Thursday, June 22, 2006



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'The episcopal office, as exercised in the provinces of Canterbury and York, is probably further from the ideal of the episcopate than any other... But the English bishop works under difficulties. Appointed by the State (no degree of "consultations" can alter the hard fact), he is expected to exercise the episcopate without most of its powers. It was an English bishop who said that for him episcopos should be translated "onlooker". Without a curia, without control of his cathedral, without a synod, he has limited powers of patronage and little effective jurisdiction. Finance, pastoral reorganisation, education, missionary strategy, even now the selection and training of ordinands, are all in effect out of his hands. Effective oversight is made impossible by the size of dioceses and by the necessary preoccupation of the bishop (still) in ecclesiastical and civil affairs on a national scale. Discipline is rendered impossible by freehold of the clergy (which is as much a "mentality" as a legal right) and by the general unwillingness of the Anglican laity in England to accept any discipline whatsoever.'1

This statement on episcopal authority, made in 1969 in a book edited by the Michael Ramsey while Archbishop of Canterbury, reflected accurately the episcopal role. The question of the bishops' authority within the Church of England has been shown to be highly complex. Bishops theoretically could lay claim to a certain degree of legal authority but circumstances make this almost unusable and in most of their work they relied on influence, personal charisma and an acceptance of the status quo.

The fact that bishops were State appointees, sometimes chosen without any ecclesiastical consultation, did not give them 'moral' authority in the eyes of many of their clergy. Those who were respected and obeyed, were respected and obeyed on individual merit, as it was felt there was little divine guidance or the will of the Church in their appointment. For many of the clergy this depended on whether their bishop shared their churchmanship, and for the Anglo Catholics whether he tried to oppose ritualism.

The theology of the episcopate remained an area of great controversy. Officially the Church has never claimed during this period to have any particular theology of episcopacy, claiming rather that the importance of episcopacy within the Church was largely its exhibition of historical continuity. In actual fact there were numerous theories of episcopacy current throughout this period. These ranged from an elevated conception of the office held by Anglo Catholics, which could be the equivalent of the full Roman Catholic theology in some instances, to avery basic view of the bishop as a necessary organisation man who coordinated the work of the clergy and confirmed men's own sense ?of vocation when he ordained them. Between these two extremes were many variant positions.

The bishops themselves held different conceptions of their office in accordance with their own shades of churchmanship, and their attitudes to episcopal authority varied in accordance with their beliefs tempered by the amount of authority they knew they could exert in practice. This meant that bishops, whose beliefs were very definitely those of Anglo Catholics, never attempted to exercise an episcopate in any way comparable to their Roman Catholic counterparts even though their theology of episcopacy must have been alike in some respects. Likewise those Anglo Catholic clergy who expressed an elevated conception of episcopacy did not always treat their own bishops directives with the obedience which might have been expected. Rather, if they judged these directives to be contraryto what they believed should be the correct theology of the Church, they regarded it as their duty to disobey any such instructions especially concerning ritual practices.This happened frequently in the early years of the period when ritual conflict still occurred in a number of dioceses.

Had the Church been able to produce a theology of episcopacy to which all the bishops at least could have subscribed, it might have clarified these areas of conflict even if it had not totally removed them. The continued refusal of the Church to accept a doctrinal definition was to cause considerable problems in ecumenical relations as well. However the Church had given up making doctrinal definitions, partly because it knew that any definition would be unacceptable to a large number of its members, particularly the clergy. The memory of the Gorham Judgement may have played some part, as here the secular powers had refused to uphold a doctrine believed to be a fundamental part of the Church's heritage by many of its members. This led to the departure of some of its influentual members, such as Henry Manning, to another denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, which they asserted upheld the doctrine they believed to be true. This spirit of compromise by omission rather than elucidation was to undermine potential for any real exercise of episcopal authority throughout the period. Yet many, especially the bishops themselves, did not see this as a weakness but rather as a strength, part of the all-embracing nature of the Anglican ethos which they were to proclaim to be one of the glories of the Church of England.

