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Letters to the Editor

03 May 2024


WATCH conference and the conscience provisions

From the Bishops of Blackburn, Chichester, and Fulham

Sir, — The implications of the recent WATCH conference, Not Equal Yet (News, 26 April), are profoundly troubling.

Is WATCH now committed to the view that the 2014 settlement on women bishops was “an error of judgement” and calling for the withdrawal of any structural provision for those who rightfully have extended episcopal oversight through legitimate theological conviction?

That settlement drew from years of reflection and subsequent intense mediation after the failed General Synod vote in November 2012. Those who agreed the settlement did so knowingly, and with a clear understanding that there would be an impairment in our communion. but not complete schism. It was the compromise that we all had to make in the Church of England and believed to be justified.

That settlement built on the earlier provision that accompanied the ordination of women as priests, and in both cases gives an assurance that until the theological differences are reconciled, the provision for those who seek such sacramental assurance is secure. We believe that this has enabled the Church to witness to a way of living with difference in a divided world — at a time when so much public life is in turmoil — and how honest inquiry with our doctrine can enrich us and our collective mission.

The suggestion that this is to be withdrawn from a significant body of laity and clergy who serve the tradition that they inhabit is a matter of grave concern, and particularly the idea that it could simply be discarded overnight. There are legislative, along with ecumenical, dimensions to consider here (clearly outlined in Chapter 2 of the Rochester report, 2005). The commitment of the Church of England to the full visible unity of the one Church of Jesus Christ is not an insincere excuse for our theological convictions about the ordination of women.

We have always hoped for a far more constructive narrative, and one that might respect the necessary space in the Church of England for all people to live with difference and mutual recognition of God’s grace at work in us. The process might not yet have reached perfection, but it cannot be shown to have failed completely.

All three of us gladly minister alongside female bishops, and we dare to believe that our ministry together offers some sign that the commitment, costly all round, to persevering in seeking the greatest level of communion possible has neither been mistaken nor an “error of judgement”.

c/o Bishop’s House
Ribchester Road
Blackburn BB1 9EF

From Mr Tom Middleton

Sir, — WATCH’s hostility towards their fellow Anglicans in the 430 Church of England parishes — equivalent in size to a large diocese — with a resolution in place is bad enough, and at odds with the Five Guiding Principles, but the reported views of the Bishop of Dover (effectively a diocesan bishop) give even more cause for concern.

Society chrism masses act as a joyful celebration of the faith that we have inherited, and those involved are delighted that diocesan and suffragan bishops from all traditions are gracious enough to attend and worship with us. Contrary to the Bishop of Dover’s reported comments, these services are very far from an exercise in “humiliation”.

Further, we need to be acutely aware of the adverse ecumenical implications of the WATCH agenda. A degree of humility is required, not just in terms of recognising the Church of England’s declining role within the Anglican Communion, but also in acknowledging the growing chasm between it and the teaching and practice of the universal Church. We may be an island geographically, but we need to stop thinking in that way ecclesiologically. “That they may all be one” reaches well beyond our shores.

Forward in Faith
St Andrew Holborn
5 St Andrew Street
London EC4A 3AF

From the Revd Richard Stanton

Sir, — I did not have the privilege of hearing the Bishop of Dover’s address to the WATCH conference on 20 April, and so am reliant on your report for its summary of her remarks concerning the Julian Shrine in Norwich.

At Julian’s Shrine, we welcome groups of many different convictions who wish to “go there and be there and sit there and stand there”. Groups from all over the world come in a spirit of prayer, peace, and reconciliation: we are always keen to welcome more who, with us, wish to learn from Julian, for whom the imperative of Christian unity is so crucial.

St Julian’s Church is indeed within “a traditional Catholic parish” (as the Church Times puts it). It has consistently stood within the Anglo-Catholic tradition since the late 19th century, and because of this charism and this identity, and not in spite of it, has been able to develop as a place of pilgrimage since the 1930s, while retaining its ministry to the surrounding parish.

Since 1995, the PCC’s policy concerning ministry at St Julian’s has been that at parish services a male priest presides at the eucharist, but at pilgrimage services any Christian group of any recognised denomination may have their own minister, of any gender, conducting worship for them.

