WE REALLY need to talk about bishops. The recent governance review of the Church of England got a mixed reception in the General Synod last month (News, 18 February). An amendment proposed by the Revd Sam Maginnis was carried, merely “thanking” the Governance Review Group for its work rather than “welcoming” it.
But the most extraordinary thing about the voting figures were what they revealed about the House of Bishops: 27 voted against the amendment, with one abstention and none in favour. The Bishops, in other words, were lined up almost unanimously in favour of this radical review of governance which would greatly enhance their position in the nation’s life while cutting the dioceses. And this in a system that, in spite of resembling Parliament, has neither Whips nor an Opposition. The shameful unanimity of the Bishops in boosting their own status reveals a growing division between them and the rest of the Church.
It is a part of wider changes in ecclesiology: the elevation of the diocese over the parish, the loss of local connection, the attempts to turn bishops into enforcers of top-down polity, and the subsequent current moves to coerce parishes into diocesan schemes that will rid them of their agency and reduce the clergy to puppets.
During a Church Times webinar last November, I heard the diocesan secretary of the diocese of Bangor, the Revd Siôn Rhys Evans, make the claim that “the diocese” was the most important unit of church life. He quoted the martyr Bishop Ignatius of Antioch to support the antiquity of the claim. But this was nonsense.
The Church of Ignatius’s time had no territory, let alone dioceses. Ignatius ascribed singular authority to the person of the bishop at a time when the distinction between bishops and presbyters was unclear. He wrote of the liturgy as being conducted by the bishop surrounded by his priests — an image that suggests what is still claimed today: that bishop and priest together share the care of souls.
Ministry is authentic when it is grounded, person to person. This is why the parish church and incumbent matter. I was astonished at the leaving service last year for the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster. In what seemed an impromptu plea, he said that we must realise that the diocese was now the parish church. I felt I discerned a note of despair in his voice, but it might have been mine.
The Governance Review does not have much theology, but it insists that the Church of Jesus Christ is gathered round the risen Christ and animated by his Spirit. Nice words. But it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that the continuing assault on the parish system is not only dividing the Church, but risks being seen as an episcopally led assault on the work of the Holy Spirit through time.