Sermon at Matins on Sunday 26 July

26 July 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence

At the recent meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England a motion was put to reduce the number of Bishops. This was on the grounds that the number of parish priests has been cut due to the financial challenges facing the church and it was being argued that for the cost of one bishop up to four priests could be deployed.

During this month in my sermons at Matins I’ve been looking at the threefold order of ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons retained by the Church of England at the time of the Reformation.

In previous weeks we’ve seen how retaining Episcopal Ordination kept the Anglican Church within the Catholic tradition, distinguishing it from Protestant churches which moved away from this practice in the sixteenth century.

We’ve then looked in some detail at the serving ministry of deacons and at the sacramental ministry of priests, discovering that both these orders of ministry focus the calling of the whole Church to be servants of others and to proclaim God’s love to the world.

Today we move on to look at the ministry of Bishops; asking first, what do Bishops actually do and why are they important? But then moving on to look at the slightly more controversial question of the ordination of women to the Episcopate and what impact that might have on the Church and the world.

First then, what do Bishops do?

For most regular church-goers, the only time they will come across a Bishop is at a confirmation service or, if occasionally they attend an ordination. It isn’t then particularly surprising that a great many people don’t know what bishops are for and believe that the Church could get by perfectly well with fewer of them.

However, Bishops are absolutely vital to the church both from a theological point of view and also a practical one.

At the consecration of a Bishop the Archbishop reminds the assembled gathering of the calling of a Bishop.
As he does so, we hear many things which are common also to the calling of Priests; such as the preaching of God’s word, presiding at the Eucharist, calling people to repentance and pronouncing the forgiveness of sins; and also the calling of Deacons such as serving and caring for people and having special concern for the poor and outcast.

What is distinctive though about the ministry of a Bishop is the call to have oversight of the church and to be the focus of unity. It is in this context that the Bishop alone has the authority to confirm and ordain and the prime responsibility for maintaining discipline and safeguarding doctrine.

When we look back to the New Testament we find that the Greek word for Bishop “Episkopos” is rarely used. The first letter to Timothy outlines the personal qualities of a Bishop and there are other brief references to Bishops in the letter to the Philippians and the letter to Titus.

However, the concept of Episkope or oversight is there much more widely. Jesus commissioned Peter by to be a shepherd and chief pastor to his people; and in the book of the Acts of the Apostles there are several references to elders or chief pastors who exercised a ministry of oversight.

Certainly by the second and third centuries the office of Bishop had developed, with early church theologians such as Cyprian drawing out the importance of each one in his diocese and the necessity of orderly succession in office. By the fourth century the practice of the consecration of a new bishop by other bishops seems to have been universally accepted.

This practice continues in the Church of England today. A new bishop is consecrated by one of the Archbishops accompanied by fellow bishops and they each have jurisdiction in a particular diocese (sometimes assisted by a suffragen or area bishop).

The bishop’s ministry is focussed in the Cathedral ~ the mother church in the diocese, where the bishop has his seat ~ in Latin, his Cathedra.
Priests and deacons ministering in parishes are authorised to do so by the bishop. At the Induction or Licensing of a parish priest the bishop addresses the priest: “Receive this cure of souls which is both yours and mine”.

In other words the priest acts on the authority of the bishop.

In the previous two weeks when I’ve spoken about deacons and priests I have been able to refer to “him” or “her”, but this week as we’ve considered Episcopal ministry I’ve only spoken of “he” and “him”. This is because since 1987 the Church of England has ordained women as deacons (and for almost 100 years before that as deaconesses) and since 1994 has ordained women as priests.

There are now well over 2000 women serving as priests in the Church of England and in 2005 the General Synod voted in favour of beginning the process to allow the consecration of women bishops.

However, as I’m sure many of you are aware the process is proving to be a difficult and lengthy one and one which along with other controversial issues facing the Anglican Communion could cause a serious split in the Church.

There is not time in a short sermon to cover all the arguments for and against women bishops.

However in brief, those strongly against would argue:
• That this goes against 2000 years of tradition in the Church.
• That this is contrary to the teaching of the Bible where women are seen to be under the authority of men.
• That to ordain women as bishops would damage our relationship with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
• That the time is not yet right to make this move; there needs to be a further period of reception of women priests.

While those in favour would say:
• Both men and women are made in the image of God, and therefore the whole ministry of the church needs to reflect this.
• In a society where gender equality has been enshrined in law for more than 25 years, the Church of England is seen as a place of sexism and injustice.
• That women clergy as well as men have the gifts and the breadth of experience to be bishops.
• That the house of bishops needs to reflect the whole of humanity and the presence of women would balance its deliberations and decisions.
• That many other provinces in the Anglican Communion have women bishops and we should learn from their experience.

There are many more people who are in favour of this move than against, but in a Church where we want to care for each other and also where the very essence of episcopacy is about maintaining unity, the Church of England is now struggling to find the right way ahead.
As it does that it needs to hold a number of things in tension:
We have always been a broad church, holding a huge range of traditions together and so if women are to be consecrated as bishops we must find the appropriate way of providing for those who in conscience cannot accept the ministry of a woman.

At the same time we must not create legislation which accommodates those people but then undermines the authority of all the bishops or creates a situation where women bishops are in any way considered second best.

We must also never forget that we are the church for the NATION; here to serve all people. At present the vast majority of the POPULATION find the notion of women being denied the possibility of becoming bishops, completely baffling. 

Finding the right solution is vital to our mission in the world. I believe if we as a Church can find a way with integrity of living with our differences and respecting one another we will have something very precious to share with the world we are called to serve. And that at the end of the day is what matters above all else.

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