Practical authority within the Church of England during this time has been shown to be diffuse, operating from many different sources - from Parliament, Church Assembly, General Synod, the laity and institutions in their role as patrons of a large numberof livings, many clergy secure in their Parson's Freehold as well as from the bishops. This had become largely the accepted norm, and apart from the Church's desire to wrest some additional control over its liturgy and worship andepiscopal appointments from Parliament, real power struggles were very few. Those that existed were minor in nature - generally a few bishops still attempting to suppress ritualism among their Anglo Catholic ?clergy. Toleration rather than authority was the hallmark of episcopacy throughout the twentieth century.

The period 1928 to 1981 saw some attempts to decrease the authority of the State within the Church. The rejection of the 1928 Prayer Book could have led to a strong movement for the disestablishment of the Church of England. Apart from the almost lone voice of Hensley Henson the bishops were daunted at the prospect, maybe because they feared the loss of endowments, maybe because they feared the loss of their prestigious role in society, or maybe because they felt it was a battle they would not be allowed to win. Instead they opted for sanctioning the illegal use of the 1928 Prayer Book and raised no further protest.

Among the archbishops of Canterbury who followed Davidson only one, Michael Ramsey, was to act significantly to win more freedomfrom Parliamentary control for the Church. It was largely to him that the Church owed the Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974 which gave it a meaningful degree of control over its liturgy and doctrine, as long as the 'small print' which retained the norm in doctrine of the 1662 Prayer Book, Thirty Nine Articles and Ordinal was ignored.It was as a result of the 1970 Church and State Report, again considerably through Ramsey's influence, that by 1977 the Church gained more say in the appointment of its bishops. Though many would suggest that a more or less 'gentleman's agreement' between Church and prime minister which allowed a small selective group to nominate a short list of names which the prime minister could still refuse to accept, was but a small advance in the Church's rights. Ramsey too had influence in the establishment of the General Synod in which clergy and laity were to share power on an almost equal footing with the bishops. Yet even here the advance was limited. General Synod measures are still subject to Parliament, and are sometimes turned down however strongly the Synod has voted for them, such as the move in 1984 to abolish the cong82 d'82lire for the appointment of bishops. General Synod has been frequently criticized as being very unrepresentative, particularly of the laity who make up the vast bulk of the Church's membership.

Michael Ramsey's ambition was to gain more independence from Parliament for the Church as a whole, it does not seem to have included any practical steps to enhance the authority of bishops within the Church. In General Synod they would be able to exert influence over doctrine, liturgy and other matters but they would still be subject to the veto of the clergy and laity, as in the matter of Anglican-Methodist Unity. At the estab;ishment of General Synod it was unlikely that the bishops saw themselves as possibly outvoted by the clergy or laity, but once the divisive pressure which accompanied the Anglican-Methodist Unity debate built up and this became a real possibility it was too late to alter the General Synod's constitution. Nor would the episcopate have exclusive rights in the choosing of new bishops as the clergy andlaity were to be represented on the Crown Appointments Commissions.

The role of the laity has always been important in the Church of England. Although they played a lesser role in the days of the Church Assembly, they have always expressed their right of veto on the Church via Parliament. Their role was greatly enlarged in the General Synod, even though considerable doubts have been expressed on its representative nature, and in the accompanying Diocesan and Deanery Synods. Bishops, like other clergy, have been respected for their personalities, or for their social position (a feature decreasing through this period) but not generally for their ecclesiastical position. Anglo Catholic congregations followed the clergy they respected in their ritual variations, regardless of episcopal prohibitions. Bishops rarely attempted to discipline the laity after the seventeenth century, and never used in this period the one weapon left to them - excommunication - as it would have been impossible to enforce.

I have suggested, based on my conversations with Michael Ramsey in retirement, that he saw the potential of the second stage of the Anglican-Methodist Unity Scheme (had the first stage been accepted) as a means to put pressure on Parliament to grantthe Church of England greater independence including complete control of its liturgy and worship, discipline and over the appointment of its leaders. This, of course, was never to take place, and neither Donald Coggan nor Robert Runcie initiated any further moves in this direction.

