We rejoice that as a result of the consecration of Bishop Libby Lane the Church of England is living in a new era. We therefore recognise that these are early days in finding expression of the five guiding principles in practices that reflect the highest possible degree of communion. Decisions made now will inevitably come under scrutiny. As actions are tested within the community of the Church, we will all be reflecting upon them, and on the shape of mature practices that will in due course emerge to express wide communion and enable mutual flourishing. It will not be easy to do this well, but WATCH is committed to making a constructive contribution to this process from the perspective of its own core principles. For the moment that involves asking sharp questions about this particular consecration, and asking that reflection be done on those questions in a way which engages the wider church as well as those immediately involved.
We recognize that the Archbishop has had very difficult decisions to make about the arrangements for the consecration of the Bishop of Burnley, and we know that he will have thought and prayed deeply about those decisions. This is the first significant test in practice of the Five Principles contained in the House of Bishops’ Declaration, and is therefore highly significant.
Given all of this, we would value an explanation of how the Archbishop reached his decision to be present but not to consecrate. We acknowledge that this is based in a wish to offer Christian generosity towards the dissenting minority. However, we are concerned about the theological and ecclesiological implications of this decision and its impact on the unity of the Church of England. Consecrations are public moments, of great significance, and the actions that take place within those rites, as with all Anglican rites, declare our belief as a Church, as much as any written documents. The visual symbol of a divided House of Bishops is a very powerful one, given how hard we have all worked to stay together in one church.
The Five Principles are the basis from which good practice needs to be worked out. In many cases it will not be straightforward to know how best to enable mutual flourishing within the highest degree of communion possible. Our hope is that when decisions are made which purport to aid the flourishing of all they will be carefully tested in terms of the perceptions they will create and their consequences, including the pain and offence they may cause. In our view, male bishops and archbishops will need to exercise particular diligence in this respect, as their common practice is so rooted in a previous male-only era. This will require significant efforts to hear the disparate views of all those most affected, and to help them listen to each other and work out a solution that all can assent to. It would be good to know that such collective wrestling underpins this decision.
What might the Archbishop’s decision to refrain from consecrating a bishop indicate? At the least, it appears to be a tacit endorsement of the rationale that his active laying on of hands would not be welcome by the candidate or a particular constituency that he represents. Given that, we believe it would be very helpful for the House of Bishops to invite the Faith and Order Commission to examine and explore this rationale and the theology underpinning it. That might help those who are perplexed to comprehend it, and therefore be more able to honour the faithfulness of its adherents.
Our greatest sadness is that the word ‘taint’ is in the atmosphere again. However much dissenters refute this as a basis for their beliefs, it is very hard to overcome the perception that because the Archbishop has consecrated a female bishop, he is now unacceptable as a consecrator of a dissenting bishop. This concept causes such deep damage to all of us but it cannot be avoided in these circumstances. We all know the message this conveys to members of the Church and wider society about how women are perceived.
All these issues have particular resonance in this case, as the Bishop of Burnley is a bishop for the whole church, not a PEV. We are concerned that he should be affirmed and upheld through his consecration as a bishop for the people of Blackburn Diocese, not as a bishop whose ministry will be directed solely towards the dissenting minority. He will share the cure of souls across Blackburn Diocese with female and male priests, and will minister across all parishes.
We are very aware of the individuals involved in this case who may find themselves in a spotlight that is unwelcome and unexpected. We pray particularly for them, and for grace and strength to live and speak faithfully in such demanding circumstances.
Hilary Cotton, Chair