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In The Shadows

Who isn’t pleased by a shadow sometime? The dappling of a tree in leaf across a Tudor wall, the outline of a Georgian window cast onto the floor of a bare corridor. Street artist, Banksy, has made an art form of the shadowy image.

The thing about shadows, however, is that they aren’t the real thing. They are the two-dimensional representations of things of actual substance, and frequently distorted at that.

There has been much talk of “shadow structures” for the orthodox as a response to this year’s decisions of the Church of England’s General Synod and House of Bishops.

The idea is not new. Seven years’ ago, a “shadow synod” was launched in response to the crisis of the time and it is interesting to speculate whether those now attracted by shadow structures would need them had they put their full support behind the visionary efforts of 2016-2017.

In London, a “Church of England City of London Deanery Chapter” has been launched. It is comprised of an initial ten and then eleven clergy. The present eleven are from seven churches, but any clergy from the City of London are apparently welcome on the sole additional condition that they feel,

“… compelled to resist all the episcopal leadership from the House of bishops on the grounds that their proposed Prayers of Love and Faith undermined the Church of England's doctrine of marriage such that we can no longer walk in partnership together.” [1]

As such, eligibility for membership of the “Chapter” has a geographical and ecclesial test. The test was established by the founding ten clergy, who also appointed an, “Acting Area Dean” from amongst their number.

It is said that the “Chapter” will meet regularly, provide post-ordination training for clergy who have “paused” theirs, select future ordination candidates and “commission” for ministry those unwilling to be ordained in the CofE.

The “Chapter” is said to be necessary for its members to,

  • “… differentiate ourselves as clearly and as visibly as possible from the bishops in the Church of England including our own Bishop…” [4]

  • “… facilitate the continuation of healthy gospel ministry within the Church of England and specifically our Deanery insofar as God enables us to do so in particular by enabling present and future Church of England ordinands to be trained and employed in this deanery and further afield…” [4]

  • “… communicate to our Bishop and to the House of Bishops the need for such alternative structures within the Church of England if they continue on the course they're currently on.” [4]

It has been repeatedly said that the “Chapter” is a model for the rest of the country. Not, apparently, necessarily as a “deanery” “Chapter” but perhaps for a, “… bigger area, a diocese or even sort of a less defined area, it doesn't really matter. What matters is likeminded people…” [2]

The former Bishop of Maidstone, Right Reverend Rod Thomas, has similarly welcomed the development,

“I'm glad to have an opportunity to support this initiative because the situation facing the Church of England is grave. I'm very thankful for all of those who are urging the House and the College of Bishops to change course and I'm personally praying for that myself. But if a change of course doesn't happen then there will need to be new structures for expressing where our fellowship lies within the Church of England. That's why I support this new Chapter and commend it to you. Not everything that the Chapter does will be appropriate for everyone who feels compelled to resist these proposals, but we do need to gather evangelical clergy together locally in order to work out what to do and then to support each other in taking action if that becomes necessary.” [2]

The most senior clergyman (they are all men) in the “Chapter” also sees the new group as, in some form, a model for the whole of England,

“… the steps being taken by the City Deanery Chapter here in the City of London are so heartening. Their recent video stresses how easy it is and to start to provide new leadership within the Church of England. This new way of selecting and training leaders, of recognising the ministries of those leaders across congregations, together with making necessary new financial arrangements will be the key to establishing structurally differentiated ministry in the Church of England in the light of the failed leadership within the institution. No doubt different groupings will establish similar but different of the same kind of thing. Not every grouping will operate in the same way, nor should they, but we can no longer expect to look to the House of bishops to deliver such gospel realities for us leadership conceive such structures right now numbers of groups of clergy across the country are preparing to establish Chapters of this sort some at deanery level, some diocesan or archdeaconry level”. [3]

This rector envisages clergy, who for a “decade or more” [3] have co-operated informally, now doing so formally, and in July 2023 it was announced that seven other groups of clergy across England were looking at, “starting something similar” [2].

