Bringing the Church of England into the 21st century

The Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Wilby © Ricky Yates

The Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Wilby © Ricky Yates

Yesterday, I realised that the next post that I would write on this blog would be post number three hundred! I went to bed last night, trying to decide what on earth would be the most appropriate topic to tackle for such significant landmark in the life of ‘Ricky Yates – an Anglican in Prague’.

Then this morning came the announcement of the appointment of the first ever female bishop in the Church of England – the Rev’d Elizabeth ‘Libby’ Lane, to be the next Suffragan Bishop of Stockport in the Diocese of Chester. Rather than write about ‘Ricky Yates’ or ‘Prague’, why not write about the other noun in my blog title – ‘Anglican’?

I, along with the vast majority of the clergy and people of the Church of England, are rejoicing that with this appointment, we finally have the reality of gender equality in the Church. It has been a very long time in coming! I’m also extremely pleased that this appointment totally confounded the secular media and the bookies!

The secular media has recently been declaring, with its usual self-belief, that the first female bishop would be appointed to one of the four currently vacant Diocesan sees – Southwell & Nottingham, Gloucester, Newcastle or Oxford. But the reality is that most Diocesan Bishop appointments are made from those who are already Suffragan Bishops in another diocese. Therefore it was always almost certain that the first female episcopal appointment would be to a Suffragan, rather than a Diocesan see. Which is exactly what has happened.

Likewise today, the BBC News website is once more revealing the religious ignorance of those who work for it. The news article announcing the appointment of Rev’d Libby Lane as Suffragan Bishop of Stockport, ends by stating, ‘Churches in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already allow women as bishops, but haven’t appointed one yet’. Firstly, it should be Anglican Churches – the Episcopal Church of Scotland, Yr Eglwys yng Nghymru/ the Church in Wales and the Church of Ireland. But the Church of Ireland, which serves the whole of the island of Ireland, does have a female bishop who was appointed and consecrated in 2013. There is actually a link to another BBC news item about her appointment posted below the article!

I fear that in further reporting of today’s historic appointment, journalists will inevitably find an Anglican priest who wants to be more Roman than the Pope, together with a well below the floorboards Evangelical, each of whom will be saying what a dreadful day this is for the Church. As always, disagreement is deemed to be newsworthy, whilst ignoring the fact that 95% of clergy and laity welcome the Church of England finally arriving in the 21st century. At least so far, I haven’t seen the BBC reporting a sound-bite either from the British Humanist Association or the National Secular Society 🙂

But whilst welcoming and rejoicing that appointment to the Episcopate in the Church of England is now possible for any ordained priest, regardless of gender, thus removing a major obstacle to the mission of the Church, there are two other changes which I would also like to see. One relates to my own diocese, the other to the Church of England as a whole. Unchanged, both currently have negative connotations and hinder mission.

I frequently have to explain to people that the Prague and Brno Anglican congregations that I serve, are actually part of the Church of England. They are two of just over three hundred congregations, scattered across continental Europe, Turkey, Morocco and the parts of the former Soviet Union in Asia. Together they form the Diocese in Europe, or to give the diocese its correct full name, ‘the Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe’. And it is that correct full name that is the problem – having ‘Gibraltar’ in the title.

We have numerous growing congregations serving English-speaking residents living in, and visitors to, the Spanish ‘Costas’, as well as in Madrid and Barcelona. You can imagine the difficulties for them with having ‘Gibraltar’ in our diocesan name. Elsewhere in continental Europe, it just appears as laughable – a relic of British imperialism.

I would strongly defend the right of the citizens of Gibraltar to remain British and self-governing, as is clearly their declared wish. I would also quietly remind the Spanish government whenever they complain, as they do at regular intervals, about the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa 😉 But just because historically, there has been a Cathedral in Gibraltar, it doesn’t always have to be so. As we have rightly decided that both men and women can be ordained, not just men, surely we can change the location of our Diocesan Cathedral and the name of our Diocese.

Today’s announcement of the appointment of the Church of England’s first female bishop, officially came from Downing Street – the Prime Minister making it on behalf of the Queen. This is because of the Church of England still being the official ‘Established Church’ in England, though not in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. Whilst there is now no political involvement in Church of England appointments, this is an anachronism which we do not need.

