By Jean Mayland
from Signs of the Times No. 53 - Apr 2014

In April 2012 Signs published an article by me entitled Collegiality and conciliarity and their implications for the Covenant .

I explained that in 2000 the Council for Christian Unity of the Church of England published a booklet entitled Bishops in Communion: Collegiality in the Service of the Koinonia of the Church. This examined ways in which the collegiality of Bishops might enhance the communion of the Church of England in its inner unity. The report admitted that Collegiality can sometimes impose limitations on the ministry of bishops yet there may be occasions when, in conscience, an individual bishop feels compelled to resist the common mind.

Dr Carey had been surprised to become Archbishop and unsure of himself needed to be surrounded by bishops who supported the lines laid down. Men of independent mind and courage became a crowd of passive people ready to sing from the same hymn sheet. They were all instructed to support the Act of Synod and flying Bishops and oppose the ordination of gay and lesbian people.  We accused them of having had their backbones removed.

The trend continued under Archbishop Williams; it seemed essential for Bishops not to challenge him in General Synod, and clergy and laity were made to feel guilty if they did. In the matter of the Covenant the Bishops not only voted for it but tried to push it through their own dioceses. Only a very small handful of bishops had the courage to vote against the Covenant and only two retired and one serving spoke openly against it.

This iniquitous pressure continues. Recently I went to a dinner with a number of retired clergy and their spouses and one serving Rector who has recently been nominated as a Suffragan Bishop. During the course of the  evening he revealed that he had already been for the first module of his training to be a bishop .They had been taught how to deal with the press and make statements on issues. They were supplied with papers telling them what to say and they had to practise saying it! They were assured that when they were bishops they would be supplied with a briefing telling them what to say.

I was horrified though I admit that I did not express it publicly. I was sitting by a man who was a  retired Suffragan Bishop and we muttered together. He told me that he had never been instructed in this way and would not have obeyed if it had occurred. At one time he and I had worked together in Durham Diocese. We began to reminisce about Bishops we had known who were outstanding characters and would never have  been instructed – Mervyn Stockwood, John Robinson, Hugh Montefiore, Stanley Booth Clibborn – and with many chuckles our beloved David Jenkins!

I thought that maybe one sign  of hope was the report on the Bishops’ Meeting about the Pilling Report. We  were told that the Bishops had ‘agreed to disagree’ and so there at least was an admission that they do not all personally agree,

I had had e-mail correspondence with some Bishops who said that they agreed with me about ‘gay marriage’ in other words that it is an extension and not a destruction of the  concept of marriage. They said that they would be taking that line at the meeting but recognised that it would be very hard. Well at least the admission about differences in the Report recognises that not everyone agreed but that is an end of it. The matter has been adjourned for further discussions in the Anglican Communion and ‘more listening’ but that is all.

I contacted Changing Attitude to see what they made of the situation and was assured by the Director of his support. He wrote

‘I grew up in Southwark Diocese and was ordained by Mervyn. John Robinson, Eric James, Ernie Southcott and Gwen Rymer (Youth Officer) typified the radical independence of  thought that characterised Southwark. It was normative for me and something of a shock to discover that it wasn't characteristic of the whole Church of  England.
It is impossible now to work effectively against the induction to which new bishops are subjected, and, it would seem, which they accept as reasonable.
People in the CA network have been disappointed by the statement about the College of Bishops meeting by David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, issued at the end of last week. It is depressingly passive and conformist. Had David Walker and Nick Holtam and others been bishops 40 years ago they would, I hope, have been far more critical of the Pilling Report, especially in the context of the anti-gay bills in Nigeria and Uganda and the support given to them by African Primates and bishops supported by western conservatives.
My tactic is to keep the pressure on and try and destabilise the terrible complacency that is so characteristic now. But it's hard and tiring work.’

It  was also commented on by an observer present that the media were not allowed the same access to those organising displays at the last General Synod. 

