by Jonathan Clatworthy
Reflection on a difficult year for C of E bishops [1 comment]

The last year has been something of an annus horribilis for the Church of England's House of Bishops.

On three notable occasions they have stuck together to defend a position which was out of step not only with the rest of the Church but with the country at large: the Anglican Covenant, opposition to gay marriages and protecting opponents of women bishops. To say that the bishops have lost prestige would be an understatement.

Modern Church has often commented on each of these issues, but this article discusses what they have in common. The bishops made a similar response in all three cases, and it made the situation worse rather than better. This article will ask what went wrong and recommend a way forward, based on Modern Church's theological stance.

The problems


Over the last few decades there has been growing pressure for the bishops to speak with one voice in public. To some extent this is good practice: like the Cabinet they all have to take some responsibility for collective policies. They have learned to do their disagreeing away from journalists' cameras. However this has now become a straitjacket. One established policy has been to refuse to consecrate anyone as a bishop unless they undertook never knowingly to ordain an active homosexual. It has not stopped active homosexuals being ordained; instead it has produced a hundred definitions of 'knowingly', while presenting the Church as hypocritical. In the recent controversies the bishops, in attempting to speak as one, have said what only a few have really believed. Perhaps if they had been freer to disagree with each other there would have been open debate and some progress towards better positions.


When forty-two dioceses voted for the women bishops legislation and only two voted against, the House of Bishops still had authority to alter the text. The reason is that the bishops have responsibility for the Church's theology. What the Church believes is not decided by democratic votes in referenda: it exists for a godly purpose and somebody should be responsible for keeping it to that purpose. So far so good.

However it is no longer self-evident that bishops are the right people for this job. It needs to be done by people who are not only committed to Anglican Christianity but also well educated theologians. Today bishops are not primarily selected for their theological expertise. Managerial abilities take higher priority, and of course willingness to work within ever-narrowing policies. When 80% of the bishops voted in favour of the Anglican Covenant despite its unpopularity elsewhere, they were hoping it would avoid international schism. When they introduced Clause 5(1)(c) into the women bishops legislation they were hoping it would help secure the necessary two-thirds majorities. These were not theological decisions. They were managerial decisions. Or better, perhaps, political.

On a personal level this is easy to understand. Those responsible for running the system naturally end up trying to avoid rocking the boat. So much the more reason, though, for not leaving the managers with the theological authority.


In each of the controversies the bishops acted in a way which can be described as short-term crisis management. In the case of the Anglican Covenant some archbishops were threatening schism, arguing that their own views were based on scripture and were therefore non-negotiable. In the case of women bishops two different groups argued that for deep-seated theological reasons they could not in all conscience accept a woman as a bishop. In the case of gay marriages, although we have not yet seen a high-profile campaign to threaten schism, there is again a determined minority insisting that an absolute ban is the only legitimate Christian response. In all three cases the bishops responded by acceding to the demands of those insisting that they could not accept compromise.

The most revealing aspect of these responses is that the bishops, who in theory still have theological authority, made no real attempt to address the theological issues. Instead they made formal position statements, publicly presenting themselves as united when they were not. Hence the public responses: fury, incredulity and derision.

The underlying disagreement

A long-term resolution of the disagreements must address the real cause. At the root of all of them lies the issue of authority.

The opponents of gay sexuality and women bishops - not all of them, but those who have issued the greatest threats and put the greatest pressure on the bishops - have taken the view that their opinion is the only legitimate Christian opinion. Conservative evangelicals appeal to biblical texts, anglo-catholics to church authority. These groups claim that the Church's teaching on the matter has already been established and cannot be changed. They consider it unchangeable because of commitments established in the past. During the Reformation debates Protestants and Catholics alike stressed that the human mind is incapable of discovering truths in matters of faith so we depend on God's direct revelation. Each revelation, once given, transcends all human reason, all logic, all personal experience, all empirical studies of the world. Of course many opponents of gay people and women bishops today do not accept this sixteenth-century theology; but this is the logic lying behind the development of their positions. It is from this point of view that neither personal experience of sexual activity by gay people and lesbians, nor psychological research, nor the congregation's assessment of their woman vicar, nor modern society's affirmation of gender equality, matter at all; revelation settles the question decisively. This is why they consider their own positions to be non-negotiable. It is a dogmatic view of authority.

