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Anglican Myth 7: The Temporal/Spiritual Divide

One form of ‘visible differentiation’ proposed in response to revisionism in the Church of England is for churches or individuals to declare a refusal to participate in, or identify with, the ‘spiritual’ parts of church relationships or polity. This temporal/spiritual divide is one way in which it is suggested that clergy might reject heterodox bishops while retaining the licence of that bishop and remaining in the Church of England.

Thus, the ReNew Movement have asked of congregations,

“For a bishop who does not uphold or defend biblical teaching (i.e. any bishop who refuses to state that they will not use the Prayers of Love and Faith, and/or refuses to uphold Canon B30, and/or refuses to reaffirm the rightness of sexual intimacy only within such marriage), will our PCCs explain to that bishop that their action means they are teaching falsely and thus are no longer welcome to preach, to confirm, and to ordain at our churches AND that we are unable to accept their spiritual oversight so orthodox episcopal oversight will need to be provided or will have to be sought?”

In the last clause the suggestion is not that the oversight of the diocesan bishop is repudiated in its entirety, but that it is only rejected in things ‘spiritual’. Thus, the bishop’s oversight of the church remains in things ‘temporal', while the ‘spiritual' oversight is sought from an alternative bishop (which in itself raises a number of other questions, that are discussed here).

The ReNew guidance gives this concept wide application, for example:

“Will we ask our clergy to avoid all or part of Clergy chapter meetings/clergy conferences if the agenda is more spiritual than temporal, and if a false teacher is leading or speaking? Will churchwardens not participate in similar services or meetings?”

In July 2019, the then chairman of the ReNew Conference[1] explained it this way to his church,

“The Church of England can claim validity and we should recognise it as valid on two levels. One, as a secular body; it owns a lot of property, it dishes out the property - an estate agent; a Golf Club, yeah, it's just a kind of secular body held together; Southwark Council. We’re members of all sorts of, you know, we’re part of the City of London - I was at a civic thing, one day this week for…something. So, it's a secular body. But it's also a spiritual body insofar as the Church of England holds out the gospel - but insofar as it doesn't well it's irrelevant.(at 20 mins and 15 secs)

In other words, it is suggested that it is possible to have a relationship with the diocese which is merely temporal, just as with any other secular organisation.

This conception of denomination as potentially irrelevant is underpinned by a particular understanding of the local church, described in the same address, in this way,

Listen to Article XIX… notice the singular,

‘The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men [and women] in which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.’

The last part is actually redundant because if the word of truth, the Word of God is taught, the sacraments will be duly administered.

But the visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure word of God is preached. The church is not defined by institutional structures or historical lineages; whether a Bishop has laid hands on a Bishop, who's laid hands on a Bishop, who's laid on hands on a Bishop, who also inherited one of those stupid hats. Your Christian Union, your family, your Bible study group, your Sunday gathering, wherever people are sitting under the word of God they are, in one sense, a kind of nascent embryonic church. They’re part of the eternal church. It's a wonderful, wonderful truth.

Should we then simply exist in splendid isolation? Well, we’ll never be in splendid isolation because we're part of the eternal Church of Christ. We can never be in sort of splendid isolation. But in the Bible congregations do come together for the particular purpose of missionary enterprise governed by doctrinal truth”. (16 min 50 sec)

As such, just over two years’ ago the church announced that they were,

“… not leaving the Church of England and will remain a member of its Deanery and Diocesan structures for the most part. However [the church] will be withdrawing from those activities which indicate full spiritual partnership.”

And then in January this year the church wrote to their diocesan, Bishop Sarah Mullally,

“We wrote to you prior to the completion of this process to indicate that steps such as you have taken will inevitably further affect our already broken partnership with the House of Bishops. We shall await the conclusion of the General Synod in February before seeking a conversation about the provision which will be necessary for those forced by your decision into having no acceptable episcopal oversight.”

Other churches in the ReNew network have done much the same thing; one wrote to their bishop saying,

“We shall not recognise the spiritual authority over our church of Bishops who promote, practice, or allow this false teaching.”

Again, it is just the ‘spiritual’ element of the oversight, not the totality, which is rejected.

Another wrote that their clergy,

“…have already declared that we are in impaired communion with the bishops in our diocese, which means that we will not welcome them to preach, confirm, ordain or conduct our ministerial reviews, and we will not take communion with them. The PCC has also taken action to ensure that any money we pay within the diocese is distributed via the Oxford Good Stewards Trust and is only used for faithful gospel ministry and essential administrative costs.”

Again, it is the ‘spiritual’ element of the relationship, that is being refused, whilst they are content to continue funding the ‘temporal’ administration costs. And so it was confirmed at the Oxford Diocesan Synod that the diocese would still receive the same amount of money from this church, even if is, perhaps, in part, via the trust.

The latest guidance from the Bishop of Ebbsfleet seeks to draw a similar distinction; this time between the ‘legal’ and ‘pastoral’ ministry of the Bishop. He writes.

This ‘legal jurisdiction’ is distinguishable from the ‘pastoral ministry’ of a Bishop, as is evident in the +Ebbsfleet arrangements...”.

There are many and varied references throughout church history to some form of temporal/spiritual divided but to most British Anglicans the words are best known from whenever clergy are admitted to a new parish (collation/induction/licensing/installation). The ‘spiritualities’ (the responsibilities of conducting divine service, occasional offices, preaching etc.) and, if they are the incumbent, the ‘temporalities’ (the ‘legal possession’ of the church building) are dealt with separately. The former is the preserve of the diocesan bishop, as chief pastor of the diocese, and the latter that of the archdeacon.

How do these ideas work in practice?

As such the temporal/spiritual phraseology has a temptingly familiar ring to it. But the assertions above, adopting the concept (whatever the origin) raise the question, or rather questions, as to whether such a distinction, in some form, can apply to the relationship between an individual church or cleric and the diocese or bishop?

Questions plural because different issues arise in each (combination) of situations.

The Cleric and the Bishop

It has been observed before on this Blog, that the Canons of the Church of England state that the diocesan bishop is the chief pastor (Canon C18(1)) and principal minister (Canon C18(4)) of all in the diocese and that beneficed clergy share the cure of souls with him or her, while others minister under the bishops’ licence or PTO. This remains the case, whether, a cleric, seeks, or even achieves, the physical exclusion of the bishop from their parish or church building.

Therefore, the cleric’s Oath of Canonical Obedience requires them to accept this understanding of the bishop’s role, whether they approve of the current office holder or not. This is a point made in a recent report of the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England,

“These relational obligations would still remain, even if the act of oath-taking did not occur…. However, in taking the Oaths, something important is happening. Ministers making a public promise, articulating basic obligations and committing to certain relationships – with the sovereign, the bishop and by implication, the whole church.” (Page 13)

Now, it is fair to say, that the report goes on, “the Oath of Canonical Obedience takes for granted that those in authority are themselves obedient to the Christian message as proclaimed in the Word of God.” (page 26), which raises the issue of what happens when that is obviously not the case.

Some have suggested that in such a situation, the legal obligation on the cleric to uphold the Canons does not include the need to acknowledge the current holder of the office as the chief pastor and senior minister of the diocese. They claim the oath is being made to the office not the person. In the Latimer Trust publication, The Oath of Canonical Obedience, Dr Gerald Bray sets out why this is not the case.

“Now there are several bishops who are prepared to abandon traditional Christian teaching, not only on matters of doctrine but also in the sphere of morality, and particularly sexual morality. There can be little doubt that the Apostle Paul would never have tolerated anything like that, or that he would have expected Christians not to associate with such people at all – let alone swear an oath of canonical obedience to them!”