Episcopal Novelty and the Church of England

I seem to have caused a small flurry (a flurryette?) of comments over on a thread on Thinking Anglicans by expressing the view that the Church of England is in the process of introducing a novelty into the episcopate that is undesirable and which they should at least have consulted the rest of the communion over.

The novelty that I am talking about is this – that the Church of England has got itself into a position where it is formally going down a path whereby some of its bishops will not be in full communion with other bishops within the same church.

This has come about because the compromise that the Church of England has adopted over the consecration of bishops who happen to be women is to give an assurance that there will still be new consecrations of bishops who still refuse to accept that women can be consecrated as bishops.

This means that some bishops of the C of E will not accept that other bishops of the C of E are bishops at all.

I say that is a novelty and I say that the situation is absurd.

Now, to be absolutely clear, I think that it is a great thing that great new opportunities are opening up to great people. Of course the episcopate should be open to women and men. Of course it is exciting that women are going to be consecrated in the Church of England. The price though, was a muddle that I think that many will one day regret. It is also a price that women are going to be expected to pay.

All this is just a further extension of something that I think will probably one day be called (inaccurately) the Anglican Heresy. I think this heresy (which strictly speaking is more of a Church of England thing than something which affects most Anglicans in the world) is the notion that one should be able to accept or reject a bishop according to whether or not they fit with one’s theological peccadilloes. This seems to me to have come in initially through the ministry of suffragans who often seem to have been appointed to give “theological breadth” to episcopal oversight in any one diocese rather than to simply share in the episcopal oversight of the diocesan. Thus we have had evangelical parishes wanting to associate with and be on the receiving end of episcopal oversight from an evangelical bishop and anglo-catholics doing likewise.

This got worse with the appointment of the so-called Flying Bishops who wandered around the Church of England ministering only to those disaffected by the ordination of women as priests.

It has now reached the point of absurdity with bishops being appointed who don’t believe other bishops being appointed to be bishops.

Notwithstanding the genuine joy that many feel at the forthcoming consecration of female candidates as bishops, I also know both male and female friends who feel somewhat hesitant at the terms on which this will be done.

Are we really getting to a point where some people will be ordained as bishops in the Church of England who will not be able to participate by the laying on of hands in the consecration of other bishops in the Church of England?

If so, that is a novelty of monumental proportions. It is an absurd situation which others within the Anglican Communion are likely to feel very concerned about indeed.

People often say that the ministry of a bishop is centrally concerned with being a focus of unity. It seems to me that the Episcopate in England is becoming the very definition of disunity.

(Incidentally, it is always worth remembering that the Ordinal in Scotland doesn’t mention bishops being a focus for unity whilst the Ordinal in England does).

Now when I say things like this, people are apt to say several things:

  1. This isn’t a novelty, haven’t you heard bishops who have been out of communion with one another before?
  2. Isn’t it more of a novelty that women are ordained in the first place?
  3. What would you do then, would you turf these objectors to the consecration of women out of the church?
  4. Why hasn’t the Scottish Episcopal Church consecrated women and who are you to complain about the Church of England when you’ve not done it in Scotland anyway?

Let me deal with these one by one.

Firstly, the situation that I’m describing as a novelty is not bishops being out of communion with one another – that, is something of a commonplace. Grumpy bishops have thoughout the centuries declared themselves to be out of communion with people they’ve been grumpy with. What I’m describing as a novelty is bishops within one church being formally out of communion with one another as a matter of course. The fact that the Church of England seems to be intent on describing this situation as a positively inclusive force is very much a novelty. Has ever there been a church of the Western Rite claiming the apostolic succession which has asserted that it can have bishops who don’t think other bishops are bishops?

Secondly, I can understand that some feel the ordination of women to be a great novelty but I don’t. I simply think that the episcopate should be open to women and men because God has made women and men in God’s own image. That women have been excluded is an error that I’m pleased is being corrected. There have been bishops who happen to be women in Anglican and Lutheran churches we are supposed to be in full communion with for years anyway. Where’s the novelty now in that?

Thirdly, my personal preference is that women should not have been expected to bear the price of the disunity of their fellow Christians. Women are being ordained as bishops in England but not on the same terms as men are ordained bishops. (Clergy and congregations will be able to formally opt out of their care – no-one has that option on male episcopal ministry). I’d prefer equality to what has taken place. What people then decide to do in a situation where men and women are regarded as equals is their business. I can see a case for allowing priests to continue in a church where they are out of sorts with the idea of women being consecrated as bishops but I see no way of resolving the ecclesiastical nonsense of continuing to consecrate men who won’t accept female episcopal ministry now. I wouldn’t turf anyone out but I certainly wouldn’t make the situation worse in this way.  (And yes, I do partly blame the advocates of women being consecrated for caving into this situation – their episcopal sisters in later years will wonder why they did not stand up and be counted).

