The new Bishop of London – some Concerns

On the face of it the appointment of Sarah Mullally as Bishop of London is excellent news for most of us. She is, first of all, a woman, and this bodes well for the participation of other women in the future within the Church. In second place, from the perspective of this blog, she is someone who has insight into the issues of power abuse in the church. She was asked by Archbishop Welby to oversee the implementation of the Elliott report which came out 18 months ago. The basic thrust of the Elliott report was to push for all Anglican dioceses to adopt a common safeguarding practice. How much has actually been done in fact to change the practice of Anglican Dioceses and their Bishops is unclear. The recent Carlile report does not give us an enormous amount of confidence that Bishops and their advisers always understand problems of implementing good safeguarding practice. Janet Fife’s contribution to the previous blog suggests that there is still considerable ignorance among those appointed to safeguarding posts about the history of abuse issues in the church.

Alongside our congratulations and delight in this appointment there are some concerns. The Diocese of London is well-known as the centre for a variety of fundamentalisms, both the high church and the evangelical varieties. I was remembering last night a joke connected with fundamentalism. The question is asked. What is the difference between terrorist and a fundamentalist? The answer is that a terrorist may be willing to negotiate. Whether I remember the joke accurately or not, this version makes a point quite well. There are in the Church many people for whom changing their minds or their grasp on facts is completely impossible. In some situations when dealing with fundamentalists, there is the sense that one is facing an immovable object and an irresistible force at the same time!

When I was last a vicar in an English parish there was a group in the church who had learnt the faith in such conservative places as St Helens Bishopsgate in London and St Aldate’s in Oxford. The common feature of this group of conservative parishioners was that they never changed their minds about anything. Nor were they prepared to learn anything new, at least not from me, an Oxford educated liberal. Truth for them was fixed and unchangeable, a version of which they had learned decades before. It is a style of Christianity which I found very off-putting. I cannot imagine that, for all their talk of evangelism, they were able to draw any new people into this way of thinking. There was something barren, dry and totally unattractive about this style of message. In some ways the Diocese of London is like my old parish in Gloucestershire. Of course, the scale is massively different. Considerable numbers of Christians in London nevertheless hold conservative views on issues like the ordination of women and sexuality. For many of these Christians the test of one’s orthodoxy and thus salvation is whether you hold correct opinions on these issues

We have pondered many times on this blog about how and why the issues around sexuality have become so important in the minds of many conservative Christians. Such Christians will make life fairly difficult for a bishop who is both liberal and tolerant of the same sex community, even while she does not promote formal marriage for them.

The placing of Bishop Mullally into a profoundly conservative diocese is a high-risk strategy. She may have many qualities both personal and professional. But there is however, no doubt that she will face enormous pressures from a large body of Christians who think that anyone who does not agree with them must be shut out. Has she the stamina to put up with such relentless opposition?

A few years ago there was a television programme about St Paul’s Cathedral when Lucy Winkett was first appointed to be a Canon Residentary. Who can forget the way the television cameras showed us rows and rows of empty seats in the Cathedral which had been reserved for Diocesan clergy? It was said that a full 50 % of the clergy in the Diocese signalled their disapproval by simply not turning up. This kind of intransigence is still alive and well in the diocese as far as I know. Bishop Chartres has preserved a level of peace by refusing to ordain women. He has worked with them but delegated their actual ordination to his suffragan bishops. This was never a satisfactory solution. By not resolving this and other anomalies in the diocese the somewhat provocative appointment of a woman is even more of a shock in this profoundly reactionary institution. It remains to be seen how things will pan out.

Bishop Mullally is only 55 and she may be in post for another 15 years. She needs a great deal of prayer to stand up against strong reactionary forces which seem so thickly concentrated in our nation’s capital. She also needs our prayers to further her work of safeguarding. She is still needed to challenge the power structures Gilo has identified which work against openness and justice. Let us hope that she can hang on in there, buoyed up by the thought that her presence in London is an important symbol for the whole church. As a woman in an institution which has been a bastion for patriarchy and male privilege for so long as well standing up for survivors, she is helping us all. It matters a great deal that Bishop Sarah will have the grace and the strength to persevere and defeat all the obstacles that no doubt will be put in her way.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

16 thoughts on “The new Bishop of London – some Concerns

  1. Is London a profoundly conservative diocese? I could name several parishes at the liberal end of the spectrum. Back in the 80s Malcolm Johnson , hardly reactionary in his views, regularly topped the polls for the Proctors in Convocation. London has more of everything – more conservative evangelicals and more Anglo- catholics and more liberals.

  2. Thanks Stephen. Bishop Sarah’s move is a loss for us here in Devon, but a gain nationally and we wish her the very best.