I know that for some Anglican women and men who for reasons of theological conviction cannot receive the ordained ministry of women, this practice goes beyond what they would consider acceptable; for others, I recognise that it does not go far enough. Over the 29 years for which this arrangement has been in place, the PCC has sought to recognise its responsibility in caring for St Julian’s as both a place of parochial worship and ministry and also a national and international pilgrimage destination for many who find in Julian a spiritual teacher, guide, and inspiration.

Our church family and the shrine team work hard, with very limited resources, to offer as wide a welcome as possible, and I would be sorry if the Bishop’s reported remarks led others to conclude that we are here only for people of a certain conviction within the Church of England. We are at considerable pains to ensure that the reverse is true, while at the same time offering parochial ministry within the parameters of what the Church’s democratic processes have established as permissible. We believe that the parish and pilgrimage dimensions of our work enrich and complement each other.

“If I look at myself alone,” wrote Julian, “I am nothing, but when I look at all my fellow-Christians joined together in love, I have hope.” Our prayer as Julian’s feast approaches is that this joining may be ours, and this hope as well.

Parish Priest of St John the Baptist, Timberhill with St Julian, Norwich, and Priest Director of the Julian Shrine
The Rectory
Kilderkin Way
Norwich NR1 1RD

From the Revd Neil D. Bryson

Sir, — The Bishop of Dover is reported as denouncing the Five Guiding Principles: the very means that enabled her entry into the episcopate. Illogically, she claims that her opposition is that the Principles are an obstacle to unity; abolishing them, as she wishes, would force a faithful minority either to conform against their consciences, or to leave. This is schism, not unity. It would also be a means of humiliating those who have only believed what the C of E has taught and practised since it was founded, c.600, until 1992.

I am further dismayed by the statement (made as if it were fact rather than opinion) of the Revd Professor Mark Chapman that the Principles make no sense theologically. I can understand the view that having a dual system allows competing theologies to coexist, and yet that was common in the Early Church and led to church Councils’ deciding which one was authentically Christian. The implication, then, of both Bishop Hudson-Wilkin’s and Professor Chapman’s views is that sooner, rather than later, one doctrine must win, and the loser be declared a heresy; and that those who refuse to accept the winner place themselves outside the C of E.

That has consequences for more than the minority: first, it declares that the C of E has taught heresy for 1332 years; second, that the RC and Orthodox Churches, to which the majority of Christians belong, are heretical organisations. It would be ironic indeed for the C of E to denounce as heretics those who believe what the Church always taught, yet to continue to embrace those who publicly reject core doctrines, such as the virginal conception and bodily resurrection of our Lord.

I am astonished at the hubris in Bishop Hudson-Wilkin’s declaring the Blessed Virgin Mary to be on her side, and those opposing her opinions to be Scribes and Pharisees (this encompasses billions of Christians now and all Anglicans prior to 1992; she seems frighteningly certain that she is right and that they’re all wrong). Chapman’s suggestion of axing PEVs overnight is, like Bishop Hudson-Wilkin’s narrative, nothing more than advocating persecution to extinction of a minority group who hold unequivocally to the dogmas of the ecumenical councils.

Finally, the conference was disingenuously and misleadingly named Not Equal Yet. Women clergy can be, and are, in post at every level in the C of E. A more honest conference name would have plainly declared that WATCH will not be happy until they have driven out everyone who disagrees with them.

8 Cinnamon Road
Downham Market PE38 9UL

From the Revd Gill Kimber

Sir, — I am fed up with the witch hunt — or should that be WATCH hunt? — of Philip North. They made his life a misery when he was mooted for Sheffield, and here we are again.

The General Synod has decided that we are a Church of two integrities, and it is spiritually grown-up to build good friendships with those with whom we disagree. I understand that Bishop North is very supportive of colleagues who are women priests, and, as for ordination, we have our flying bishops. This “woman bishop thing” may not be working in the way that’s wanted, but it is certainly working.

Also, I am an ordained distinctive deacon. I and my colleagues get fed up with the lazy way in which the word “ordination” is used as if it referred only to priests. Deacons are also ordained.