Finally, the reason the Scottish Episcopal Church has not yet consecrated a bishop who happens to be a bishop is more about size than anything else. There are currently more episcopal vacancies in England than there are the total number of bishoprics in Scotland and we have  no vacancies at all. They don’t come around often and we struggle sometimes to find good candidates (men and women) for the jobs anyway. The only way we could currently consecrate a women at the moment would be to bump off a bishop and consecrate a woman, possibly against her will – this is probably unacceptable to society at large. Until a women is consecrated by due process we just have to wait, secure in the knowledge that when she is consecrated she will be the equal of her episcopal brothers.

This is an Anglican Communion matter that we should all be more concerned about. The irony for me is that though I stood full-square against the Anglican Covenant, it might have been useful in this situation – stopping the Church of England from introducing for the foreseeable future novelties into the Episcopate that make no sense at all. However, the Anglican Covenant was itself a novelty too far and though I might wistfully think it might be useful now, its own introduction would have changed our churches from the communion of provinces that it currently is.

Incidently, if a woman is consecrated as a bishop in Scotland and faces the situation whereby a congregation claims they can’t accept her ministry, she will be free to try to sort it out herself. She could, for example, invite another bishop, (either a retired bishop or one from the College of Bishops she is a member of) to assist her in her ministry. So could a man in a similar situation.

The Church of England is of course more or less free to do what it likes within the Anglican Communion. I dare say here in Scotland we will regard all its bishops as bishops. It seems beyond stupidity that members of the Church of England will not necessarily have to do the same.


  1. Bro David says

    Is the novelty really beginning with the Church of England? I can’t specifically point to a particular bishop in a particular province, but I would think that every province that has ordained bishops who are female or gay or lesbian has already broached the novelty and afterward consecrated bishops who didn’t accept the fact that some of their sister or brother bishops were bishops.

    • Really?

      And a formal process to encourage them in this belief too?

      • Bro David says

        No, nothing formal.

        Ask Bishop Gene about his time in the TEC House of Bishops.

        • I’m not just talking about opinions though. I can think what I like about a bishop, I still have to accept that they have actually been consecrated.

          What the C of E is saying is that people don’t need to.

          Making that formal is the novelty.

    • Are there US bishops who don’t accept that all US bishops are bishops?

      The problem with Gene Robinson for his opponents, it seems to me, was not that he wasn’t capable of being made a bishop but that he was made a bishop.

      • Bro David says

        So you think that every bishop in every province that has consecrated a woman bishop accepted her as a bishop? If those folks exist in the CoE, why would they not exist in every other province? And why would they not be bishops, including bishops consecrated after the consecration of a woman of a gay man or lesbian in that province?

        • Bro David says

          I agree that there is a novelty in the CoE, the fact that it has formally created a process in its polity to allow such a dissonance.

  2. Ritualist Robert says

    Hear, hear!

    I have to say I have little patience with the kinds of Anglo-Catholic who claim to be catholic whilst behaving like congregationalists. Surely if a person who claims to be catholic disagrees with the decisions of the Church, then they ought to either conform their mind to the mind of the Church, or quietly leave for another denomination if they cannot do so. But, of course, they prefer novelties and nonsense which the rest of the Church then has to deal with.

  3. Julie Mansfield says

    having disagreed with you about your assertion that God = Love and other positive words, I just wanted to redress the balance by saying how much I do agree and appreciate what you write here!

  4. Robin says

    > Surely if a person who claims to be catholic disagrees with the decisions of the Church, then they ought to either conform their mind to the mind of the Church

    The trouble with this is that people who claim to be Catholic are divided as to what they believe “the Church” to be. Is it the Scottish Episcopal Church (or the Church of England)? Is it the Anglican Communion? Is it the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Communion and such Lutherans as are in the Apostolic Succession as traditionally defined (as many of my generation and before it were taught)? Is it the company of all the baptised throughout the world? Or are there other definitions still?

    I know that at different times and in different circumstances I use different definitions of “the Church” according to context. In this particular context of whether or not women bishops are a novelty, how do others define it?

    • I was speaking above of any church of the Western Rite claiming the apostolic succession.

      I would widen that to include the orthodox churches too.

  5. Ritualist Robert says

    Robin, I meant anyone claiming to be catholic within a particular Church. So, in my view a catholic member of the SEC abides by the decisions of that Church; a catholic member of the Church of Sweden abides by the decisions of that Church etc. If such a member cannot in good conscience, then I believe, they ought to leave quietly.

    • Robin says

      > in my view a catholic member of the SEC abides by the decisions of that Church; a catholic member of the Church of Sweden abides by the decisions of that Church etc.

      That’s what I myself have done. It seemed the only practical course to follow. However, there’s no use pretending that everyone has the same view of which decisions may legitimately be made by the Synod of a particular Church (like the SEC) and which are ultra vires, being decisions for the whole Church (however that may be defined).

      Ultimately, I suppose the choice for a Western Christian is between embracing what claims to be a living and infallible authority (i.e. Rome) and accepting that there is a provisionality and uncertainty as regards everything on this side of the Day of Judgement.

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