The supporters of gay people and lesbians, together with the supporters of women bishops, accept that they are proposing a change to the Church's traditional position. However they argue that the Church often changes its teaching and is right to do so. They appeal to a different account of how we gain theological insight, a tradition appealing to Aquinas, Hooker, the Cambridge Platonists and Joseph Butler. This tradition has a more positive view of the human mind as a God-given organ for developing understanding in matters of faith as well as the physical world. Theology therefore develops. Not every change is a change for the better - it is more a matter of two steps forward and one step back - but every proposed change should be judged on its merits, not dismissed simply because it is not part of the inherited tradition, or because it contradicts a biblical text.

Characteristically, Anglicans who believe in theological development appeal to Hooker's 'three-legged stool' - a balance of scripture, reason and tradition. For this account to work well 'reason' is best interpreted widely, to include information from personal experience and scientific research as well as individual reflection and public debate. Society's moral values change over time, and today they often change independently of church teaching. New moral judgements, like gender equality and toleration of sexual minorities, are potential sources of insight even if they come from outside the Church. Whereas the dogmatic approach is backward-looking, always expecting the answers to come from the past, this more open-ended view expects new answers in the future: it is a progressive view of authority.

The problem of resolution

The difference between these two accounts of authority is theological. As long as the Church's leadership avoids engaging with this theological disagreement, we shall be in for a succession of irresolvable disputes.

How to reconcile two contrasting theological opinions? In this case the two sides disagree about how to proceed. According to one side we should meet with each other to discuss our differences, expecting that if we are honest about our motives and reasons we can learn from each other until the dialogue eventually produces a meeting of minds. According to the other side such a procedure would exalt mere human reason above scripture: the correct procedure is to look up the answers in the truths already revealed. Thus the two sides cannot even agree on a method for resolving disagreement.

Compromise is impossible, because the two sides hold different views about compromises. We could of course find compromise over women bishops and gay marriages if both sides were willing to seek it; but there cannot be any compromise between dogmatic and progressive views of authority. For one side, the truth is never established once and for all. There is always the possibility of new insights through dialogue, so compromise may have an honoured place. For the other side, the truth has indeed been established once and for all so any compromise would be a dereliction of duty.

In all three of the recent controversies we have seen what happens when the leadership tries to hold together these radically different theologies. One side is prepared to tolerate an official position with which they disagree. The other is not. Therefore the less tolerant win every time. This is the nature of the underlying disagreement: if you are willing to meet me halfway but I am not willing to budge, the only way we can reach agreement is for you to come all the way to me.

A central feature of all these developments is the lack of any genuine theological debate between the two sides. At its higher echelons the Church of England is no longer a welcoming home for explorers and believers to share their ideas and help each other's developing spiritualities. It has become, instead, a football pitch. The teams enter it expecting to win, lose or draw, but they do not expect to learn anything or to contribute to the well-being of their opponents.

How to respond

Both these theological traditions remain vibrant within the Church, so we can expect plenty more such controversies in the future. How, then, should the House of Bishops respond?

Given the above analysis the Church of England needs to establish an agreed method for resolving disagreements and making decisions. This is hardly a radical proposal: every institution needs at least this. The method cannot be both a dogmatic revelation-based one and an open-ended progressive one - that would be a contradiction - so no method will be acceptable to both sides.

This is why the bishops' positions have, each time, agreed with the dogmatists' positions; when one side refuses to compromise the only way to reach an agreed position is to agree with them against their more obliging and tolerant opponents. In the process the Church's traditional openness and inclusiveness is being eroded.

Since we are addressing an issue which has divided protestants since the Reformation, it is easy to see the practical effects of the different positions. The dogmatic approach dominated the sixteenth century debates but by the time the Interregnum ended in 1660 it had become clear that far from resolving disagreements it made them irresolvable. The conviction that the plain words of scripture transcend all human reason left people with no means to discuss differences of opinion about what a scriptural text meant. Since compromise was unacceptable, the subsequent history of protestant dogmatism has been a story of one schism after another.

