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.


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  2. Totally agree. Taint is such a disturbing word to be used in this context. I firmly believe in the ministry of all of the baptized and this doesn't discriminate against man, women or child, colour or creed.

    If we're called through our Baptism to be High Priests, that applies to all, not just a group of men who wan't to set themselves apart. In fact, they're creating a ghetto, which will only flourish in ever decreasing circles until it disappears up it's own backside.

    1. Thanks for commenting - I was once told that the only rationale for the ordained priesthood is to be the sacramental (ie visible) expression of the priesthood of all believers. If that is true then it must visibly express both men and women at every level.

  3. Hi Benny, I am concerned about all of this too, but more from the point of view that our new Bishop of Burnley (I am part of Blackburn Diocese) needs to be a focus of unity within the diocese, and a sign to the wider world of Christ's love and welcome to all. This story that has broken recently to which you refer of course gives all the wrong signals. However I think it is important to be careful in attributing a 'theology of taint' to the actions, a term which the press have picked up and which I think misrepresents the complexity of the deeply held beliefs of some in the Church. I don't think the new Bishop would use those terms himself unless I am much mistaken, and I hope he will himself clarify the situation for us all. Despite being incredibly frustrated with the way this is making us all look extremely foolish as a Church, I still very much appreciate being the broad church that we are even if it means we usually are just clinging on by our fingertips...

    1. Dear Anonymous, Thank you for your comment and I do understand both your concerns and hopes for the Church - not least in Blackburn Diocese. I am sure that Fr Philip is a man of deep faith and wish him every blessing in his ministry in the diocese and beyond. But the questions which all this throws up still remain. I see that the Archbishop has issued a statement in which he makes it clear that Fr Philip did not request such an accommodation for the consecration. This bears out your hopes for him. However, the question then arises - If it was not requested, why was it offered? And if it was offered, why was it accepted?

  4. I see that the Archbishop of York has issued a statement with the intention of clarifying his position as well as that of Philip North. I remain confused by it though! Philip North did not make the request for Sentamu to refrain from the laying on of hands his consecration. Sentamu has made his own decision as is his prerogative, but I am still unclear as to why, unless it is out of sensitivity to those are worried about 'taint' or who are taking a 'donatist' position.

    1. Hi Nancy, thank you for commenting. Yes I have seen the Archbishop's statement and like you, I remain confused! See my reply above. In particular, if Philip North did not request such 'gracious restraint' from the Archbishop and Bishop, then what was going through the mind of the Archbishop to offer it - not least because it will weaken Philip North's own position in the wider church?