Address supplied

Lessons of Leeds for diocesan reorganisation

From Mr Jonathan Neil-Smith

Sir, — Your comprehensive article “Leeds: a super-diocese comes of age” (News, 19 April) has understandably sparked off comment about diocesan reorganisation, notably in your leader comment (same issue) and Mr John Radford’s letter (26 April).

After extensive consultation in the three former dioceses, the Dioceses Commission set out a more resilient missionary framework for local implementation, more in sync with contemporary civic society (the City of Leeds had been split between four dioceses). None of the dioceses wanted a takeover; so the chosen route was to dissolve them all and create a wholly new diocese; neither was it felt that there would be any mission gain from losing any of the existing cathedrals.

The resultant scheme was unprecedented, and there have undoubtedly been lessons to learn from the process: see my note referred to by Madeleine Davies, which is on the national Church of England website.

While any radical change of this kind will inevitably incur transitional costs, the quoted figure of £10 million needs unpacking. The original estimate, prepared with input from the former dioceses, assumed that office costs would be broadly cost neutral (i.e. funded from sale proceeds of existing offices). The new diocese subsequently decided to invest about £4 million in a new “future-proofed” office in central Leeds. I understand that the figure also included the book value of about £3.5 million relating to benefice property (such as parsonages) in parishes that were transferred to neighbouring dioceses. So, while the net attributable cost of the scheme to the Church may have been more than originally estimated, it was nothing like as high as £10 million.

I was fortunate to be present at the special service in Bradford Cathedral on 20 April to mark the new diocese’s tenth birthday. It was a vibrant occasion, on which inspiring stories of missionary work in the new diocese were told. There was evidently much to celebrate after the nettle-grasping — sometimes painful — of a decade ago.

Secretary, the Dioceses Commission (2011-21)
59 Agraria Road
Guildford, Surrey GU2 4LG

Ecclesiastical Insurance and the Redress Scheme

From the Survivors Working Group for the National Redress Scheme

Sir, — Survivors of abuse who are working with and advising the Church on the Redress Scheme wish to express their deep disappointment and even anger at the decision by Ecclesiastical Insurance not to take part in that Redress Scheme (News, 16 February).

Ecclesiastical has, for many years, been an integral part of the Church’s response to allegations of abuse against its clergy, officers, and employees. Its role has been to defend the Church against what many see as the indefensible. It has done this purely for financial reasons, maximising profits, minimising settlements, and keeping premiums low for its policy-holders — mainly from the Church of England.

The Church and Ecclesiastical have colluded in shameful behaviour in the treatment of many victims of horrendous abuse, with little interest in meaningful justice or the welfare of those victims.

Ecclesiastical has aggressively defended claims and often ensured that settlements are dismissed or kept to a bare minimum, maximising its profits, from which the Church benefits by receiving millions of pounds annually from these insurance profits via the Benefact Trust.

The insurer’s reasons not to take part in the Redress Scheme are cited, but what about moral considerations? We believe that the actions of the insurer have caused additional, unnecessary, and avoidable distress and harm to survivors in many cases. By withdrawing from the Scheme, it is letting itself off the hook. It will not be held to account or have to contribute financially to compensate for these actions. This seems unjust and unfair.

Surely a compromise could have been reached, in which contributions towards Redress could have been channelled through the Benefact Trust as charitable donations? This would have avoided any legal issues concerning liability and reinsurance, and might even have been a public-relations victory for Ecclesiastical.

Perhaps it is time for the Church of England reconsider its relationship with its primary insurer.


Artificial intelligence and the challenge of alignment with human values

From Professor Trevor Bench-Capon

Sir, — The Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, is, of course, absolutely right that AI systems need values (News, 26 April). This includes, but is not limited to, autonomous weapons systems, which are just one of the more spectacular examples of the harm that can be caused otherwise.

But not any values will do: as pointed out in Stuart Russell’s 2021 Reith Lectures, these values must be aligned with human values, not the values of the AI, which would probably appear to be entirely alien to us.

Of course, such programs do not really have their own values, although we may find it convenient to explain their behaviour in these terms. They are machines, not conscious entities with purposes of their own. They are designed, built, and deployed by humans; and these humans have — or should be required to have — an obligation to build them so as to act in a manner that would be considered ethical if it were done by a human.

