The Daily Telegraph reports that the Church of England is going to allow foreign bishops to oversee dissenting parishes in the UK.
This really is a completely new idea of what a bishop is. From the beginning a bishop was the chief elder of a particular city or geographical area. What seems to be emerging is the idea that a bishop can be the pastor of a group of people who hold the same views that he does. This began in the 1990s when the Church of England created a special temporary provision for parishes that could not agree with women’s ordination to have their own non-geographical ‘flying bishops’. The ‘flying bishop’ was brought in for sacramental ministry to the parishes who could not, in good conscience, accept the sacramental ministry of their own bishop. The other administrative and financial aspects of the local church continued within the diocese as before.
So the Anglo-Catholics who did not want bishops who ordained women were allowed to have their own bishops. If that is allowed, then it only makes sense that the Evangelicals who do not want homosexuality may have their own bishops too.
What is novel about all this is that the new bishops and their new denominations are not actually breaking away from the Anglican Church. Instead new ecclesial bodies are being created within an existing ecclesial body in order to maintain ‘unity’.
It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. If the Anglican bishops who disagree on women’s ordination and homosexuality already don’t have sacramental unity, how does this new arrangement actually guarantee sacramental unity, or for that matter, any unity at all?
What happened with the ‘flying bishops’ is that, for all intents and purposes, a sub-denomination with the Church of England was created. The parishes who had flying bishops have their own network of priests and people. They have their own publications, and their own clergy meetings. The ones I knew withdrew themselves from most diocesan committees, did not attend clergy fraternal meetings, and absented themselves from the diocesan structures of power. Some of them also with held their diocesan ‘quota’ payments- kind of clerical tax to support the bureaucracy. They even advertised their parishes displaying their special status. So a church in my area would call itself, “St Paul’s Church of England, We are a Forward in Faith parish. (Forward in Faith being code for ‘we don’t have women priests and we have our own bishop)
If the more ecclesially minded Anglo Catholics were so independently minded, the Evangelical parishes will be even more so. Not only are they likely to advertise something like “We are united with the Anglican Bishop of Nigeria” but they are very likely to withhold at least some of their donations to the Anglican hierarchy, and disengage from diocesan structures. The fact that the Evangelicals are the ones with youth, numbers and money should be even more worrying to the Anglican establishment.
The result will be this: the Liberals will control the Anglican Church (as they have always done) but it will be a Pyrrhic victory. They will find themselves having to manage an increasing burden of aging and de-motivated clergy and people. They will also find that the great burden of maintenance for the medieval buildings will fall on them. As the Evangelicals withdraw their support, their enthusiasm and their money the Liberal hierarchy will look around and discover that their church has become politically correct sect for people who for whom the only virtue left is tolerance.
They’ll have discovered that in a church where anything goes. Everyone goes.