In these days of governing-by-bureaucracy, every organisation is obliged to have a risk register. If you are a trustee of an organisation, reviewing such a risk register will be a regular item on your meeting agendas. The Church of England is no different, and the Archbishops’ Council reviews the risk register regularly at its meetings. Before reading any further, what would you identify as the main risks to the Church of England as an institution?
The 2014 report from Archbishops’ Council included a fairly general statement of risk management (p 26), which included some areas of more specific risk:
The following areas contain inherent risks, which are subject to management actions:
- efficient and effective use of funding received from dioceses
- delivery of grants to fund mission development and growth
- influencing of policy in areas such as education, Church conservation and support for the Lord Spiritual
- providing advice and support for dioceses in areas such as safeguarding
The 2015 report (due out quite soon) will be much more specific about the particular operational issues, and lists
- Failure to recruit sufficient new clergy and lay leaders
- Failure of new initiatives to deliver church growth
- Failure of safeguarding processes, and impact of national enquiries (such as the Goddard report)
- Failure to gain support for the Renewal and Reform programme
- Financial insolvency in a significant part of the church
- IT capacity and security.
I wonder how that compares with your own list? I suspect most people would suggest that there is one very significant strategic risk for the church as a whole which isn’t covered by the above list of operational risks: the danger of schism over a major issue of belief or practice. Reading newspaper headlines, or attending to the internal workings of the Church, it would be hard not to notice that the debate on sexuality and its outcome is the ‘major issue’ currently threatening the future of the C of E as we know it.
If that is the case, why would any diocesan bishop act in a way to exacerbate this risk? Yet in the last month, two appear to have done just that.
In the first incident, the Acting Bishop of Oxford, Colin Fletcher, authorised Charlotte Banister-Parker to officiate at a celebration of the marriage of Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Mpho, to her atheist partner. The wedding itself had taken place in Holland last year, and this was to be a celebration of it. Communication from the diocese of Oxford denied it was a wedding or blessing of a marriage:
Contrary to some press reports, it should be made clear that the event was NOT a wedding, and nor was it a blessing of the couple. It was simply a celebration of a wedding that took place in the Netherlands in December last year.
Yet press reports note a bridal procession, the exchange of rings, and the moment where Bannister-Parker declares ‘We now recognise you as wife and wife’. It reminds me of the well-observed episode of Rev, where the vicar wants to affirm a gay couple by celebrating their marriage in some way, but tries to ensure it is not a ‘wedding’—to no avail in the light of the reactions of those present at the service.
The comment on the Reform website is relatively restrained, and sets out a series of questions that it would be grateful for the bishop to respond to, including:
Does the Acting Bishop of Oxford believe that a ‘celebration’ of a marriage that re-enacts the giving and receiving of rings and the making of promises to one another and according to the report the ‘pronouncement that we now ‘recognise you as wife and wife’ falls within the terms of the Bishops’ Pastoral Guidance on Same-Sex Marriage?
I have generally found that the maxim ‘Don’t attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence’ (i.e. cock-up is more common than conspiracy) has been a very useful guide to life in the C of E. So asking these questions prior to coming to any conclusion on the significance of this action is the right way to go. I hope that the bishop will be able to offer some sensible answers.
The second incident was the appointment of Susan Goff, bishop in the Diocese of Virginia, as an Assisting Bishop in the Diocese of Liverpool. In July 2015, she was one of the bishops who voted in favour of changing the definition and purpose of marriage according to in Canons of The Episcopal Church. And of course, this alteration to the Canons was the action that led the Primates of the Anglican Communion, gathered in Canterbury in January, to commit to ‘consequences’ for this change, requesting that The Episcopal Church step down from representing the Communion or being involved in decision making on matters relating to doctrine or polity.
The decision is an odd move for several reasons. For a start, I understand that this is first time such an appointment of an assistant bishop has been made of someone from overseas who is not actually resident in the diocese. Second, although it has been placed in the context of partner relations between the two dioceses, this is not the usual way of expressing such partnerships. More worrying, Susie Leafe, Director of Reform, claims that the diocese has severed its links with Akure Diocese in Nigeria whilst strengthening its links with Virginia. The diocesan website doesn’t confirm this, since Akure is still listed as a link, and it would be good to have clarification here. Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, comments:
For many years the Diocese of Liverpool has enjoyed good relationships with dioceses in other Anglican provinces. Although these links have come under strain in recent times with the increase in tension across the Communion, we are committed to “walking together” with our historic partners as far as we can.
But it is hard to see how this innovation in relations with a diocese in TEC, the subject of recent difficult discussion in the Communion, can constitute a ‘commitment to walking together’. If the link with Akure has not yet been broken, it is hardly likely to strengthen it, and so the move represents a shift in sympathy for the Diocese from one part of the Communion (the majority) to another (currently the minority).
I don’t know Colin Fletcher at all, but I do know Paul Bayes a little. We have conversed at Synod, and he has been a regular reader and supporter of this blog. But I simply don’t understand why either are choosing to take actions which are contributing to the dangers of schism in the Church, when this must, on any reasonable grounds, be seen as one of the greatest risks the Church of England is currently facing. Neither action was necessary; neither has achieved much except for antagonising those on the ‘traditional’ end of the debate. We have embarked on an expensive and time-consuming process of ‘Shared Conversations’, which come to an end at July’s meeting of General Synod. After that, I think that Synod, and the Church as a whole, will be looking to leadership from the House of Bishops as to the way forward.
In this context, the last thing we need is bishops taking unnecessary risks with the future of the Church.
Additional note: I just came across this fascinating reflection from Jesse Zink, who is director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide. Having explored the oddity of a recent episcopal appointment where the bishop has no diocese, he finds equally off the appointment of Goff to Liverpool, her second place of ministry:
The oddity here also has to do with place: a bishop is to be linked to a place, as Bishop Goff, already is, but it is to be one place. Now Bishop Goff is a bishop connected to two places. I have no doubt that the link between Liverpool and Virginia is strong and important to both dioceses. I want to take nothing away from that relationship. But in ecclesiological terms, this particular move doesn’t make much sense. (And, indeed, Bishop Goff had to post a video clarifying that she’ll only be in Liverpool up to two weeks a year.) To ask one particular question: who is Bishop Goff’s metropolitical authority? Is it the Archbishop of York (through the bishop of Liverpool), as it is for other bishops in the northern province of the C of E? Or is it the rather diffuse metropolitical authority of the Episcopal Church (through the bishop of Virginia), as it is for other Episcopal bishops?
The church is full of oddities, ecclesiological and otherwise, and I’m usually content to let them go unremarked upon. But these particular oddities reveal some deeper confusion in our Anglican thinking about bishops…we have this fixation on bishops: who they are, what they do, what they say. We develop fancy ways of referring to them (+ or ++, which is an oddity for another time). We struggle to call them by their first names. We surround their visits with a kind of aura. The result of all this is that we are developing this unstated assumption that the only things that matter in the church are what bishops say. There’s no reason that ECSSS could not have appointed a priest or lay person as its roving ambassador. If the Diocese of Liverpool wanted to cement its ties with Virginia, the bishop could have made a priest or lay person from Virginia a canon in his cathedral. But in each case, it was decided the role needed to be filled by a bishop—a response to and a furthering of this over-emphasis on episcopal ministry. And that emphasis has real world impacts, not least the proliferation of bishops and dioceses in a church like ECSSS so that ever-smaller regions of the country can feel like they have an adequate voice at the table.
It perhaps leads us to wonder what was so important about the link with Virginia that pushed the diocese into this very strange and unAnglican approach to episcopal ministry.
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