By Andrew Carey, CEN
I generally take the view that ‘rebellious bishops’ are a thoroughly good thing, especially when I agree with them. So I have to be thoroughly careful whenever I’m tempted to bemoan the decline of collegiality among bishops in the Church of England.
I remember interviewing Robert Runcie on the verge of his retirement from Canterbury and being surprised by his response to my question about his achievements. He seemed to take an inexplicable pride in the greater collegiality of the House of Bishops. This was jaw-dropping to me. He’d had his cause célèbre of Faith in the City and had led the Church of England and Anglican Communion intact through several potentially destructive debates. Additionally, I’d just come out of university: a place of free and open debate. An attachment to collegiality seemed to me a very bureaucratic and restrictive approach.
I came to realise that there was a value in his approach. Mission and unity are best served by a degree of collegiality by our leaders in mission, especially those we entrust with the role of safeguarding the Church’s teaching. Furthermore, we cannot take a pickand- mix approach to the Gospel if we are to be faithful disciples.
Yet this doesn’t undermine comprehensiveness around secondary matters, merely over the first-order issues. What are we to make of the latest Episcopal acts of rebellion in recent weeks? First, we have the Diocesan Bishop of Salisbury, Nick Holtam and the suffragan Bishops of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, and Grantham, Tim Ellis, publicly disagreeing with the Church’s opposition against same-sex marriage. Second we have the widespread defeat of the Covenant by a number of bishops in their diocesan synods. And finally, the motions at Worcester and Salisbury Synods publicly disputing the House of Bishops’ amendments to the women bishops’ legislation.
It goes without saying that it is the first act of rebellion that is most serious. The distinguished German theologian
Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote a number of years ago that ‘gay marriage’ was a first order issue. “Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”