    The preserving peace by avoiding the issues reminds me of what happened in our parish over women priests in the 90s. We made no progress at all for fifteen years and debate was shut down. But then in our case people had in the meantime moved on, opposition melted largely away, and we were able to accept first a woman training curate, then a woman incumbent. I hope the time’s now right to encourage the women clergy in London and see who such an excellent woman bishop can win over.

    We have a few people in our church who have arrived with the fixed views you describe, and it can be trying. But logically enough, though you or I might find that unattractive, some people do find such certainty appealing, otherwise those people with fixed views would not have come to be the way they are in the first place. So they may well go on to find like minds to indoctrinate…

  3. NB My understanding is that Bishop Richard Chartres did NOT refrain from ordaining women – he ordained deacons, but refrained from ordaining priests, irrespective of gender, in order not to identify with either position on the priesting of women.

  4. I’m a bit disappointed that the Bishop who was supposed to help sort out at least some questions on abuse within the church has been removed from their post. A new bishop is going to take time to get to where +Sarah has got to before any further progress can be made.

    1. Thank you EA and reciprocal greetings to you and your family! Happy Christmas and a peaceful and healing 2018 and thanks, also, to all those of you who regularly read and support Stephen’s writing and researches here in this blog.

      1. Hi, Frances! And thanks. I think Stephen is doing important work. Pity the numbers are small, but it helps form and inform my thinking anyway!

  5. When I was ordained, it was suggested that the word ‘ordination’ only properly applied to priesting. The word used for our ‘deaconing’ was ‘make’. I had hoped that my comments over Bishop Chartres were technically correct!

    1. The BCP does indeed refer to the Making of Deacons, the Ordination of Priests, and the Consecration of Bishops. Common Worship uses ‘ordination’ for all three Orders. ‘Consecrations’ is certainly still alive and kicking with regard to the episcopate, but the ‘Making’ of deacons has, as far as I am aware, been assigned to the archaicisms file.

    2. I think you’re out of date! The new ordinal has the same words for the Deacon more or less. In fact, Readers take the same vows too, for what it’s worth!

    3. A Happy New Year Stephen – would I be opening a can of worms by saying priests are never mentioned in the New Testament (whether made, ordained, created or whatever) after the one Great High Priest who made the one offering for ever (so the writer of Hebrews). Presbuteroi and Episcopoi, yes, but a new order of priests? No, not a New Testament introduction, an ecclesiastical regression.

      1. I take the point about priests not being mentioned in the bible. In fairness to myself I was simply following the order that Anglicans have adopted following Catholic practice. The question whether it is biblical is another matter. I am a great fan of Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) who also only knows bishops and a mysterious group which is translated presbyterate. This is a kind of group leadership. The ‘priest’ idea only gradually comes in the late 2nd when eucharistic theology in following the Old Testament typology demanded ‘priests’ to offer a sacrifice, which the eucharist had become. It is a big subject. The issue I raised with Keith is that the pre-Common Worship pattern had a difference in the words used for ‘ordination’ for deacons and priests. Having been ordained a la 1662, I was not up to speed with the changes in CW. Sadly I have not attended an ordination since my own in 1970!

        1. Yes this belongs in a different place. My mischievous bone couldn’t resist but seriously presbuteroi and episcopoi are used interchangeably in the New Testament as indeed do such early authorities as Irenaeus and Clement.
          The idea of sacerdotal priests who offer a “sacrifice” that none other can offer belongs to a regression to power management within the Church – an area you have done good work on. Anyway, every blessing in the New Year.

  6. I found it hard to get past your second sentence Stephen. What the so-called church in the UK needs is to follow Jesus first and foremost, in bringing good news, working the miracles, obeying Jesus commands to the twelve. Who leads it is quite a long way down the list in my view.
    I think we ignore Jesus so much that what we call church is not really a church at all.
    Happy Christimas to you all.

    1. Hans Kung, I think it was. He wrote a book called “Why Priests?”. The conclusion he came to, and I paraphrase, is that it’s natural for large groups of human beings to have leaders. Yuval Noah Harari in his book, “Sapiens” says that collegiate working operates up to about 25, and above 100 rigid structures set in. I’m paraphrasing and going from memory here. So, I think we can give ourselves permission to have a leadership structure. We are chimpanzees, basically. But we are thinking animals, and we should be able to devise leadership structures that do not abuse those who are not the leaders.

      1. No problem with leadership English Athena, but Priesthood, that is a different matter, it is about offering sacrifices. Old Testament priesthood dies with Christ who makes the one perfect and once for all sacrifice. No-one in the New Testament would ever dream of speaking about let alone seeking to institute a new priesthood. The Eucharist is a remembrance of a sacrifice not another one – no batteries (priests) required.

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