The early Enlightenment began as a reaction against this dogmatic tendency. It produced many theories of knowledge, but the principles which concern us here are well known. Firstly, we never reach complete certainty. No authority is beyond question. There is a proper role for challenging received wisdom and re-examining the evidence. Secondly, we never know everything. There is always more to learn. Thirdly, we learn new things through a wide variety of processes, many of them unpredictable.

It is upon these principles that modern knowledge has mushroomed. They are essential to all the sciences and humanities. They have also provided the Church of England with its tolerant and inclusive character, willing to change its teachings and take on board new insights. Until now they have enabled it to avoid the schismatic tendencies of some protestant denominations.

Nevertheless in matters of religion, and only in religion, they remain controversial. The dogmatic alternative has survived and has even undergone a recent revival. We need to recognise that it is impossible to hold these two theologies together in one church. This is because every church, whatever else it is, is an institution. In institutions decisions have to be made. Every institution therefore needs an agreed method for making them. The two theological traditions disagree about acceptable method.

From the second half of the seventeenth century until recent times the Church of England has been noted for its openness, toleration and willingness to host open debates on matters of theological disagreement. This is the tradition which Modern Church was founded to defend. It is now being challenged. If it is to survive it needs to be protected against its opponents, and this means the bishops will need to address future controversies in a different way.


Because there is no agreement about method, any method excludes some. The problem is a common one: how does a tolerant institution go about tolerating the intolerant? To exclude them altogether would itself be intolerant. To include them and allow them to practise intolerance within it would also be to sanction intolerance. It is therefore essential to set limits to the acceptable activities of those who seek to suppress the views of others.

The view taken here is that the progressive approach offers both a more accurate account of the Church's history and a healthier method for responding to controversies. Strongly held disagreements within the Church are to be resolved by allowing all views to be publicly expressed within it, encouraging public debate and thereby working towards a consensus. Time must be allowed for the debate to take its course. It is essential, therefore, that church leaders should resist the temptation to pre-empt consensus by publishing official statements purporting to state what the Church teaches.

Such open, truth-seeking debates require certain disciplines. Both sides must accept that they are fallible. Both sides must be open to the possibility of learning from their opponents. Those who feel unable to accept these disciplines will of course feel excluded; but to exclude such people is no more unjust than telling a man who refuses to hold a screwdriver that he cannot be a mechanic. Such disciplines are often established in institutions where they are needed. A person who joins a tennis club in order to persuade the other members to stop playing tennis will eventually be asked to leave. Just as a role in the Church is normally conditional on doing nothing to undermine the Church's welfare, it should also be conditional on doing nothing to undermine its traditional toleration of diverse opinions.

The practical processes to uphold such a policy are beyond the scope of this article; the first need is to acknowledge that a theologically grounded policy of this type is required. To some it may appear less tolerant than the current policy, but in fact it is more so. One of the oddest features of the debates over the last few decades is that church leaders have bent over backwards to appease dogmatist opponents of change while ignoring the far larger numbers who have left the Church in disgust at its reactionary nature. If the current policy appears to be a genuine attempt to keep the Church together this is only because those other voices are no longer being heard at all.

Perhaps most important of all, the response being proposed here will be theologically based. What church leaders say and do will once again be consistent with what they claim to believe and what they tell us the Church stands for. The first responsibility of church leaders is not to defend inherited beliefs but to attend to God in the hope of perceiving where God is leading us today.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and was (at the time of writing) Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest,  university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics. 

  1. All true - but very challenging.  Many of us liberals would welcome the disappearance  from the C of E of the hardline dogmatists, as implied by Jonathan's argument.  Yet we need to hold onto  the "soft centre" who are uneasy about the issues but not committed to severe dogma.  Also we must recognise  some uncomfortable facts about ourselves; can we who conscientiously believe in equality for women and gay people in the Church also accept, as Jonathan's argument requires, that we may be mistaken? Should we?

    Anthony Woollard, 04/03/2013 @ 18:52

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