Wednesday 21 January 2015

Apostolic Regression

According to Christian Today, we now know that the Church of England is set to further deepen its division over Women Bishops.

In yesterday’s article by Ruth Gledhill, she has revealed that when the new ‘Traditionalist’ Bishop - Philip North - is consecrated, the Archbishop of York and his new Diocesan Bishop will not participate in the consecration of the new Bishop at the crucial moment – at the laying on of hands.

Why is this?

At first sight this may sound like a snub to the new Traditionalist Bishop. Not participating in his consecration sounds like a snub – but nothing could be further from the truth.

The reason why they will not lay hands on him, is because a week earlier they will both fully participate in the consecration of the first woman Bishop, Libby Lane. 

And because they will participate in the laying on of hands of a woman Bishop, traditionalists appear to consider them ‘tainted’.  Or in plain English, because they have consecrated a woman, they no longer qualify to take part in the consecration of a man - well, not a real man anyway!  They have become ‘tainted’ by consecrating a woman.

At the heart of this issue is the Anglo-Catholic belief in Apostolic Succession – an unbroken line of consecrations and ordinations properly conducted by the hands of men to the heads of men – which they believe can be traced right back to the Apostles, who were in turn ordained by Christ.

In the minds of traditionalists, this unbroken line is everything.  It’s like an unbroken electric current connecting today's priests and bishops to the Apostles and Christ.   If you break the circuit, it ceases to connect you to the heavenly light bulb – the whole thing breaks down.

Not only is such a connection Biblically spurious, but it also assumes that God’s hands are bound such an arbitrary set of rules.  It is a theology which negates the ministry of all Christians who have not been ‘properly’ ordained in the line of Apostolic Succession.  It couldn't be further removed from the wind of the Spirit which Jesus talked about in John 3 - the wind which blows where it wills.  It couldn't be further removed from Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4 – where Spirit and Truth replaces slavery to places, regulations and restrictions.

This kind of belief in Apostolic Succession is designed to exclude those who do not fit the ‘right’ ecclesiastical mould – to restrict and constrain rather than release and set free.  This is not the truth which Christ talked about - the Truth which sets us free.  Rather it harks back to an Old Testament legalism – the very same legalism which got Christ crucified in the first place.

It is more like Apostolic Regression than Succession – regressing to a pre-Christian understanding of God and priesthood, and ministry.

So what should the Archbishop of York and Bishop of Blackburn do?

They certainly should not give in to this superstitious legalism.  If a new traditionalist Bishop is to be consecrated, it should be a consecration by the whole church – not just by those who are ‘untainted’ in his eyes.

When Paul talked to Timothy (in 2 Timothy 1)  about “the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands”, he first reminds him of a different succession involving two women in his life – the succession of faith passed down from his grandmother to his mother, and then to him.  It is the succession of faith which counts in God’s eyes – from believer to believer – men and women - of faith in the Good News of Christ.

When the Church of England finally authorised the consecration of women, it was a wonderful (if overdue) sign of Apostolic Progression.  As a sign of respect and care for those who could not agree with it, it was deemed necessary to provide Bishops to look after their needs.   But allowing this theology of taint to flourish will be both divisive and regressive.  It allows the creation of a ‘pure sect’ within the church which defines its own rules and its own boundaries of who is in and who is out.

I pray that those in authority will think again, and when the Bishop of Burnley is consecrated, that he will be consecrated by all Bishops present – not just a few.