The new plan for the future governance of the Church of England, supported by both Archbishops and the Bishop of London, would wreak considerable change within the Church. Centuries-old diocesan boundaries would be redrawn and historical episcopal Sees would be reorganised.
Most significantly, it is reported that certain bishops would have non-geographical roles, ie. not in pastoral relationship with the faithful in a defined area. Instead these bishops would have responsibility for particular topics – for example, Bishop of Brexit or of Covid or of LGBT+ issues. Historically, the Church has understood the role of bishops primarily as guardians of the Christian faith once delivered and as pastors to the pastors. The current proposal for changing the governance structures would make them mere spokespersons addressing the ever-changing Spirit of the Age rather than proclaiming the unchanging message of the Spirit of God.
Where on earth did such a curious novelty come from? Some wags have suggested the inspiration was the 1963 film Heavens Above, a satire in which Peter Sellers plays an errant vicar who is made the first Bishop of Outer Space by an ecclesiastical establishment keen to be rid of him. A House of Bishops taking its lead from 1960s British comedies? Bishops, whom you do you think you are kidding?
According to the Secretary General of the House of Bishops, William Nye, these ideas have come from the bishops themselves: “Last year the Bishop of Ely and others had conversations with most of the bishops and summarised a wide range of ideas and suggestions – some more developed than others – which came from those discussions in a paper for the bishops themselves. For some time the bishops of the Church of England have been thinking prayerfully about their ministries and responsibilities and whether some aspects might be reshaped to make them more effective in supporting local churches. They spent time talking and praying about those ideas at the College of Bishops in September last year and have gone on doing so since.”
Alas he did not explain how detaching certain bishops from local areas to become national spokespersons will make them more effective in supporting local churches.
Surely the bishops might spend worthwhile time re-reading their vows at ordination and consecration and the doctrines of the Church of England. Canons A1 to A5 in particular would be most informative in re-establishing the clear boundaries needed. Article XX would remind them that in the face of innovative trends and doctrines, bishops, like the Church as a whole, are constrained by boundaries set out by Scripture.
In a process of reorganisation, priority should be given to providing a way for the faith to be better guarded and the clergy better pastored. One way would be by establishing some type of actual jurisdiction for the Provincial Episcopal Visitors (PEV). These men bear great responsibility but do not have the authority to fulfil the role. There are four such official positions; the Suffragan Bishoprics of Maidstone, of Beverley, of Ebbsfleet, and of Richborough. The first attends to members of the Church who oppose women’s ordination primarily on biblical grounds and the other three look after the Anglo-Catholic constituency who oppose primarily on the basis of tradition. Two of the Anglo-Catholic PEV posts are vacant and Maidstone has announced that he will retire in October.
General Synod needs to ensure that promises regarding ‘mutual flourishing’ are kept, by carving out episcopal spaces with jurisdiction. As it is, the major distinction between a PEV and a normal presbyter is the greater finance needed to cover episcopal haberdashery, some members of staff, and the title. The current PEV scheme is similar to John Nance Garner’s opinion of the American Vice-Presidency. Garner served as VP to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The US Constitution does not specify any responsibilities for the office except that the person succeeds to the Presidency if the President dies or is disabled. When asked what he thought about the office of Vice-president, Garner, a direct speaking, tobacco-chewing Texan, is said to have replied, “It isn’t worth a warm bucket of spit.”
An ecclesiastical title without jurisdiction is of similar worth. PEVs cannot shepherd the flocks in their care if they do not have proper jurisdiction. Is it not time for mutual flourishing to flourish in deed and not merely word?