The “Chapter” and similar arrangements are also being touted as having a vital, wider political role. It is said that,

“…realities on the ground will be established with which senior leaders will have to engage if they are to bring any sort of resolution for the Church of England”.[3]

and that,

“… if a good settlement [for the orthodox] is reached [with the Church of England] in the future then these new structures can easily be disbanded or folded into whatever is agreed.” [2]

The whole enterprise has been described as part of an intention,

“… to support the work of bodies within the Church of England such as the Church of England Evangelical Council who've encouraged churches to take wide scale and far-reaching action in order to make good protest and so we hope that what we're doing is among other things a helpful demonstration of the kind of structural differentiation which will be needed for many of us within the Church of England”. [1]

The Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) have echoed that intent,

“In the event of the Bishops continuing on their stated course of action, and without robust provision being introduced to secure a place for those who hold to a biblical view, CEEC will introduce provisions relating to alternative episcopal oversight, new financial systems and new fellowship arrangements in order that orthodox bible witness might flourish in the C of E going forwards”.

The observant reader will recall that this, in turn echoes almost exactly what Bishop Thomas said in support of the “Deanery Chapter” in July, when he spoke of,

“… new structures for expressing where our fellowship lies within the Church of England.”[2]

As the “Church of England City Deanery Chapter” is being promoted so strongly as the “shadow of things to come” in the future of the Church of England it surely merits some attention. It may be helpful to do that under two headings - the “Chapter’s” nature and its activity.

The Nature of the Chapter and Acting Area Dean

The Chapter is not in any way a real chapter of a real deanery as that is usually understood. This is because, a deanery, at least in England, is comprised of all the Church of England parishes in a particular local area. The deanery Chapter is a meeting of all the clergy in the deanery. Each deanery is governed by a synod, which includes all those clergy along with elected lay people, and in turn, the deanery synod membership forms the local electorate of General Synod.

The deanery synod is a body existing under the Synodical Government Measure 1969. Deanery Synods are a creation of statute, have statutory functions and limitations. The most important limitation is probably that the deanery synod may not issue any statement purporting to declare the doctrine of the Church on any question, which is virtually the first thing the “City Deanery Chapter” purported to do.

As set out in this post the “Chapter” is repeatedly described in terms of it being an “…alternative structure within the Church of England” (emphasis added).

The first problem with this is that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “alternative” as, "indicative or constitutive of a choice between two or more things."

But the members of the “City of London Deanery Chapter” seem to have their own definition. They are not choosing between membership of their new deanery chapter and their present deanery. Instead, they are members of both. They have no choice but to be part of their Church of England deanery (confusingly, “The Deanery of the City of London”) because it is automatic. The most they could do is cease to attend and give-up their voting rights to elect clergy for the House of Clergy of General Synod, but they do not appear to have done the latter.

The Diocese of London has been rather withering in its response to the whole project and specifically with regard to a second element of this claim of the “Chapter” being an, “…alternative structure within the Church of England”.

The Diocese said,

“The Diocese was first informed a few hours ago that a group of clergy in the City of London is seeking to set up its own parallel, unregulated structures, outside of those of the Diocese of London and the Church of England. This unilateral move would have no legal substance”.

So, contrary to the claim that the new structure was a “Church of England City Deanery Chapter”, it is in fact, “unilateral” and “…outside of those of the Dioceses and London and the Church of England”. The clergy might all be members of the Church of England, but the “Chapter” is not a part of the Church of England, at least according to the diocese which it is in.

The Diocese is also not unreasonable in additionally denying the “legal substance” of the “Chapter” given that it is neither truly “alternative” nor “within the Church of England”.

If anything, the Diocese's point is rather understated because the “legalities” of the new structure seem to be somewhat unclear. The most senior member of the “Chapter” has twice referred to the new “realities of the ground” being established by “…such legal structures” [3], while to the contrary one of the clergy speaking on behalf of the “Chapter” has said, “…structures like Deanery Chapter… don't currently have a legal basis - they exist informally…” [2]

Clearly, the latter is more correct, but even then, on what basis, save as a legal entity or the like, the “Chapter” could ever have a “legal basis” is hard to see.

Amongst the “Chapter” members the “Acting Area Dean” has both an intriguing title and an intriguing role. It is not clear who he is “acting” for, nor for how long.

An “area dean” is, according to the laws of the Church of England, an officer of the Diocesan bishop:

The responsibilities of rural deans are described in Canon C23 and The Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure 2000 2.12(4) then allowed the diocesan bishop to officially rename a rural dean as an area dean

That is, however, manifestly not the case here. Indeed, unless something is unknown, he is not the officer of any bishop. It is fair to say that an area dean is the convenor of the deanery chapter, but s/he also has other particular responsibilities - most importantly to be a joint chair of their deanery synod - as well as caring for the clergy of the deanery and providing a link between the parishes and the (area) bishop. None of those functions seem to be discharged by this clergyman, or indeed, are much available to him.