Fortunately, there is a good deal of research in AI which shows how this can be done. I have been working on the part played by values in decision-making since 2000 (e.g. Trevor Bench-Capon, “Value based argumentation frameworks”, arXiv preprint cs/0207059 (2002)), and with my colleagues have developed a reasonable understanding of how they can play a significant part in guiding AI behaviour and enabling the explanation and justification of this behaviour.

In Trevor Bench-Capon, “Ethical approaches and autonomous systems”, Artificial Intelligence 281 (2020): 103239, I give a detailed account of how ethical systems that can be designed from a variety of approaches, including Utilitarianism and value-based virtue ethics, illustrated using the contrasting moral worlds of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” and the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Visiting Professor of Computer Science, University of Liverpool
73 Hilbre Road, West Kirby
Wirral CH48 3HB

From the Revd Dr Francis Bridger

Sir, — Dr Helen-Ann Hartley’s speech in the recent House of Lords debate on military uses of AI is to be welcomed for its clarity and insight. But the critical issue of aligning AI with human values — the so-called “alignment problem” — runs far wider than how to embed virtue into weapons development and systems. As AI progressively comes to affect all aspects of life, both human and non-human, the challenge of training AI in any kind of ethical system becomes both more urgent and more difficult.

Fundamental is the problem of establishing a commonly agreed system that would be acceptable across cultures, as well as within. What might count as virtue in the relativistic and individualistic West, with its emphasis on individual freedom, might well not be acceptable to non-Western cultures whose approaches to ethics draw from entirely different philosophical, societal, and historical sources. To adapt the title of one of Alasdair McIntyre’s most significant books, we would be faced with the question: “Whose culture, whose virtue?”

Even if consensus could be found, however, there would remain the problem of training AI to move from general ethical principles to actual ethical decisions. Even at the purely theoretical level, this presents significant challenges, not least (in now slightly anachronistic language) how to establish the “middle axioms” that merge the horizons of the general and the particular. The likely outcome would be to fall back upon some form of utilitarianism, as currently practised by artificial intelligence, but which is inadequate when dealing with issues of justice.

These are only some of the alignment problems posed by moral theory, let alone practice. And, although there is much more that could and should be said about AI from a theological or ethical perspective, we should be grateful that Dr Hartley and other serving and retired bishops in the House of Lords have spoken into this much-needed public debate.

28 Summerfields Way
Derbyshire DE7 9HF

Professor Biggar defends his book Colonialism

From the Revd Professor Nigel Biggar

Sir, — I write to correct four misleading statements made by Dr Susan Durber and the Revd Dr Duncan Dormor (Letters, 26 April).

First, Dr Durber finds my book Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning “repugnant”, because I judge the wholesale damnation of the residential-school system in Canada to be unfair, even though “more than 200 bodies of babies and children have been discovered in former school grounds.” But the fact is that, since the alleged discovery of “mass graves” three years ago, not a single set of remains of a murdered child have been identified. I refer her to C. P. Champion and Tom Flanagan, Grave Error: How the media misled us (and the truth about residential schools) (2023).

Next, Dr Dormor asserts that claims of a conspiracy to silence me “are significantly overstated”. But the fact is that I documented the concerted campaign to shut down my “Ethics and Empire” project in 2017 on pages 299 and 324-5 of Colonialism, and Bloomsbury’s unilateral termination of its contract to publish the book itself in “Anatomy of a Book Cancellation” (Compact, 2 February 2023).

Third, Dr Dormor attributes to me a “crude utilitarian calculus” of the goods and evils of colonialism. But the facts are that I explicitly rejected such consequentialist reasoning on page 285, and that he chose to be silent on the moral evaluation that I actually made on pages 285-8.

Finally, he describes my book as a “polemic” that falls short of “the rigorous standards expected in academia”. But the fact is that shoddy polemics do not contain 135 pages of substantiating endnotes and a supporting bibliography of more than 30 pages, carry what Sir Trevor Phillips has described as “the intellectual force of a Javelin anti-tank missile”, and command the endorsement of eminent historians such as Vernon Bogdanor, Niall Ferguson, Tirthankar Roy, Jonathan Sumption, and Robert Tombs.

Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology, University of Oxford
Pusey House
Oxford OX1 3LZ

Working-class doesn’t mean you don’t have a degree

From the Revd Dr Stephen Brian

Sir, — I do wish we would stop conflating being middle-class with being university-educated (Comment, 26 April) and implying that being working-class means not having a university education. For more than 60 years, it has been perfectly possible, and not uncommon, for bright young people from working-class families to have a university education.

My brother and I grew up in the 1960s on a council estate. We both attended a highly selective grammar school and went on to secure university degrees. He went on to study medicine and pursued a career as a GP, and I became a schoolteacher. His social background was never an issue in his medical training or career progression, and neither was mine in my years as a teacher.

Shortly after I secured my degree and began teaching in a high school, however, I attended an ACCM Selection Conference with a view to training for ordained ministry. Suddenly, my social background became an issue. The first question that the lay member of the panel asked me was “What does your father do?” The recommendation of the panel was that I should join the about-to-be-formed Aston Training Scheme.

The Scheme was designed to be a two-year preparation for working-class candidates to get them up to speed before going to theological college. It was assumed that all those put on the Scheme (being working-class) must have left school at 15 and, therefore, needed this remedial course. On Aston, I found myself having to do a beginner’s course on “How to write an essay”. The fact that I had recently completed a university degree was simply beyond the comprehension of the principal. When he visited me in my parents’ council house, my fate was sealed.

Unlike the world of medicine or schoolteaching, the Church of England simply could not grasp that many working-class people had university degrees. Evidently, it still can’t, and there are many more from that background at universities now. My newly appointed DDO at the time (Richard Harries, as it happens) saw how ridiculous the situation was and removed me from the Scheme. Unfortunately for me, he shortly moved on to other things, and the then principal of Aston made it clear to me that my path to ordination training would be closed until I returned to the Scheme and completed the full two years.

His blocking tactic was effective. He subsequently went off to become a Roman Catholic, and, for me, it was five more years before I attended another selection conference. This time, I was accepted for training unconditionally, and embarked on three years’ residential training and 35 years of parish ministry, collecting two Master’s degrees and a doctorate en route.

In my experience, parishioners do not give two hoots about the social background of their vicar, but they do expect them to be theologically educated and able to teach and preach in a way that appeals to both head and heart. Let us stop being so obsessed with class, and select candidates on the basis of their vocation, which, in my view, should include the capacity to think theologically, whatever their social background.

27 Percy Avenue, Ashford
Middlesex TW15 2PB

From Canon Brian Stevenson

Sir, — The Revd Alex Frost is right to say that the Church of England needs to be more welcoming to working-class people. This not a new desire, since I remember when, being interviewed 60 years ago by Mervyn Stockwood, with regard to recommendation for ordination, being told by him that it was good to have a working-class candidate, and Irish at that, as the Church of England was too heavily public-school and Oxbridge and needed to be more diverse. It was one of the reasons that he had founded the Southwark Ordination Course.

I didn’t feel I was obstructed in any way, and the Bishop helped to open doors for me. When Bishop David Say interviewed me for a post, he told me that his chief concern was for caring pastoral ministry in housing-estate parishes. During the subsequent decades, the Church has become more diverse, but there is always room for more. At our retired clergy meeting on 29 April, there were 12 clergy present, men and women, from various backgrounds and classes (but no aristocrats), and only one “Oxbridge” — me.

Michaelmas Cottage, Stan Lane
West Peckham, Kent ME18 5JT

From Mr Robert Shooter

Sir, — Not too sure it’s just the present Anglican Church that is reluctant to use working-class talent. Although it eventually used me, as it has the Revd Alex Frost, a well-known working-class, fully apprenticed carpenter, and Saviour, two thousand years ago, was crucified for trying to bring peace. Being working-class, though, he has still had a prodigious influence.

Address supplied

Impact-investment fund

From the Revd Larry Wright
Sir, — A hundred million pounds is by any measure an enormous amount (Letters, 12 April). If all parishes — 12500 — were asked to raise this amount as a statement of agreement with the independent commission’s views on our collective culpability, it would equate to £8000 per parish. Alternatively, each parish could be given a sum to address slavery in their context. This could include engaging with current slavery and human exploitation in the UK and internationally.

81 The Green, Kings Norton
Birmingham B38 8RU

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