Conservative evangelicals and delegated episcopal authority — where does the power lie?

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It remains to be seen how successful the ‘flying’ Bishop of Ebbsfleet, Rob Munro, might be in steadying nerves among conservative evangelical ordinands in the Church of England concerned that they will compromise their integrity if they accept licences to officiate from bishops backing same-sex blessings.

Bishop Munro has posted a paper on his website, BISHOPS – impaired fellowship and licences?, following a meeting with ‘a large group (of) theological students recently, who were considering their future ordination in the light of recent events’.

‘Recent events’ could be described as a euphemism for the momentous decision by the CofE’s General Synod in February to back the House of Bishops’ desire to authorise services of blessing on same-sex couples and the ensuing rupture in the Anglican Communion.

Bishop Munro asserts: ‘Receiving a license (sic) even from someone we think may be an unfaithful minister could be the opportunity to demonstrate by our actions what a faithful minister ought to be. That appears to be the explicit teaching of Jesus in Matthew 23:22 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach.” The very people over whom Jesus pronounces his “woe”, are the ones he yet calls them to submit to.’

As a Maths teacher in Manchester in the 1980s, Bishop Munro might have used chalk on a blackboard as he taught his classes their sums. The question that arises in the light of his comparison between the Jewish Sanhedrin in 1st century Judea and the House of Bishops in the 21st century CofE is this: is there actually enough chalk in the whole wide world to draw a line covering the distance between the two?

Ordinands in theological education, unless they are on an extremely dire part-time course, would hopefully be aware that the Sanhedrin in the form that Jesus and his Apostles knew it ceased to exist following the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, an event which Jesus predicted in the Gospels, whilst the CofE’s diocesan bishops are a present reality they cannot afford to ignore.

Nowhere is the practical reality of episcopal oversight more apparent than in the disciplinary powers diocesan bishops have over clergy holding their licences. Here is how the CofE’s website advises potential complainants who may wish to bring allegations of misconduct against licensed clergy under the Clergy Discipline Measure (2003):

‘Once the bishop receives your allegation of misconduct, he or she will pass it to the diocesan registrar (the bishop’s legal adviser).  The registrar will examine your allegation of misconduct and the evidence you have provided, and advise the bishop:

·         Whether you have a “proper interest” to make the allegation of misconduct (see above); and

·         Whether your allegation of misconduct is about behaviour which would be a disciplinary matter if found to be true.

The registrar will contact you if anything in your allegation of misconduct needs clarifying.

On receiving the registrar’s report, the bishop will decide whether to deal with your allegation of misconduct formally, or to dismiss it.’

The diocesan bishop would almost certainly involve the Bishop of Ebbsfleet in assessing any allegation against a conservative evangelical minister under Bishop Munro’s delegated oversight, but it is quite clear where the power lies. Rob Munro is a suffragan bishop. Whilst the diocesan has to respond if a parish passes a resolution expressing its opposition to women bishops and its desire to come under alternative episcopal oversight, Bishop Munro’s relationship to the various diocesan bishops he ministers under is similar to that between a vicar and his or her curate to whom an incumbent might delegate responsibility for the youth group or the training of small group leaders.

Conservative evangelical clergy against whom complaints of misconduct are made cannot avoid the reality that the bishop with whom Rob Munro has that vicar-curate relationship is the chief pastor of his or her diocese. In the event of a complaint, the diocesan would be assessing the minister’s Christian character and conduct.

Surely the diocesan’s exercise of pastoral discipline over the clergy in their character and conduct is not dissimilar to the role the Apostle Paul gave to Timothy and Titus in their oversight of the congregational leaders they appointed, as described in the New Testament’s Pastoral Epistles?

In the light of the CofE’s Ordinal, drawing deeply on the Pastoral Epistles, any biblically orthodox ordinand is right to be thinking very carefully about whether he or she can in conscience submit to the definitely pastoral, and not merely legal, discipline of a bishop they consider to be unfaithful.

How helpful they are likely to find a comparison between the situation facing Christ’s disciples when the Sanhedrin operated and that facing them now is open to question.

Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in the UK.