Being the ‘Established Church’, makes many people believe that we are an instrument of government. Certainly as a result, large sections of the population still believe that the Church of England is funded by the state as the spiritual arm of the Department of Social Security! Being the ‘Established Church’ brings little or no benefit but instead makes our task of mission and of raising the necessary funds to carry out that mission, all the more difficult.

Just because this has been the case, ever since the English Reformation under King Henry VIII, doesn’t mean that it has to remain that way. I respect Queen Elizabeth II for her own strong personal Christian faith and for not being afraid on occasions, to speak about it, as she has in several of her Christmas broadcasts. But if the Church in Wales can be disestablished, as it was in 1920, why not the Church of England in 2015?

The Church of England has properly arrived in the 21st century by today appointing its first female bishop. But it would further help the work of my diocese if we could quietly lose the colonial anachronism of ‘Gibraltar’ from our name and the wider work of the whole Church of England, if it were no longer ‘established’. I even believe that the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society might approve of my last suggestion 😀

18 comments to Bringing the Church of England into the 21st century

  • Such wonderful news. I too am glad the appointment was low-key and unexpected and also that of a very experienced and well-respected parish priest. She and her family will be in my prayers.

    Turning to your other two points, I agree entirely that the position of Gibraltar as the diocesan seat and name is anachronistic and unhelpful. The simple name ‘The Diocese in Europe’ and a cathedral more centrally located would, I’m sure, contribute to forwarding the Church’s mission. As for disestablishment, bring it on. You wouldn’t expect a member of the disestablished Church in Wales to say otherwise. 🙂

    • Ricky

      Wonderful news indeed, Perpetua. Yes – a bishop who has spent several years in parochial ministry, together with chaplaincy experience. My previous Diocesan Bishop had never run a parish 🙁

      We should officially be just ‘The Diocese in Europe’ as far as I’m concerned. It surely wouldn’t take too much to make the pro-Cathedral in Brussels the Diocesan Cathedral. As for disestablishment, remember I was confirmed in the Church in Wales 🙂

  • Mike Bohemia

    Very interesting Ricky, thanks.
    Would the disestablishment of the CoE in England lose the bishops’ seats in the House of Lords? If so, do you think this would be an important loss in the big picture?
    Best wishes,

    • Ricky

      Thanks Mike! To answer your specific questions, disestablishment of the Church of England would lead to the loss of the automatic right of the 25 most senior bishops, to sit in the House of Lords. Personally, I don’t think it would be a great loss. Our bishops could still speak out on social & moral issues as they currently & rightly do, whether or not they are sitting in the House of Lords. There would be nothing to stop some of them being appointed to the House of Lords in their own right. Both retired former Archbishops of Canterbury, George Carey & Rowan Williams, have been appointed to the House of Lords since they lost their automatic right to sit there, as has one of my previous Diocesan Bishops, Richard Harries, when he retired as Bishop of Oxford in 2006.

  • Gordon

    Not at the top of my list; but valid points none the less. Thanks Ricky.

    • Ricky

      I’d be intrigued to know what would be top of your list, Gordon? 🙂

      There is no question that allowing ordained women to be appointed bishops, is a massive and major step forward. But the ‘Gibraltar’ issue was a most interesting topic of conversation at this year’s ICS Chaplains conference. Bishop Robert is noticeably signing himself as ‘+Robert Gibraltar in Europe’, unlike his predecessor who would always sign as ‘+Geoffrey Gibraltar’. And the number of times I have to explain to people that the Church of England is NOT funded by the UK government!

      • Ricky

        Thank you for answering my question, Gordon. I’d like that too but sadly, I cannot see it happening in the immediate future 🙁

  • The last point reminds me of a discussion somewhere online that was oh so typical in its level of pre-emptively disappointed expectation and complete lack of actual knowledge of the matter.

    1) Claim churches take lots of money and do nothing; while e.g. when you look at work done during various disasters, church charities are usually the first to respond and were among the first established here when they could be after the fall of communism;

    2) When this discrepancy is pointed out, claim that of course they would be the first to jump at the occasion of state funding and claim that all churches do is huge annoying medialised collections that don’t do anything;

    3) When told that church members actually usually regularly support various causes without ever talking about it (why should they) and usually learn in their congregations to care about public life and apply it in their places of residence – fail to come up with a response.