All this is happening at a time when the Church of England is dying. The series of articles in the Church Times has made clear the decline. I know it in my own family. When I was a child my parents, my cousins etc. and our neighbours were all faithful members of their respective churches and sincere believers. Now none of our children or grandchildren go to Church. One daughter has definitely rejected any belief in God. The other will come at Christmas and Easter to sing! My grand daughters have not time for a church which holds out against women bishops and will do nothing to help and support gay and lesbian people. Only Ralph’s nephew goes regularly to one of  the very evangelical churches which is large and growing but is it Christianity they are teaching? Certainly it is not the God in whom I believe.

I help out in the villages around here during interregna when I can. We have two clergy moved and as result 14 parishes vacant. In some only two or four or seven people form the total congregation. They are so faithful and so caring and so appreciative but what is the future? I know they would welcome women bishops but I do not know what  they think of those who are gay or lesbian. I suspect that they would be more positive than many of our Bishops as country folk have long been wise and welcoming to such people.

One does not want to look back with rosy coloured spectacles but during my time at university and my five  years on Church Assembly and my 25 as a lay member of General Synod the scene  was very different. Churches were alive  and vigorous and SCM was strong. Bishops were not afraid to express their views and I have named some of these ‘giants’  When David Jenkins spoke about God, religion was talked about in schools offices and work places. Only the ‘churchy’ were scandalised. Society as a whole welcomed the freedom to think and discuss. I do also remember a Salvation Army Officer in Durham saying to me ‘Bishop David is wonderful because he gives us permission to think’.

Bishops and Archbishops on General Synod were not fearful of being challenged. I often expressed disagreement with Bishops and on several occasions stood up to Robert Runcie and John Habgood.  In fact those two Archbishops were never afraid to disagree openly in General Synod. I remember that in one of the many debates on the Ordination of Women- the one in November 1984 on a motion by the Bishop of Southwark, the two Archbishops starting from opposites points of view, crossing past each other and voting against each  other – but not from the position at which they started!

The Archbishop of Canterbury began by praising all the women priests he had met in the communion - ‘In past  years I have come not only to accept the presence of ordained women in the Anglican Communion but to experience examples of their ministry which are an enrichment to the life of the Church’ ...BUT then he finished up ‘I do not  believe that we can move with integrity to the stage of legislating for the  ordination of women in the Church of England’ He voted against the motion.

The Archbishop of York John  Habgood began by saying that the matter had been brought back to General Synod too soon and too near the end of the life of that particular Synod. He continued ‘Having explained why I believe this is the wrong debate at the wrong moment I want to explain why in the end I shall vote for the motion. It seems to me that to defeat it at this stage would be a crushing blow to a cause in which I believe, because I believe in the ordination of women.’ He voted in favour of the motion which was passed in all  three houses. The Bench of Bishops was divided. Some spoke in favour and some against but in that House it was passed 41 to 6. York won over Canterbury. Thanks be to God.(See Report of the Proceedings of General Synod Vol 15 no 3 pages 1092 and  1107)

I find the whole current scene very depressing. Nor do I think it is one that women bishops will be able to challenge for some time. They may feel more rebellious than the men against the idea of being told to toe a party line. We have all had lots of experience in doing the opposite – but it will be tough for them. All eyes will be upon them and they may well feel that this is one issue that they cannot tackle until they have proved themselves. I do sympathize – though I know I would have to rebel – but then there is no chance of my becoming a Bishop! Meanwhile the Church goes on haemorrhaging.

Like Colin Coward all I can do is plod on and challenge whenever I can. It is a grim scene. I also know that we cannot fool God. If his church dies, then it will rise again in new ways – perhaps sadly without our lovely country churches but with an honesty and a compassion which reaches out to all  people bravely and openly in the knowledge and strength of the all loving God.

Since I wrote the above, the Bishops have issued their statement on the Pilling Report which saddened and angered LGBT people. It allows prayers after Civil Partnerships and ‘gay weddings’ for lay people but presents a very hard line of clergy. It refuses to allow ‘blessings’ in all cases. It has horrified many people. I had been in email correspondence with a number of Bishops before their meeting. All expressed agreement with what I said but also felt it was going to be very hard for them to present their case. There is an admission that there was disagreement but the statement was issued on behalf of all and no one has broken ranks since.

This is collegiality gone mad and is very destructive of the Church’s mission.

Jean Mayland is a retired priest and former Co-ordinating Secretary and  Assistant General Secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.