Among current episcopal figures (1991) only David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham, and Colin Buchanan, assistant Bishop of Rochester, have spoken out firmly in favour of the disestablishment of the Church. But neither of them wish to use disestablishment as a means of enhancing episcopal authority, but rather as a means of increasing the Church of England's credibility in a country where fewer and fewer people claim membership of that Church.

A large number of diocesan bishops have the right to sit in the House of Lords and because of the rota for taking prayers their fairly regular appearance is essential. Many bishops do believe that they have influence here, especially in debates on moral issues, and in their behind the scenes contacts. The effect of this influence is hard to quantify, real as it may be, and it is always at the level of influence, based frequently on the charismatic speaking power of the individual bishop, or his inter personal skills, never on any other form of authority.

The bishops have exercised a loose form of collegiality within this period by meeting in a group within both the Church Assembly and General Synod, also by various meetings which have grown more frequent in recent years. There have been moves too within individual dioceses for the exercise of collegiality between the diocesan and his suffragan bishops. Since the diocesan bishop's ability to make decisions which would be in any sense mandatory within the Church is limited both by the need to obtain Parliamentary consent, and in recent years by obtaining the ?support of the other Houses of General Synod, episcopal collegiality is circumscribed in its effectiveness. On many issues too the bishops have found it impossible to speak with one voice, there has been wide divergence in both their doctrinal and ethical viewpoints. When they exhibited a united stand, in allowing the use of the 1928 Prayer Book, they showed a rare defiance of Parliament. But such united defiance was never again to be repeated.

Within the Church of England itself bishops have been able to exercise little actual authority in the sense of compellingobedience during this period. After thefailure of the 1874 Public Worship Regulation Act any attempts by the bishops to enforce conformity over ritual and doctrinewere to show few signs of success. Archbishop Tait must go down in history as almost the last archbishop to try to exert real practical authority by his efforts to get the act passed. Some bishops managed to curb ritualism in their dioceses to a limited degree by their choice of candidates for the livings within their patronage, and by withholding licences for curates and some diocesan funding, but the impact was slight. The legal protection offered by Parson's Freehold and the patronage held by lay persons and institutions circumscribed the actions of the bishops. As was related in the section concerning Church discipline Bishop Barnes of Birmingham himself risked imprisonment for contempt of court when he tried to exert what he believed to be his rightful authority as bishop.

By the late 1960's and 1970's many of these problems had disappeared. The impact of Vatican II on many Anglo Catholic clergy had led to the cessation in some parishes of a few of the practices which had so irritated the bishops of an earlier period. Acts which enforced a retirement age for clergy removedsome of the problems of Parson's Freehold. Now no bishop was helpless in the face of clergy who were elderly and for various reasons no longer capable of running their parishes efficiently. Yet Parson's Freehold and lay and institutional patronage are still a difficult area for many bishops, although some bishops are glad to be relieved of the responsibility for what can amount to a large number of new appointments each year. The bishops of the 1980's and 1990's have to plan their diocesan appointments around the needs of working clergy wives, and the educational needs of the children of the clergy who no longer go away to boarding school as they usually did in a previous generation. Bishops have gained more mobility for the clergy as parishes have amalgamated, and they can appoint more clergy who do not have the security of Parson's Freehold. This has occurred due to a decline in vocations rather than through episcopal authority. Moves in General Synod to abolish Parson's Freehold will always meet with some opposition because of the potential therein for an increase in the bishops' practical authority.

