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Withering on the Vine?

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 6 Jul 2018

Lee Gatiss looks again at the claim that conservative evangelicals are not to be corralled into corners within the Church of England.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has assured us that the Church of England is “deeply committed” to the flourishing of conservative evangelicals, many of whose churches are growing and planting. In the House of Lords he said, “I say again that the Church of England is deeply committed to the flourishing of all those who are part of its life in the grace of God. It is not our intention that any particular group should wither on the vine.” He spoke of showing “generosity” to “traditionalists.” This claim was repeated recently in the foreword to the Faith & Order Commission’s publication The Five Guiding Principles: A Resource for Study (2018). That report also speaks of “not corralling some within the boundaries of their own parishes or networks, but providing space generously for all to flourish in its common life and in structures shared by all.”

But is it credible to claim that this is what the Church of England is really doing? Intentions do not always lead to actions. What is the actual situation on the ground?

According to the latest figures (see here), since the legislation on women in the episcopate came into force in November 2014, no fewer than 14 women have been appointed as Bishops, 3 as Deans and 20 as Archdeacons. But not a single person who is unable for theological reasons to recognise the priestly or episcopal ministry of women has been appointed as an Archdeacon or Dean. And only 2 suffragan bishops who do not ordain women have been appointed (one of which is evangelical).

The Archbishop of York confesses that “there is currently no diocesan bishop who holds a complementarian view of gender.” If that is true (and not just somewhat inaccurate shorthand), it is a shocking state of affairs, especially since the Faith and Order Commission’s report Men and Women in Marriage (2013) was clear in speaking of “the complementary gifts of men and women” and of “men and women, equally and differently human” (see here).

Contrast the state of conservative evangelical representation in senior appointments with other minority groups. The number of black and “minority ethnic” (BAME) bishops has more than doubled and at least four BAME clergy have been appointed as Archdeacons since 2012. BAME clergy also make up approximately 10% of the participants in the Strategic Leadership Development Programme.

This shows that where there is a will, there is a way. But when it comes to conservative evangelicals in the Church, are there only fine-sounding intentions, without a corresponding will to actually change things in reality?

Does this sound right and good and proper and fair? Or does it appear that certain groups are indeed being left to “wither on the vine”, while their disappearance is prayed for and longed for and worked for? And is it any wonder that many evangelicals increasingly look abroad, to many fine bishops elsewhere in the Anglican Communion (especially within EFAC and GAFCON), for episcopal leadership they can both respect and believe?

It is easy to let good intentions slip, when our minds are on other things. There is a lot going on. So can we call on the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England to return again to their stated willingness to welcome the growing number of conservative evangelicals and their flourishing at all levels of the church, and please put it into effect?

Revd Dr Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society.

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