Radical Christian exclusion: How the Church of England crushes dissent from the new orthodoxy

The current Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, is not a gentleman.

St George's Headstone, Harrow

The agenda for the July General Synod includes the continuation of the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ programme. Last October, in the face of concerns expressed by evangelical bishops unwilling to ditch the teaching of Christ and the apostolic witness of the New Testament, Bishop of Liverpool Paul Bayes eulogised the ongoing process as part of a radical new Christian inclusion. Members of the General Synod and the wider Church should have no illusions about what that ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ – a phrase coined by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York – entails.

The future may be seen in a case from the recent past. When, in 2014, the General Synod agreed on the introduction of women bishops, the House of Bishops produced a Declaration promising respect and provision for those conscientiously unable to accept the innovation. Much was made of it being undergirded by a Canon prescribing a procedure for the resolution of disputes and the appointment of an Independent Reviewer, but the Declaration was essentially a gentlemen’s agreement.

Unsurprisingly, the current Bishop of London, Dame Sarah Mullally, is not a gentleman. Unlike her predecessor, Dame Sarah refused to accommodate the 2016 request of the Parochial Church Council of St George’s, Headstone, Harrow for a male bishop ‘whose marital status conforms with Apostolic teaching and practice expressed in the historic teaching and practice of the Church of England’, viz ‘that he be the husband of (no more than) one wife’. Although she contended that this request was not a concern relating to the ordination of women as bishops, Dame Sarah declined to explain how a woman bishop might be a husband. When she entrusted the episcopal oversight of the parish to Bishop Jonathan Baker – a remarried divorcee with a living first spouse (and also a signatory of the Pilling Report, which led to ‘Living in Love and Faith’) – St George’s PCC resolved that he would not be invited to exercise his ministry in the parish.

In September 2018 St George’s PCC brought a grievance against Dame Sarah to the Independent Reviewer, Sir William Fittall. Like Dame Sarah, Sir William did not deign to address the theology of the PCC’s Statement of Theological Conviction and Needs. At the only stage in his report when he wandered into theological territory Sir William focussed on another of the St George’s PCC’s requests: that for ‘a male bishop at whose consecration a male bishop who had not consecrated a woman as a bishop presided’. Here Sir William delivered a sustained attack on a ‘so-called theology of taint’, doubtfully within the spectrum of Anglican theology and tradition ‘even interpreted at its broadest’, and ‘a theology which Traditional Catholic Bishops in the Church of England have firmly rejected’.

Sir William’s chosen target was snatched from thin air and bore no relation to the St George’s PCC’s clearly stated ‘theology of communion’. Indeed, Sir William’s predecessor’s report dismissing a grievance in 2015 against separate traditionalist Chrism Masses quoted Bishop Tony Robinson of Wakefield citing such a theology of communion in favour of their necessity and continuation. As former National Secretary of Forward in Faith Geoffrey Kirk observed

Mr Keeble’s PCC, it should be abundantly apparent, is not acting upon a doctrine of ‘taint’, but is valiantly seeking to uphold a coherent and consistent position in the face of the issues-led inconsistency which surrounds them.

More disturbing even than Sir William’s Sir Humphreyesque rhetorical framing and theological maladroitness was his judgement that specific theological convictions contrary to the acceptance of female bishops and priests are irrelevant to the undertakings of the House of Bishops’ Declaration – which ostensibly promises episcopal provision tailored to the differing needs of conservative evangelicals and traditional catholics. Geoffrey Kirk commented

This is a curious decision, which seems to deny opponents of women’s ordination any coherent theological position, condemning them to mere naked sexism. … It seems that the Church of England, in its determination to uphold the integrity of women’s ministry, can only view those who continue to uphold the Church’s perennial teaching as prejudiced bigots. A position which it clearly intends to prefer to reason and principle.

These conclusions were confirmed at the highest level when, in accordance with the Canon regulating the activity of the Independent Reviewer, St George’s PCC wrote to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York asking for the dismissal of Sir William for not acting impartially and fairly.

Without even a cursory attempt to address any of the points put to them, the archbishops, in their reply of 13 February, state that Sir William ‘retains our full confidence as he continues to discharge his responsibilities in this important role’. (This endorsement of Sir William’s acumen and rectitude presumably also represents an admission on the part of Archbishop John Sentamu to complicity in perpetrating Sir William’s theology of taint, when he stepped aside in 2015 for Philip North to be consecrated by bishops who had not consecrated a woman.)

For all his blundering, blatant selective reasoning, we have cause to be thankful to Sir William Fittall: he has, albeit unintentionally, unmasked the archbishops’ ‘new radical Christian inclusion’ as its Orwellian opposite. Can there be any doubt that the project of which ‘Living in Love and Faith’ is a part will significantly further alienate and marginalise those whose hitherto mainstream beliefs correspond to the faith of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, uniquely revealed in Holy Scripture, set forth in the catholic creeds, and witnessed to in the historic formularies of the Church of England?