Reform and the Bishop of Maidstone

Feelings are funny old things, they can be either the best of guides, or the worst of guides.

That is why when we critique situations, or make decisions, it is sometimes sensible to rely on instinct and intuition, whilst at other times drawing on wider data to check our wilder impulses.

Such data might include the wise counsel of others and, tradition. We need to ‘test the Spirits;’ to exercise discernment.

I suppose we also need to exercise a degree of humility, acknowledging that just because our initial reaction is to approve, or disapprove of a situation. doesn’t necessarily mean that we have read the situation correctly, or that we are right.

One of the problems that we face in this ‘instant world,’ is the requirement for decisiveness, and decisiveness can be the enemy of journey, prayer and discernment. And yet we like our leaders to be decisive.

Meandering, reflecting, vacillating and the changing of mind are regarded as signs of weakness.

Yes, if ‘leaders’ never get to some form of settled conclusion they are weaknesses, but surely we shouldn’t discount the potential harvest to be reaped following a prolonged period of theological struggle? Maybe, we should all go back and read St. Augustine’s Confessions?

I have found myself in a state of hyper vacillation over the Bishop of Maidstone. At first, I disliked the idea intensely. As someone who profoundly disagrees with much of the theology espoused by the Reform Group you could say, with full legitimacy, that I am bound to feel uncomfortable with a so-called ‘headship Bishop.’

I remain concerned that mandate drift will be allowed to follow his consecration and, that the ‘headship bishop,’ will also become a magnet for those who feel disaffected by any decisions that the Church of England may come to regarding the offering of rites for same-sex couples.

But increasingly I have found myself becoming more comfortable with the ‘headship bishop.’ To be sure, I still struggle to regard him as an episcopal equal in relation to Diocesan and Area, or Suffragan, Bishops.

And, I still don’t understand why he needs to be given a see; after all precedent exists to create bishops that are representatives of a bishop of archbishop; ‘mitred bishops,’ (abbots of religious communities) and, the Chaplain General to the British Army for instance.

But, maybe my feelings that he shouldn’t be given a see,and my failure to regard him as a  fully fledged bishop are a little bit petty? (In reality I know they are!)

My increasing level of comfort is lodged in the acknowledgement that the Church of England needs to find new structures if it is to maintain any form of unity. Since, the announcement that the See of Maidstone was to be offered to Rod Thomas, the Church has lost control of the agenda in relation to discussions on human sexuality:

Nation states and ‘episcopal churches,’ have paid scant regard to the Church of England’s preferred timetable. The idea that the structured conversations will be the catalyst for a new reality where ‘good disagreement’ is held within one unified structure now feels far-fetched.  For me this means that without alternative forms of episcopacy an already irrevocably divided church will become a decimated church.

If I could ask one thing of our ‘leaders’ it would be to formally acknowledge that the Church of England and the Anglican Communion is already irrevocably divided on this issue so that we can focus on the reality of the situation rather than seeking to maintain a false unity at all costs.

Leadership is after all vested in reality. Great leaders take things as they are without fudge, pretence and, obfuscation. We should hope and pray for a different and better future, after all each and every day we say ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven,’ whilst – hence our disagreements – having very different views of what the kingdom looks and feels like, but illusion and delusion, are the antithesis of hope.

It maybe that some – perhaps especially in the Communion – feel that they have to ‘go in peace, according to thy word.’ Far better to acknowledge this than to keep pretending that unity is a big enough bucket to hold all of our various disagreements? Putting off the inevitable may make us feel temporarily better, but it often makes the day of reckoning far,far, more painful.

Of course, deciding who goes and who stays isn’t going to be without its problems. But, one of leaderships concerns is problem solving.

So, despite my instincts and discomfort (feelings) I am beginning to think that the headship bishop’s mandate should be broadened (deliberately, not by stealth) to include those who simply can not agree to any movement in the direction of offering liturgical rites of passage to same-sex couples. Of course, there are priests and churches who would want to affirm gender equality whilst holding to the historic position viz and viz sexual union. They are in the most difficult of situations and might have to make some uncomfortable choices, if the Church of England modifies its current stance.

On the other hand, if we grasp the nettle and deal with reality as it is, then perhaps the Church, guided by the Spirit, might be able to establish  a ‘new thing,’ or at least new ways of structuring ourselves as an established Church. If we don’t change and adapt we may find that decisions are taken out of our hands, by parliament! I think that this is a very real and present threat. Once again we need to accept that we are not in control of the agenda.

I don’t know whether the See of Maidstone has longevity or, whether its creation simply buys time for the Church of England to come to a longer term settlement.

If you asked me to speculate I would guess that the see will go the same way as Maidstone United Football Club and Maidstone Rugby Club both of who for a short period of time in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s entered the upper echelons of their respective sports, before disappearing into lower league anonymity, and that’s my hope, because I really don’t agree, or even like, the theology that the see exists to serve.

But, maybe I will keep on vacillating and change my mind, again!

Or, perhaps once again my feelings are a bit too petty (or even unnecessarily combative).

But of this I am convinced: we need leaders who can wrestle with their own convictions, in public; modern-day Augustine’s. 

We need leaders who will engage with reality as it presents. Now is the time to grasp the nettle. 

In the absence of a single unified vision problem solving and flexibility are two of the core characteristics most needed in our ‘senior leadership team,’ without these we will fail.

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