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What would reform of the Church of England take?

What would reform of the Church of England take?

By Stephen Watkinson
June 24, 2019

There is an ongoing debate among conservative evangelicals about whether to stay or go with respect to the Church of England. We have seen a number of principled defections in recent months, although, especially with Lee Gatiss' recent blog series written up into a book Fight Valiantly, the majority, following the Church Society lead, seem committed to fighting for the reform of the Church.

One important question to ask in light of that is: What would reform of the Church of England take? The most obvious line of argument to take for an episcopally governed church would be to suggest the reform of the House of Bishops. This was, of course, significant in the original reformation.

If you were following that line of argument, you would might also want to consider: (a) the reform of General Synod (a new force since the reformation) and (b) the reform of the links with parliament, a much more secular (and anti-Christian) lay influence than initially intended. But let's start with reflecting on the key issue of reforming the House of Bishops.

We need to start with the observation that there isn't a single conservative evangelical diocesan bishop - nor has there been for many years. In fact, since the advent of women bishops, there has been no bishop consecrated who is conservative on women's ordination - despite efforts with conservative catholic Philip North. In fact, the mere suggestion, seems to be treated as important to campaign against making an open mockery of the 5 guiding principles.

For conservative evangelicals who want to point to egalitarian evangelical bishops who they would like to think of as generally "good eggs" with the small blip on the ordination of women, I think it would be worth pointing out that the little blip is rather important in terms of reform of the church, because it is an ecclessialogical blip. I.e. I would want to think twice before being too positive, with respect to reform of the church, about bishops who have only been allowed to be bishops because they haven't got a biblical understanding of ministry (I know they would disagree on that)..

For those who want to point to the "positive" move of the appointment of the Bishop of Maidstone, there would seem to be some significant things to point out. First, of all the suffragan bishops, he is the only conservative evangelical. Second, he was appointed at a key point with respect to getting the legislation on women bishops through. Third, he is something of a puppet, always sitting under the authority of the diocesan. Fourth, he is actually no help to conservative evangelical clergy, but only to conservative evangelical PCCs. Fifth, it is hard, especially in liberal dioceses like mine, to see how he is (a) particularly effective and (b) not significantly compromised by his submission to liberal bishops (2 John 9-11 is significant here I think). That reality, of course, is not changed by his work in less liberal dioceses and is indicative of his future.

Finally for those, rather like Richard Dawkins' approach to evolution, who hope if we throw lots of time at it with small changes we might be able to reform things, we need to ask the how the changes could happen. For example, suppose a conservative evangelical could be appointed to be a bishop, could they actually remain faithful and execute the role. In other words, would there not need to be a whole host of changes before they could faithfully perform their role. For example, as it stands, how can they be the bishop ordaining resurrection-denying presbyters? How can they be a bishop who ignores clergy in gay relationships and upholds the lack of discipline of communicants in gay relationships, or sits on the committee which affirms false ministry and so on (again 2 John 9-11 matters here).

So, if the most natural way to reform an episcopal church is to reform the house of bishops, the conservative evangelicals need to ask some difficult questions.

How could a conservative evangelical become a bishop?
Even if they could become a bishop, how could they faithfully be a bishop?
If we can't have faithful conservative evangelical bishops, what is plan B to reform the church?

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