Friday, 5 December 2014

Headship and Holiness: 'It's a Trap!' or 'Why the Bishop of Maidstone might be particularly bad news for Conservative Evangelicals'

There’s an old joke, worn thin from use, that goes something like this:

A woman dies and goes to heaven. As part of the ‘orientation progamme’ she’s taken on a tour of heaven. She is, as the Americans say, ‘shown a time’. Finally, she’s taken past a large enclosure. From within issue sounds of rejoicing, praise and excitement. Wanting to take a closer look, the woman looks for an entrance. None is to be found. In frustration she asks her guide, ‘What’s that?’ To which the angel replies, ‘Oh, that’s the Baptists* - they think they’re the only ones here.’

*add denomination as appropriate. Apologies to Baptist friends!

This rubbish joke occurred to me when I read yesterday’s news that the vacant See of Maidstone was going to be filled with a conservative evangelical bishop.

This bishop will be consecrated to serve those parishes that cannot accept ‘the headship’ of women. He will be serve the pastoral needs of people who fundamentally object to women being in positions of authority and leadership over men.

For anyone who needs bringing up to speed, this situation has emerged as a result of negotiations that allowed the legislation for women to be bishops in the Church of England to pass through.

Unsurprisingly this announcement has generated a fair amount of exasperation and gentle mockery on the web. Kelvin Holdsworth - who blogs as Thurible - has listed ten questions which are raised by this announcement. It is well worth a read and captures the concerns of some people on what might be called the liberal wing of the church. Others have raised titters by suggesting that this is a bishop for people who don’t really believe in bishops, but if they have to have them they’d better be bloke bishops. 

There are serious questions raised by this announcement, of course, not least about how much this development signals the levels of fissiparousness within the church. It is an icon of our tribalism. It may have been the price of having women as bishops, but it is still an uncomfortable icon.

Personally, I’ve tried to be alert to the ‘tone’ and ‘timing’ of this announcement. If this announcement was to be expected it does feel rather deflating. Why? Well, it comes reasonably swiftly after the Archbishop of Canterbury sought to prevent acclamations of gladness at Synod when the women as bishops legislation finally went through. That situation felt like, ‘Please don’t be publicly thrilled about this thing almost all of us are really thrilled about.’ Many were left feeling that our songs of gladness (songs shared by most in the church) were to be kept in the silence of our hearts. Now those muted scenes have been swiftly followed by a development that can hardly thrill most in the church.

Equally, given that this announcement has happened before the appointment of any women as bishops just feels uncomfortable. To (awkwardly) borrow a form of language I believe is popular among ‘the yout’’: ‘All the feels are wrong.’

My instinct is to say that having a 'headship bishop'  (that always sounds embarrassingly close to 'headshop bishop' to me) is bad news for the church. It creates the prospect of C of E bishops who are not in ‘full communion’ with other C of E bishops.

However, ironically, I think this announcement is probably really bad news for those conservative evangelicals tempted to ask for the Bishop of Maidstone’s oversight. I think it’s a poisoned chalice that Conservative Evangelicals should weigh up carefully before drinking from. I certainly think it’s not a hugely thrilling job opportunity for any chap called to serve in the post.

For to ask for Maidstone’s oversight is to step into an enclosure. It is an enclosure that I suspect might feel safe, honoured, hey, even holy. But – and I’m going with my Columbo-ish instinct here – I think it might be a trap.

The most dangerous prisons we have are the ones we create for ourselves. That we long for. That we say, ‘If only I have things this way I will know true freedom, I will be myself.’ And along come others who help us to make that box for us to live in.

I sense that Maidstone might be a classic example of ‘Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it'. It offers an enclosure in which Conservative Evangelicals can get on with things, yes, but which will look odd to the rest of us - for we will probably be left feeling, 'Oh, so they'd rather play over there on their own, than muddle through with the rest of us'. Sadly, we might then end up not taking 'them' seriously any more. It runs the risk of becoming a kind of marginalia, by choice. And that, I suspect, is precisely what evangelicals – as people very keen to speak into wider public life in order to communicate the Gospel – would find horrifying.