Bishops in the Church of England have rarely seen their role as one of the exercise of Magisterium, at least not since the seventeenth century. Many bishops have been theologians and, in the days when they were not so encumbered by bureaucratic tasks, produced many learned books during their episcopates. This was certainly so until the 1950's, now few bishops have time to write ?while in office. Yet they have shown little inclination to enforce standards of doctrine upon their clergy. There have been many reasons for this, above all the growing belief in the Church this century that doctrinal standards must have a high degree of flexibility, and that a wide range of theological viewpoints may be legitimately held even if these are sometimes contradictory. From the time of the Oxford Movement the doctrinal divisions within the Church were heightened with the more extreme Anglo Catholics at one end to the Conservative Evangelicals at the other, between them were the Radicals, Liberals, Broad Church and the many who adopted some tenets of a party but not their whole system of belief and who rejected labels. As with ritualism, bishops declined to tell clergy and laity what they should preach and believe. Some bishops themselves, such as Henson, Barnes, Robinson and Jenkins have adopted doctrinal standpoints unacceptable to many of their fellow bishops, yet apart from the odd protest no action has been taken, or indeed could be taken to enforce uniformity. Rather the bishops have rejoiced in an attitude of tolerance and understanding, claiming this to be of the very essence of the Church of England and one of its glories. Certainly it was not regarded as an area for any attempt to exercise episcopal authority.

By the 1980's some bishops, and others, recognised that the Church's lack of a coherent system of doctrine was a positive hindrance to schemes for Church unity. Other denominations, especially the Roman Catholic Church, felt the need to reachagreement on doctrine where possible with the Church of England. It was not very satisfactory to know that agreements could be made only with certain groups within the Church and that other groups would either disagree with these doctrinal statements or reinterpret them in a sense totally alien to the original progenitors of the statements. As with the voting power of the clergy and laity in General Synod, it was felt by some that the liberalizing process was harmful to the best interests of the Church. Yet here it would prove almost impossible to go backwards. After glorifying doctrinal freedom for years, bishops could not enforce doctrinal norms even if they had wished to do so, and many did not.

The problems of episcopal authority in ecumenism have proved immense. The Church has studiously avoided any definition of episcopacy in an attempt to keep all its constituent groups happy with their own interpretations and has not tried to enforce a definition which would be unacceptable to many whatever definition were chosen. The Free Churches have tended to reject demands for episcopal ordination, some form of quasi reordination, or a process for therecognition of their orders, when the Church of England hasoffered no theology of the episcopate for them to accept or reject. They have been pressured to accept episcopacy and to incorporate it within their own doctrinal structure - largely on the grounds of historical continuity, and not a proper theological basis. Until the Church of England is prepared to either produce a full episcopal theology or remove the demand for the unconditional acceptance of episcopacy, unity attempts in this ?direction will be severely hampered.

The lack of episcopal theology also raised problems in discussions with the Roman Catholic Church. The group of theologians participating in ARCIC I reached agreement on various aspects of authority which would have involved the position of bishops in a practicalauthority structure with the Pope at the head, although envisaging a degree of episcopal collegiality in the decision making process. Bishops within their dioceses were clearly seen as having real authority not just influence, embodying papal authority and their own authority. Subsequent discussions showed this model to be alien to many members of the Church of England. It raised many questions :- What would be the role of General Synod? Who would appoint the bishops? Would Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops coexist together? How far would Anglican (or united Church) bishops be expected to enforce papal jurisdiction? These are but a few. The image of a diocesan bishop conveyed in ARCIC I statement on Authority was considerably different from the current Church of England role model and the definitions accepted by a small group of Anglicans, including a few members of the Church of England, were a far cry from the general assent of the Church.

It would be fairly true to say that bishops of the Church of England have not exercised the kind of authority of their Roman Catholic counterparts since the first half of the seventeenth century, and very few of its clergy would be prepared to accept such a role for their bishops. Roman Catholic ecumenists have said2, that they can envisage a future development where there is one bishop for each diocese instead of a Roman Catholic one, a Church of England one, and maybe also a Methodist superintendant. Yet on the basis of the history of episcopal authority in the Church of England in this period it is hard to see what form of episcopal authority such an ecumenical bishop would be able to exercise, especially his relationship with his clergy. The lack of mobility of all the married clergy with families would be one example of the kind of challenge that would face a bishop used to running a Roman Catholic diocese. How such a bishop would deal with lay and institutional patronage is but another. There are very many practical questions on the nature of episcopal authority that would have to be resolved before any form of unity became a reality. Theological statements on the nature of that authority are very much just the first step on the way to making that unity the reality.

