newspaper, I suggested that there is something of a credibility crisis in the Church of England. We are officially told by the House of Bishops that they want us ‘to flourish’. Some, no doubt, voted in the dioceses to progress the women bishops legislation because they believed such fine sounding words.
But it does not feel very much like flourishing when a constituency of our size and significance is never represented at the episcopal level. Despite over half a dozen appointments being made since my articles, nothing has changed.
We are compelled therefore to ask what exactly ‘flourishing in the life and structures of the Church’ means, if we will never again see a single complementarian evangelical serving as a diocesan bishop, as some have suggested.
As General Synod approached, the Archbishops confessed (in GS Misc 1079), that the current process of appointments has in a sense failed and cannot deliver on the aspiration to have ‘at least one’ complementarian evangelical bishop.
They respond directly to my consistent campaigning on this and make it clear that even though Synod in 2007 approved by 297 to 1 a report calling explicitly for conservative evangelicals to be included on the Preferment List, this has been conveniently forgotten for seven years.
They say they would like to put this right within a few months and appoint someone from our constituency. If that happens before the next edition of Crossway, it would be a significant step forward in addressing the current credibility crisis.
Having said that, we must continue to point out that a single isolated bishop is mere tokenism. Surely ‘flourishing’ implies rather more than the reluctant toleration of one among more than a hundred?
I believe there are courageous and creative solutions to the problem of our lack of representation in the college of bishops. But the question is whether those in a position to implement them really want us to flourish, or are just saying so for now, for pragmatic political reasons.
Do we have men willing and able to serve as bishops? Yes we do. Recently, I gathered together at Church Society HQ a number of our senior leaders (people repeatedly identified by our community as potential bishops), to discuss this issue and get some input on it. They have a vision to serve the whole church, definite leadership abilities, and proven track records of growing ministries.
Do we believe in episcopacy? Yes we do. Wallace Benn’s fine talk on ‘evangelical episcopacy’ at the Society’s conference in June is testament to that. We don’t see bishops as the essence of the church, but they certainly can be beneficial to our wellbeing. We do see the problems with alternative systems!
Do we have men willing to pioneer fresh expressions of episcopal ministry, if we are to be denied diocesan posts? Yes we do. The ‘flying bishop’ model, the idea of a complementarian bishop being a suffragan to an Archbishop and having a wide area to cover; the suffragan who serves across several diocesan boundaries; the bishop who stays on as the rector of a parish, but has a significant extra-parochial ministry; the bishop consecrated abroad who is taken on as an assistant bishop in an English diocese.
All these could be tried, and indeed have been tried elsewhere, for others. The finances can be found. But can we find those in senior leadership now who are willing to stick their necks out and put some real flesh on the bones of that enigmatic word, ‘flourishing’?
Until we can, it will remain difficult to persuade complementarians, especially the dynamic younger ones, that they truly have an assured future in our national church.