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Angela Tilby: Canonical obedience has limits  

14 June 2024

Geoff Ward

Ordinations to the diaconate in Lichfield Cathedral in 2019

Ordinations to the diaconate in Lichfield Cathedral in 2019

THOSE preparing for ordination at the end of the month will soon find themselves swearing canonical obedience to their bishop and his or her successors. The oath is not unconditional: obedience is due “in all things lawful and honest”.

Nor is it personal — to Bishop N, for example — but to whoever is the bishop at the time, “and to other chief ministers unto whom is committed the charge and government over you”, as the Prayer Book Ordinal puts it. What the minister receives in exchange is authority to preach, teach, and minister the sacraments within the discipline of the Church.

These days, though, the ordained are expected not only to obey the Bishop and other chief ministers, but also to comply with a whole set of diocesan initiatives from safeguarding officers, ministerial-development advisers (yes, I was one, once), archdeacons and assistant archdeacons, diversity and climate-change officers, mission enablers, and transition managers, etc., etc.

It would be easy to conclude that parish ministry has become merely a first rung on the ladder of the clerical hierarchy, and that anyone with a talent for self-advertisement and flattery will be aiming at a desk job in the diocesan office.

This is not unreasonable, given that the function and status of the parish clergy, as well as the significance of parishes themselves, have been severely diminished in recent years as an outcome of the General Synod decision in 2005 to abolish the parson’s freehold. This gave the parish priest considerable security. It was almost impossible to remove an incumbent without evidence of serious impropriety.

Common tenure, which replaced the freehold, has turned out to be a fudge. The introduction of ministerial review has meant that some have felt more supported, but it has also been used to undermine ministries of which diocesan officials disapprove. Uncertain of their status, many of the parish clergy have found themselves less confident in exercising the gift of discernment, which, for many, is the most interesting and rewarding aspect of ministry.

The current debate over whether clergy should be regarded as office-holders or employees reflects this unease. It is depressing that some have come to believe that they would be better protected as employees on a secular model than they are at present, when they have so little redress in the face of parish mergers, closures, redundancies, and even arbitrary sackings.

If I was conducting an ordination retreat this year, I would urge those about to be ordained to meditate on the gift of discernment, and to remember that, while they do, indeed, owe canonical obedience to the Bishop “in all things lawful and honest”, they are expected to bring their own discernment, rather than blind obedience, to any pious-sounding initiatives that a bishop or his or her army of diocesan bureaucrats might happen to dream up.

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