Considerable changes would have to take place in both denominations before such unity could be a reality, and the freedom of the Church of England from the remaining constraints of the State must be high on the agenda, as Roman Catholics would never accept a Parliamentary veto in the way General Synod had to accept it even in the 1980's. There would be a need to change the role of General Synod if the ARCIC talks were ever to succeed in initiating a reunion between the Churches. It is clear that in any such reunited Church no veto of the clergy or laity over the bishops would ever be accepted by the Roman Catholic Church.?It would seem likely too that some bishops in the Church of England would welcome an increase in their practical authority in the Church, but how this would be achieved is highly problematic. It is hard to see how the clergy and the laity would accept a consultative role after achieving a degree of power.

The ARCIC documents deal with the discussion between the Roman Catholic Church and the whole Anglican Communion of which the Church of England is only a part. Whereas all other parts of the Anglican Communion are free to make their own decisions on unity, define doctrine, worship and discipline, the Church of England is not in this position and constantly its team of theologians run the risk of agreeing to statements in the area of authority especially which the Church is unable to uphold in practice. Neither the Church of England, nor the Anglican Communion as a whole, has a focal ecclesiastical figure who in any sense corresponds to the Pope. The archbishop of Canterbury's role, while more than just symbolic, does not even correspond to the chief executive because of the constraints of establishment within the Church of England. Archbishops of Canterbury have never held more than an honorary role in the whole history of the Lambeth conferences, and some archbishops, such as Donald Coggan, were at pains to emphasise that this was their only possible function in such a context. While early Lambeth Conferences might have been prepared to grant archbishops of Canterbury a larger role, each section of the Anglican Communion is now too firmly a guardian of its independence to consider this.

The question of how bishops see their own role in the authority structure of the Church is perhaps the most difficult of all. I have had the advantage of speaking to and corresponding with a number of retired diocesan bishops of varying shades of churchmanship, all of whom were bishops prior to 1981, and to some who are currently exercising an episcopal role. Some freely expressed their comments in letters, others preferred to talk directly or by telephone and asked that they should not be quoted by name. Among the questions they were asked was how they saw their role as a bishop corresponding to their Roman Catholic counterpart, who would be generally seen as embodying much more enforceable authority, both in his own right and in virtue of his role in the hierarchy transmitting papal authority.

Not one of them wished to be seen as this kind of authority figure. They expected within their dioceses to exercise influence, to initiate projects, to choose the best men for given tasks when they were able, to be regarded as a friend by their clergy, to advise clergy and laity over various difficulties, occasionally to exercise practical juridical authority in matters of clergy morals or severe alcohol problems but always stressing the rarity of these, to be a presence at functions and to be visible also to the people of their dioceses at ordinations and confirmations, although many of these functions would be carried out by their suffragans in their role as area bishops.

Outside their dioceses some felt they had a duty to attend ?Parliament when possible and believed that their contributions to debates, particularly on moral issues, were of some limited influence, but felt that at least their presence in the House of Lords was a visible sign of Christianity within the State. A few felt that time spent in the Lords was largely wasted and much better spent in their dioceses.

Concerning their role in General Synod again there was lack of agreement. Some regretted the fact that the bishops could not exert more influence there if they felt a motion should be passed against the wishes of clergy or laity. A few felt that the clergy or laity should have the right to a veto as the bishops did not always know what was best for the Church.

In addition to the bishops I referred to a number of clergy of varying shades of churchmanship who were at the end of many years of ministry. Their attitudes to, and impressions of, their former diocesan bishops echoed strongly the bishops' own comments.

These living bishops largely echoed the departed bishops, whose testimony can only be obtained from the written word, in presenting an episcopate that generally was well satisfied with the status quo. A few figures from the past would have liked to exercise more enforceable authority, but it was to be denied to them. On the whole they were well pleased with the limited advances of the Church in self government of the late 1960's and 1970's and saw these freedoms being increased little by little in the future. Ecumenism was generally thought to be desirable but not to be hurried, and only one thought the whole relationship of Church and State should be changed to hasten the possibility.