    It’s funny how non-believers have these huge expectations for churches to “do something” and at the same time fail to grasp that churches are *people* who do things. In a normal people way, just often more conscientiously. Pay taxes, candidate into the local government, fill a post that needs filling. 🙂

    P.S. Basically, expecting miracles and accusing us for believing in them. 😉

    • Ricky

      Thank you for both your comments Hana, which you’ll see I’ve combined into one so I only need to write one reply!

      The online discussion that you describe here taking place in the Czech Republic, could easily happen in the UK with very little change of emphasis or vocabulary. Non-believers are experts at telling the Churches what they ought to do & in believing that Churches have an endless supply of money. Your PS sums things up brilliantly 😉

  • Sean Mccann

    Congratulations to you Ricky and your fellow members of the C of E on the appointment of its first woman bishop, may her service be long, happy and of great assistance and benefit to all her colleagues and flock. Would that many other organisations, (not solely churches or religious groups), take the step of treating all human beings as equals. Your comments regarding the title of your Diocese and on disestablishment are very interesting and I believe you are absolutely correct in all you say, removing the appearance of state-sponsorship can only be a good thing for both parties. On the subject of disestablishment and the Church of Ireland it may interest you to know that the actual table on which the Act of Disestablishment was signed in Westminster by W. E. Gladstone in 1869 is preserved in The See House, the residence of the Archbishop of Dublin.

    • Sean Mccann

      Sorry, I forgot to say this is an excellent subject for your 300th post, well done and continued success.

    • Ricky

      Thank you for the congratulations, Sean. I concur entirely with your desire that ‘other organisations take the step of treating all human beings as equals’. I am just saddened that it has taken the Church of England so long to do so.

      Thank you too, for your support regarding the title of my diocese and regarding disestablishment. However, the historic facts conveyed in the last part of your comment are something I was unaware of.

  • Fergus

    Interesting piece Ricky, it is great news about the new Bishop of Stockport, and I too was glad to see the secular media stumped! I’m afraid I don’t quite take your line on Establishment though, I’m seeing it as invaluable in setting up pastoral conversations on a parish level, purely because people know the C of E is ‘their’ church. That would be very difficult if we were disestablished. On another level, when government and opposition are basically the same the Church provides a useful dissenting voice- a on poverty legislation in this parliament. Equally it shows the valued place of faith in our society- the best arguments for it tend to come from Jewish and Muslim sources!

    I don’t think it’s a numbers question, as the Church in Wales eg demonstrates, it’s about the wider good that can be done in public life- whether we want to be doing something unique and special in presenting the gospel to the people of England or whether we just want to be another nondescript voice in a secular world.

    • Ricky

      Thank you Fergus, especially for transferring to here what you originally wrote on Facebook. Sorry for the previous technical difficulties.

      As I wrote previously in reply to you on Facebook, ‘I knew we would be of one mind regarding yesterday’s appointment. I share your joy at the secular media being stumped! I do not think we would lose out on ‘pastoral conversations on a parish level’ if disestablishment were to take place. I would again cite the Welsh experience. It was the non-conformists who pressed for disestablishment west of Offa’s Dyke but it is they who have lost far greater numbers since, than the Church in Wales.

      I certainly don’t want to be ‘another nondescript voice in a secular world’, as you put it. And I fail to see how disestablishment would make us that. What it would do is clearly show that we are not part of the government, nor funded by them. And if that were made clear I believe it would help in presenting the Christian Gospel to the people of England. Perhaps on this point Fergus, we need to agree to disagree 🙂

  • Gordon

    Equity, in and for the Diocese (of Gibraltar) in Europe, with every other
    CofE Diocese. Primarily; a full time priest in every church paid directly
    by the Diocese, and the same `means-tested` Diocesan levy paid by every
    church. And that`s only No.1 on a list.

  • Em

    Thank you for bringing attention to the new female bishop, and for being so progressive and supportive of equity, Ricky! I am far-removed from the other issues you bring up, but they’re interesting to read about.

    • Ricky

      I have always been a very strong supporter of the ordination of women, Em. As I wrote, I rejoice that the Church of England has finally arrived at a situation where a person’s gender is no longer an impediment to any appointment within the Church. I’ve always valued the ministry of ordained female colleagues with whom I worked in England, one of whom conducted my marriage to Sybille in October 2005.