Anglican Myth 3: The bishop is the focus of unity
Updated: Jan 31
"Plural Truth", "Walking Together", call it what you like, in the Archbishop of Canterbury's understanding of the church, God no longer speaks clearly through the Scriptures, instead he speaks through the differing experiences of all the baptised. Anglican Futures explored something of his theology and the implications of it as part of our coverage of the Lambeth Conference.
It is perhaps, therefore, unsurprising that in their controversial response to LLF, the bishops of the Church of England declared that they,
".... want to continue walking together, bearing with one another in love. By being honest about our own disagreements and through a gracious interpretation of doctrine, we will honour the reality of our differences within the Church of England, across the Anglican Communion, and among ecumenical partners. We hope to model this by providing prayers that bear a nuanced variety of understandings."
In doing so, the bishops of the Church of England have swallowed another Anglican Myth – that they themselves are ‘a focus of unity’, so they have to accept the diversity of theological opinions expressed by the clergy and laity under their care. They have to 'walk together.'
Nothing could be further from the biblical or canonical position.
Canon C18 begins by saying,
"1. Every bishop is the chief pastor of all that are within his diocese, as well laity as clergy, and their father in God; it appertains to his office to teach and to uphold sound and wholesome doctrine, and to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions; and, himself an example of righteous and godly living, it is his duty to set forward and maintain quietness, love, and peace among all men."
Anglican Myth 1 challenged the way many clergy and laity ignore the first part of this Canon, yet it is the failure of generations of bishops to take note of the second part that has led to the dire situation the Church of England faces today.
Every diocesan bishop has a canonical duty to teach and uphold sound and wholesome doctrine and to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions. In this sense, it is true, their teaching should become a ‘focus of unity’.
Imagine if a bishop only ordained those who were committed to teaching and upholding sound and wholesome doctrine. Then imagine if the bishop disciplined clergy who brought erroneous and strange opinions into the diocese. Would not the diocese then be properly united?
Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17 was not for ‘visible unity’ despite ‘functional diversity’ and ‘plural truth’ – instead he prayed that there would be unity among those who would come to believe the apostles teaching. It is only as we come together, under God's word, to have our diverse minds renewed, that we can hope to find unity. Rev Richard Moy, Director of SOMA (Sharing of Ministry Abroad) wrote of the joys, and challenges, of true episcopal oversight in his blog last week, after witnessing the work of Archbishop Justin Badi Arama on a visit to South Sudan.
Despite what the Archbishop of Canterbury claimed, it was very obvious at the Lambeth Conference that the bishops of the Anglican Communion were not 'walking together.' A third of the invited bishops stayed away and at least a third of those who were there abstained from taking communion at the cathedral. In his role as Chair of the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans, Archbishop Justin Badi Arama summed up their concerns: "We may be 'gathered together', but we most certainly cannot 'walk together' until provinces which have gone against Scripture – and the will of the consensus of the bishops – repent and return to orthodoxy.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if just one bishop in the Church of England recalled their canonical duty and publicly set themselves apart from the rest?
If they followed the example of the Global South, and made it clear that they not only disagree with the decision of the rest of the bishops but that they cannot walk together with those whose teaching is erroneous?
Of course, if they did, it would be a cause for great rejoicing.
But, if they did, what would that actually look like for a diocesan bishop, or a suffragan bishop, or a retired assistant bishop?
That might need to be another blog but for now let's wait to see what the bishops choose to do.