Since 1981 the question of authority has been much more to the fore, partly because the ARCIC I document on Authority stimulated much discussion, and General Synod has suffered increasing criticism. ARCIC II includes among its brief further discussions on Authority, so episcopal authority is set to be an issue for some years to come.

The question of the ordination of women could precipitate a crisis in the Church of England by splitting it into two clear sections, those for and those against. This in turn could cause complications in the relationship of Church and State and the status of bishops in the Church's authority structure.

The decision which will face General Synod in November 1992 is difficult. The bishops are mostly in favour of the ordination of women, but their voice may well be silenced by the vote of the clergy and laity who are reluctant to divide the Church when there is a very strong opposing faction. This is further complicated by plans already underway for members of Parliament to introduce a bill to the Commons to force the Church of England to accept women as priests even if General Synod votes against the measure. The authority of the bishops risked being undermined by the clergy and laity of General Synod as in the Anglican-Methodist unity debate, or to be further eroded by an attempt in Parliament to force the Church into this action. This can ?legally be done because of the Church's established position, but it would have the effect of forcing Parliamentary authority on the Church, when the will of the majority of the bishops had failed.

A future Labour government could well carry out its long planned restructuring of the House of Lords, if not its abolition, which could again radically change the position of bishops within the establishment. The as yet unexplored relationship of European Law in the field of Church and State might also alter relationships, unless the British government issued a series of disclaimers which might not be popular with our European

The years 1928 to 1981 represent a reluctance for major changes over Church and State, but already under Michael Ramsey and the 1970 Chadwick report on Church and State pressure for significant minor changes were appearing, although these were a far cry from total independence for the Church. With the potential pressures of a desire for ecumenism, the future is full of pregnant possibilities, but it is unlikely that bishops will attempt to exert authority as in the nineteenth century. Their lack of an authority role during this period has rendered impossible such a change. The bishops have come to see their role rather as one of influence rather than one of an authority which is also capable of practical enforcement if necessary. They are presented with many opportunities to exert this kind of authoritative influence on a diocesan, and above all on a national scale, via the press and television. Over many moral issues and some quasi-political issues journalists and interviewers will hasten to approach some bishop who is photogenic and quotable for his opinion and in this way some bishops become widely known by many outside of the Church of England. Often their views, thus expressed, evoke a political response. Yet this is a means of influence which is possessed by individual bishops, and not reflective of the collective authority of the Church of England's episcopate, other members of which may be in disagreement. The effective collective authority, or even influence, of the bench of bishops has been a rare manifestation in this period except for assisting a few Church centred measures through Parliament.

The future of episcopal authority within the Church of England is an area for speculation and really outside the bounds of this thesis. Yet it is possible to say that many of the restrictions which caused difficulties for the bishops, and indeed for the Church as a whole, during this period could have been resolved had the Church had a greater degree of independence from State control, and had a similar position to that of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. Such independence, as well as facilitating the internal functioning of the Church, would also improve the prospects for successful ecumenism where structural unity and a declared unity of belief would be a probable outcome. Attempts to achieve such independence have been made but only in a piecemeal way. There has been no great enthusiasm by bishops, clergy or laity to gain complete freedom for their decision making from the machinery of the State.

The role of General Synod led to unexpected difficulties for the bishops and, even if a review of its functioning led to a more representative House of Laity, these difficulties might still not be resolved. General Synod is already being seen as a complication in ecumenical debate, particularly with the Roman Catholic Church. However the Church of England as a whole, which has become unused to the independent exercise of episcopal authority in the decision making processes, might well be reluctant to give bishops a greater role in General Synod believing that the status quo is in the greater interest of the Church.

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1) Bernard Pawley writing in Lambeth Essays in Ministry, ed. A.M.Ramsey, (1969)

2) Among them Bishop Cormac Murphy O'Connor, co-chairman of ARCIC II