I know I am not the kind of Christian who could fit the Conservative Evangelical world-view. So what do I know? But I know how my sometimes overly determined pictures of what the church should look like or what the Gospel is, would, if granted, offer new forms of spiritual prisons for me and others. I like all Christians need community to be called to account. And, hard though it can be, I like being challenged by my sisters and brothers. But why take mark of those who choose a holy enclosure for themselves?

It will remain to be seen how the newly shaped see will cash out. I sense God is always seeking to call us out of our spiritual prisons, so that we are more exposed to the Other and to difference and the terror of God’s beauty. On that account, the see of Maidstone risks not being an answer, but a trap.


  1. I agree. I also don't understand what you'd want the oversight of the headship bishop *for*. It seems to me you'd either need one all the time (so he'd have to act as your bishop full-time and liaise very closely with your 'other' dioscescan about money, mission plans for the diocese, etc etc so you never appear to be following the leadership of your dioscesan) or you don't need one at all. It's not - again, as far as I can see - like those who want alternative oversight to protect the validity of various sacraments, where the bishop in question only needs to turn up for those sacraments.

  2. Thank you for this. Partly in reply to Sheenagh, I'm not sure this is really about wanting a bishop "for" certain things (the way traditional Catholics do). I think it's about ensuring that particular theological perspectives are demonstrated to be within the spectrum of Anglican teaching, because they are held by people (men) who are within the College of Bishops. The office of bishop is understood as primarily a teaching office.

    Of course, what those who seek this oversight will want a bishop for is ordination, when either there is a woman in post, or else a bishop whose views on other controversial matters are deemed incompatible with headship teaching.

  3. SeekTruthFromFacts7 December 2014 at 01:42

    "The most dangerous prisons we have are the ones we create for ourselves. That we long for. That we say, ‘If only I have things this way I will know true freedom, I will be myself.’"

    As a conservative evangelical (although obviously we're a varied bunch and others will hold different views) I'm grateful for Ms Mann's concern for us, even over an announcement that causes discomfort.

    But one thought that occurred to me when I read the quoted paragraph: perhaps liberalism is in greater danger than evangelicalism of the trap you describe. In the paragraph quoted, "we" means something like "every person". But what if we substitute "our society" or "people of our age"? How can we be sure that we are not busy building a spiritual prison with other people who may look different but think just the same? So I welcome your call that we listen to difference and to the Other.

    One way, of course, is to expose ourselves others (primarily but not only Christians) from other times and places, by reading (church) history, listening to (edifying) conversations in newspapers and blogs from other parts of the globe, etc.

    But the best way is to listen to God's Word, which always speaks into our culture like a two-edged sword which can set the captives free from our bonds. Not only listening to him to decipher the riddles of sources, discourses, and hermenetics but to submit to God so that he changes us. The transcendance of God means that he is not less than the most profoundly Other (even though in Christ he has broken down the boundaries and hatred that our sin-soaked generation now associates with that concept). If the Bishop of Maidstone does his job right and teaches God's Word to those under his care, there should be no possibility of retreating into an enclosure.

    1. "So I welcome your call that we listen to difference and to the Other ... But the best way is to listen to God's Word"

      Without wanting to put words in Rachel's "mouth", I daresay she believes "headship"-type Anglicans do less well at listening "to difference and to the Other" than she does. And at the same time, w/o putting words in your "mouth", STFF, I suspect you believe Rachel and other other liberals don't "listen to God's Word" (much less "submit to God so that he changes us"!) to the extent you do.

      And that everyone reading the (respective) suspicion/implication about "Me and My Kind" reacts "NUH-UH! I'm not like that AT ALL!"

