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Bishops - a review

This ‘concise study’ published by The Latimer Trust is the concentrate yielded from distilling the same author’s 800-plus page Bishops Past, Present, and Future, published this year by Gilead Books. Recognising that while some will have the inclination to read such a magnum opus, the importance and particular contemporary relevance of the topic merits a much broader ordained and lay readership, Davie has summarised the main findings of his tome on the origins, nature, and role of the episcopate in the first third of this short study. The second third comprises Davie’s snapshot of the cultural milieu in which we find ourselves in the West – both in society and in the Church – in dialogue especially with Carl Trueman and Charles Taylor. The final third consists of a manifesto of sorts for serving bishops in the Church of England today, in light of both the situation described in the previous section and history of the early church.

The first two chapters (‘Why the Church of England should have bishops and what the role and character of bishops should be,’ and ‘”Good-enough” and “not good enough” bishops’) function as the gateway drug to Davie’s massive, detailed study. It certainly worked on this reviewer, who had vainly hoped that the precis provided in the Latimer booklet would save him the labour of 800+ pages, but who had barely reached page 20 before the (in retrospect) inevitable visit to the Amazon website. The claims advanced for episcopacy as apostolic are refreshingly, almost shockingly, strong. Davie comes as close to endorsing the government of the Church by bishops in the apostolic succession as a divinely mandated institution as is possible without quite striking out the bene in the bene esse descriptor that Reformed apologists for episcopacy have customarily employed.

At several junctures, non-Anglican (and maybe some Anglican!) evangelical readers would splutter out their tea: “The first bishops of the Church were the apostles themselves, and the apostles then appointed other bishops to succeed them” (p. 7). “The fundamental reason [why the Church of England should have bishops] is that an episcopal system of church government was introduced by the apostles, who were acting with the authority of God” (p. 13). Because of the brevity of this version of Davie’s findings, the strength of these provocative conclusions seems disproportionate. Davie implicitly recognises that: each of the two sections of the opening chapter ends with an invitation to read the corresponding chapters in the larger tome, “for the detailed evidence for what has been said thus far.” Yes, Martin, I will.

The middle third condenses Carl Trueman’s argument from his 2020 book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, in dialogue with other cultural commentators, and outlines how these observations concerning the state of contemporary Western secular ideology presents a particular challenge to the Church. Though the critique of the societal zeitgeist is broader at first, it comes to focus in particular on matters of gender and sexuality, justifying the traditional Christian ethic biblically and theologically in Davie’s characteristic forthright manner. One would be forgiven for forgetting, while reading this section, that the short book ostensibly concerns bishops. There are a couple of vague gestures about bishops’ responsibility to lead the Church’s response to having now become ‘the bad guys,’ but nothing in the chapter specifically concerns episcopal responsibility and ministry per se.

That focus comes to the fore in the fourth and final chapter, ‘Back to the future: How bishops should meet the challenges of our day.’ Davie expands on his earlier observation that the state of the Church today increasingly resembles that of the early church in order to call on bishops to use their episcopal authority to seek to conform the contemporary Church of England to the subapostolic church in its ‘clear structure of theological authority’ (Scriptures and Creeds), intolerance of heresy, eternal rather than temporal focus, creedal exclusivity, evangelistic vigour and apologetic rigour, care for the needy, and a welcome to all that nonetheless coexisted with robust discipline for misbelief or misbehaviour. Davie pours scorn on the ‘ecclesiologically problematic, unnecessary and irrelevant’ plans for the innovative reordering of episcopal ministry outlined in the leaked +Ely report, A consultation document: Bishops and their ministry fit for a new context; and calls instead for bishops to be confident in teaching who God is and what he has done (curiously and for unexplained reasons defined in the terms of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism of 1529); the reality of judgment, heaven, and hell; and the exclusivity of Christ as the way of salvation. Bishops are likewise to be bold evangelists, refute heresy and discipline clergy, and transform dioceses through appointing godly ministers. In light of the looming end to the LLF process, the bishops’ responsibility is to “affirm orthodox Christian teaching on sexual identity and practice” (p. 80) by commending something like the Nashville Statement (which is included in full), undoing the provision of commended services to mark gender transition, disbarring transgender persons from ordination, and imposing the same moral standards concerning relationships on licensed lay ministers as are currently incumbent on the ordained.

The last few pages of the study, however, deal with the scenario that a proposal for ‘pastoral accommodation’ to permit some sort of blessing of same sex relationships is instead what emerges from the House of Bishops’ current conclave. Davie briefly explores a system of (reciprocal) delegated episcopal oversight that would be necessitated by such a move and dangles the prospect of a third province should there be a proposal to change the canons and liturgy concerning marriage. Both scenarios are ecclesiologically suboptimal (“parallel jurisdictions should ideally not exist” (p. 88)) but may be the least bad option should churches and Christians need to separate from a particular bishop (for which early church history again provides inexact precedent). Given the professed subject of this book, I might have preferred more detail to be given to these possibilities in terms of bishops’ churchly office and holy orders, spiritual and temporal responsibility, authority and jurisdiction should various episcopal-level forms of ‘visible differentiation’ prove necessary.

Because of the focus at several junctures in this book on the current sexuality and gender debates within the Church, this shorter study will inevitably have a shorter shelf life than its fulsome big brother. It is a booklet for bishops, now – and, of course, for those who are praying for them; which should be all of us this autumn and winter in particular.

To buy Martin's concise study click here.
To buy Martin's Bishops, Past, present and future (Gilead 2022) click here 


Tom Woolford is Vicar of New Longton and Tutor in Theology, Emmanuel Theological College



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