It is interesting to delve a little deeper into the actual composition of the Chapter, which, - again unlike the case in the Church of England where the composition of deanery chapter is public and obvious - as far as this blog is aware, has never been publicly disclosed. Piecing together various sources (including the recording of a public service in which members participated [4]) it emerges that of the eleven members, seven appear to be clergy licenced to a single church, another someone who preaches there regularly, plus one each from two of that church’s “plants”, one of whom served his title at the “mothership”.

In short, the “Chapter” is largely, even perhaps entirely, comprised of close colleagues. That would not be possible in any other comparatively small area. That in such circumstances seven churches are “represented” by eleven clergy, is probably explicable by many being licenced to more than one church.

Of course, there is everything to commend in a group of likeminded clergy enjoying fellowship together, but a “deanery” is no more a deanery by virtue of adopting the name, than a “select committee” becomes a select committee of parliament by it calling itself such. Similarly, a structure is not “within” the Church of England merely by virtue of it being comprised of Anglicans who meet in London, especially perhaps when its membership is so narrow. And a dean, “acting” or otherwise, is not meaningfully a dean by dint of his friends calling him “Dean”.

It is impossible, therefore, on any basis to see the new “Chapter” as an “alternative” from which to choose, or a part of the structures of Church of England, or having any substance at all, but rather it is, in truth a rather faint, “shadow” of the real thing, as created by Parliament within a ecclesiastical jurisdiction “by law established”.

It remains to be seen whether the instant distain for the “Chapter” exhibited by the Diocese will in fact thwart its ambitions and those of other such groupings, to shape, “a good settlement” through “senior leaders” having no choice but to “engage” with them.

The Activity of the Chapter

Words, title, names, nomenclature, descriptions, intentions and the like are one thing, but perhaps more revealing and important, is activity, for it reveals the functionality, or otherwise of what until then is merely a concept.

In September, good to its word, the “City of London Deanery Chapter” held a “Commissioning Service” for an ordinand who felt unable, for reasons of conscience to be ordained, as he had planned in the Church of England. This is the most important public activity in which the “Chapter” has engaged to date. The service took place in the church to which seven of the members are licenced [4] and another regularly preaches

And, again, this all matters because this service was described as the pilot for other churches across the country who had candidates, “… as it were waiting in the wings for their own commissioning.” [4].

Leading the service, the “Acting Area Dean” made clear that it was not an ordination but, it was a means for the candidate to,

“… be publicly recognised as a minister of God's word at [the church] and in our corner of the Church of England. I need to say this is not a formal Church of England ordination, we hope that might be possible for [the candidate] in the future, but it is a biblical commissioning, which we believe carries an equivalent spiritual and pastoral significance just as Timothy was commissioned for public Christian leadership by the laying on of hands.” [4]

So not a formal or Church of England ordination, despite the “Deanery Chapter” being an “alternative structure” “within the Church of England,” but still, nonetheless carrying, “an equivalent spiritual and pastoral significance” to ordination.

And, once again, the words matter. So back to the Oxford English Dictionary:

So be it, but if the commissioning was genuinely “equal” or “corresponding” to ordination, it is obvious to question why a subsequent ordination might be needed. In this instance perhaps “alternative” would be the right word - a choice between the equally valid and significant practices of “commissioning” and “ordaining”.

It is worth noting that the ecclesiology that deems a presbyteral “commissioning”, by an “informal” “Chapter”, in the City of London, which has existed for six months, and an episcopal ordination, by the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, that has (arguably) existed for two millennia, to be essentially the same, is hard to consider as in any way, authentically or recognisably Anglican.

Despite that, or perhaps more likely, because of it, every effort was made (at least within the confines of the host church’s tradition) to make the “Commissioning Service” as “Church of England-like”, and as close to an ordination service, as possible,

As much as it could in the circumstances, the “Commissioning Service” liturgy followed the wording of the Ordinal as found in Common Worship. That is to say it, it used the authorised liturgy of the Church which the candidate did not want to get ordained in, when the liturgy of any church, or no formal liturgy at all, was a perfectly viable alternative.

The preacher at the "Commissioning Service" was Rod Thomas (not a part of the Chapter, not least for reasons of geography) he was also the only participant in any clerical dress to lay on hands at this non-ordination. Rod Thomas remains, of course, a bishop of the Church of England, who can ordain by the episcopal laying on of hands, but this laying on of hands was not that laying on of hands.