      To see ourselves as others see us: ALWAYS a sticky wicket (said the Ignorant Yank!).

  4. It will be interesting to see how many parishes actually do end up requesting male oversight (as opposed to how many clergy want to).
    It has mainly been male headship clergy that have had a problem with reporting to women, rather than their congregations/PCCs, hence so few Resolutions were passed. Male headship clergy did not bring Resolutions, esp C, to their PCCs perhaps because they knew in their hearts that their congregations did not share their convictions. So now, in the new landscape, how many will actually be able to get the support of their PCCs for such a request? I imagine very few of the large conservative evangelical parishes will achieve this, because of the outcry that would come from the younger part of their congregations.

  5. It is a very bizarre set up. A bishop not in communion with other bishops. A reserved seat for political representation when there are no reserved seats to represent the views of others, LGBTQ supporters, etc. A "headship" bishop when the vast majority of dioceses overwhelming voted in support of WB's.

    It certainly institutionalizes misogyny, which undermines the spirit of all those votes for WB's. It's dreadful for women clergy who have to work with him and it is a terrible message for girls and boys alike. Jesus broke taboos to heal, teach, and hang with women. And male and female were made in God's Image. God is not a HIM.

    It's an odd state of affairs.

  6. We have had women bishops in Canada for the past 20 or so years. But some parishes in our diocese do not accept our bishop for confirmation because he ordains people in same-sex civil unions. The diocese strongly supports the bishop doing this. Instead we bring another diocesan bishop more in keeping with the parish's conservative style to replace our bishop when needed. The invitation is made by our bishop in consultation with the parish priest.

  7. This Maidstone stratagem is formalising difference and disagreement into Division. I cannot but grieve.

    Surely the best option for male headship purists is to join the Orthodox or the RCC?

  8. It seems somewhat ironical that, just as the institutionalized schism of the Resolutions comes to an end, another one is set up....

  9. From the moment the 'headship bishop' was proposed I've felt very worried about the idea, for all the reasons given above concerning institutionalising a schism, the distrust of each other's ministry, and many others. But reading the point about it being a trap it suddenly makes me wonder: perhaps it's an intentional trap, in a way. Could it be, that by giving con-evo's what they apparently want, they may soon come to see that it's not the best way of doing things after all?

    A bit like those parishes who split themselves down the middle when half joined the ordinariate - and then those who went eventually (or quite quickly in some cases) realised it wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and crept back in to the fold they'd dismissed.

    Maybe we'll just need one or two Bishops of Maidstone, for it to become obvious that we don't need one at all. A bit like the flying bishop in the Church in Wales.

  10. One good thing is that by signing up for this oversight, those clergy who have been actively hiding their male headship affiliations & activities from their congregations might then be revealed to their own parishes, the poor prayers & payers. These poor trusting flocks usually have no idea what ideas are held, & activities are carried out at the parish's expense, by those they have trusted to lead them with integrity.

  11. See Reform's latest news on Libby Lane appointment.
    Yet again Reform clergy claim that they have the biggest churches.
    Yet they are not honest with their congregations about their male headship views & activities. For evidence of this, check the websites of these 'Reform-linked' churches: almost always there is no mention of the male headship agenda and activities of the leaders, let alone a Resolution.
    So how could a member of the congregation know that their clergy were anti women leaders, involved in Reform, or even what Reform is and does?
    If the congregation did come to know of this, a significant proportion would move to other evangelical churches which don't exclude women.
    Then the Reform churches would not be so big.
    Ergo the clergy actively keep this knowledge from them.

  12. The real issue underlying this whole debate is the fact that such a large proportion of the C.o.E. don't accept scripture as Gods' word, don't obey its' precepts and don't want to either as it conflicts with their desire to please themselves.The feminist lobby has a lot to answer for. Ms MAN btw is not in any position to comment on Gods' will, being in deliberate defiance of the Bibles teaching with her/his lifestyle choices. I speak as a woman.

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