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Londoners consulted about next Bishop

23 June 2017


SHOULD the next Bishop of London continue the London Plan or begin to ordain women priests, affirm gay clergy, do more to attract children and teenagers into church, or value pastoral diligence as much as high-profile mission? These were among the issues raised at a public consultation held on Tuesday evening of last week.

Twenty-one people spoke during the meeting at St Alban’s, Holborn. It was chaired by the chairman of the vacancy-in-see committee, the Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd Dr David Ison. The Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretary, Edward Chaplin, and the Archbishops’ Appointments Secretary, Caroline Boddington, were present to hear the debate.

Dr Ison set out nine priorities set out in the Statement of Need, which will shortly be published, alongside a profile of the diocese. The first was evangelism. Another was: “to ensure we live in generous orthodoxy . . . enabling mutual flourishing of all the whole Christian church, recognising that there is a diversity of views on various matters across the diocese, but we want to live together as the people of Christ”.

After outlining a priority to “reach out to an ethnically diverse population”, the Dean admitted that “we are not doing very well in encouraging the ministry and engagement” of those from BAME groups. There were “very few teenagers” in the churches of the diocese, he said, after outlining another priority: securing a “step change” in engaging with children and young people.

Several of the speeches that followed related to questions of diversity and inclusivity and a third called for a Bishop who would ordain women. The last Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, continued on the lines of the London Plan put in place in 1993-94 by his predecessor, Dr David Hope, an Anglo-Catholic traditionalist, to hold the diocese together, by ordaining deacons, but not priests, either male or female.

Sally Barnes, who campaigns for WATCH, said that it was “absolutely crucial” to appoint a Bishop who would ordain men and women together, and expressed concern that the Statement of Needs had not specified this. The Dean said that this point had been debated, and the committee had “decided that that was a question that ought to be left open”.

The Rector of Brondesbury, the Revd Stephen France, said that the diocese “often turned a blind eye to various issues of diversity”. None of the recent episcopal vacancies in the diocese had been filled by women, he said, and only 12 per cent of incumbencies were filled by women, compared with 24 per cent nationally. “Change happens when it is led by example from the top,” he said. He suggested that the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, be considered.

Mary Johnson, a member of the vacancy-in-see committee, spoke of women who had moved from the diocese to take up senior appointments elsewhere: “We train, we develop, we grow extremely able women, but we seem unable to actually utilise those gifts by pushing them into senior appointments.”

The Revd Dr Julia Candy, Vicar of St John West Hendon and St Peter Cricklewood, said that, if asked, she would have to tell young women priests coming to London that “you will need a core of steel . . . You are going to be undermined and over-looked.”

This was one view. Cecilia Anim, from St Augustine’s, Kilburn, called for “the best Bishop possible, irrespective of theological convictions on the ordination of women. The diocese has done very well with a non-ordaining diocese for the last few years, and we want to see the London Plan affirmed.”

She also called for an increase in ordinations, arguing that it was “very, very difficult to have one priest in a parish with a very large population . . . We cannot have spirituality on the cheap.” She called for a Bishop who would not just “just run the machine”, but be someone “with something to say, someone who will challenge the status quo”.

The Vicar of St Alban’s, Holborn, the Revd Christopher Smith, said that the Bishop “would need to chart a path through all these choppy waters, I would hope, as a theologian . . .There is a lot of theological work to be done.” This received “Hear, hears” from the audience.

Speakers also called for the affirmation of gay clergy. Pearl Reid, who attends St James’s, West Hampstead, raised concerns about this, and said that the Bishop must be “inclusive, non-judgmental and certainly not prejudiced”. Janet St Austin, arguing that the Church “would not be here today if it had not been for the ministry of gay priests over the centuries”, said: “If a candidate is gay . . . whatever!”

While acknowledging that many of the speeches had “thrilled” him, the last contributor, a lay member of the congregation at St Botolph’s, Aldgate, said that the Bishop would need to be “someone not afraid to interact head-on with those not here tonight”.

Sister Judith Blackburn SSM, a NSM at St Matthew with St James the Great, Bethnal Green, and Leader of St Saviour’s Priory in Haggerston, warned that the threat to “diversity in our churchmanship” was in danger of being overlooked. “It’s about the homogenisation of the diocese of London that will happen if we are not careful. It’s about priests who are feeling demotivated because so often, unless they are doing church in a particular way, they are being told that they are failing, unless they have got something rather amazing happening every week.

“These are the same priests who go out visiting the sick, sitting next to the dying, who everybody in the street knows and talks to.” There needed to be a Bishop who would “embrace the diversity of the rich traditions” in the diocese, and “uphold those priests and lay people who work so hard for what seems on the face of it to be little success, but are giving their whole for the Kingdom”.

Other representations called for a Bishop who would act as a “pastoral leader”, deliver a “clear message”, and be sought out for appearances on television.

The meeting was attended by about 40 people. The committee received 164 written responses from the diocese, from half of the deaneries, ten per cent of churches, three per cent of the clergy, and one per cent of the laity.

Mr Chapman said that, “as a vicar’s daughter”, the Prime Minister “takes a close interest in what the C of E is up to, especially because she thinks it is important that the C of E remains the Church for England, a Church which is outward-looking, concerned about the society it serves, that is not too introspective”.

Mrs Boddington said that the aim was to keep the long list “as wide as we can”.

The vacancy-in-see committee has elected six diocesan representatives to sit on the Crown Nominations Commission: the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent; the Vicar of St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill with St Paul, Avenue Road, the Revd Marjorie Brown; the Revd Charlie Skrine, assistant curate of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate. The three lay people are Mary Chapman, who is a member of the Archbishops’ Council; Amanda McIntyre, who is a guardian of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham; and Sarah Tett.

Interviews for the short-listed candidates will be held on 28 and 29 November. It is hoped that the next Bishop will be named at the end of this year, or the beginning of the next.

Kenneth Robbie, churchwarden at St Peter’s, Belsize Park, confessed to being “puzzled” by the length of the vacancy in the see of London.

Mrs Boddington said that this had been a “deliberate decision” by the Archbishops, because Bishop Chartres had been a “significant presence”. A diocese “sometimes need a bit of time to relax into what it is, when a bishop is gone”.

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