The whole service was marked by this type of confusion, which, as already described, is inherent in this shadow structure.

At this point, it is worth making clear that there is no reason to doubt the suitability of the candidate involved for pastoral ministry and nothing that follows should be interpreted as casting aspersions on his character or qualifications.

Those “commissioning” the candidate, however, relied on the following:

  • “[having]… been recommended for training by the Church of England, he satisfactorily completed that training and he's ready for deployment in ministry in the Church of England…” [4]

  • and two “guys”, “…closely involved with [his] training and formation during his time at theological college… gave their “public assurance”, [4]

  • and because he had, “… the full backing of [the incumbent], of the clergy of [the church], of the church wardens and of the clergy of the new City of London Deanery chapter” [4]

As already observed, the incumbent, and clergy of this church and the clergy of the “Chapter” are essentially one and the same thing, but beyond that, the candidate’s suitability was supposedly proved by the selection and training of the very Church whose wisdom and actions he rejected in his decision not to be ordained in it.

The man was, “commissioned” by clergy who apparently had the right to do so by virtue of being ordained in the Church of England, whose ordination he rejects, and by virtue of holding the licence of the Bishop of London, whose licence he does not want.

Perhaps more importantly given the context, despite being, commissioned specifically to be a “minister of God’s Word within the City Deanery”, he can only preach anywhere in the actual “diocese” with the permission of the Bishop of London - the very person whose ordination he refused.

As this particular church is in “broken fellowship” with the diocesan bishop and as such won’t do anything that would suggest a “spiritual partnership” between the two, it is difficult to see why, and how, relevant and appropriate permission could be negotiated and how it could with integrity be accepted if offered.

By way of further confusion, the Diocese of London has its own category of “Commissioned Ministers” who, in appropriate circumstances do have authorisation (of the area bishop on behalf of the diocesan) to preach in a particular parish as part of the ministerial team.

It seems, therefore, that this candidate was “commissioned” for a ministry which requires the permission of the Diocesan, rather than being commissioned for that ministry by the permission of the Diocesan. Whatever the distinction, it seems so remarkably thin that it is impossible to understand, unless it is thought that by the “commissioning,” this man somehow ceased to be (or became “more than”) a layman.

Equally, it ought to be made clear how a member of the public could differentiate between a “Commissioned Minister” working in a parish church, who is under the canonical authority (and safe-guarding and training requirements) of the diocese, and a “commissioned minister” working in a parish church answerable only to the “City of London Deanery Chapter” and the incumbent of the parish church where he serves.

All of which also gives rise to a number of other interesting questions:

  • Will the newly commissioned minister be eligible to be a member of the “Chapter” which “commissioned” him, but which is only open to clergy?

  • If he can be a member of the Chapter, how can it be said that it is only open to clergy? If not, in what way is his commissioning, of “an equivalent spiritual and pastoral significance” to ordination?

  • If he can be a member of the “clergy” “Chapter”, can he remain eligible to also be an (elected) lay member of the deanery synod as a (presumably) communicant layman?

Further questions as to how useful a "commissioned" minister can be in their local setting also arise if this commissioning service, as has been intimated, is to be the "shadow of things to come".

The newly commissioned minister cannot, of course (yet, or perhaps, ever) serve as a deacon or presbyter of the Church of England - he cannot conduct weddings or baptisms or preside at the eucharist and, as has already been said, he requires the permission of the diocesan bishop to preach regularly. His stipend and housing must be provided locally.

In March, the “Acting Area Dean” freely admitted that the “Chapter” was the product of “some quick planning” and that the members were, “… still in the very early days of thinking this new structure through, we really haven't got everything sorted yet…”

Given the oddities of the “Commissioning Service,” and again without any criticism of the man involved, it is not unfair to question whether the “new structure” has developed much, if at all, in the intervening months.

If these early experiments in “shadow” structures are going to be coherent, fit for purpose and as powerfully effective in persuading the bishops and synods of the Church of England to provide truly alternative, statutory structures, a lot, lot more “planning”, “thinking” and “sorting” is going to be required.



[1] LLF announcement - a new Deanery Chapter for the City of London

[2] New City Deanery Chapter - July Update

[3] LLF and Deanery Update - July 2023)

[4] City Deanery Commissioning Service

(the full service can be found here)

With thanks to Evgeni Tcherkasski from Unsplash for the title image


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