Episcopal oversight is crucial in Church of England

It is dangerous to hand power, instead, to deaneries, argues Thomas Carpenter in the Church Times

Episcopal oversight is crucial in Church of England

A. J. P. TAYLOR began his English History 1914-1945 with the assertion that “Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman.”

Until recently, a sensible, law-abiding parish priest could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the deanery. In some dioceses, however, no longer do we say “Where the bishop is, there is the Church,” but “Where the Deanery Mission and Pastoral Committee meets, there is our resourcing ministry strategy for the next five years.”

In some dioceses, it is no longer the bishop, but the deanery, that decides whether a parish may have a priest, or how much it must pay for one. Having received these new powers from above, in such dioceses the deanery is now seeking to wrestle more from below. Previously, meetings of the deanery chapter were attended by clergy voluntarily for prayer and study; now, priests are compelled to go. Once, a parish’s evangelism of its people was a matter for the vicar and the church council; now, it must conform to a Deanery Mission Plan. In Wigan, the zenith has been reached: there are no parishes any longer, only the deanery.

In the diocese of Manchester, there will soon be seven full-time area deans, appointed by the Bishop to “share in the Bishop’s leadership of mission and pastoral care”, with the authority to appraise the work of parish priests in their deanery (News, 29 May 2020). No longer will incumbents in Manchester be accountable directly to the bishop who has shared with them the cure of souls, or able to regard themselves as the local representation of the bishop’s leadership.

THE Ordinal reminds us that, “as chief pastors, it is a bishop’s duty to share with their fellow presbyters the oversight of the Church”. No priest used to be any closer to, or further from, his or her bishop than any other in the college. Archdeacons were there to make the connection between bishop and priest as immediate as possible.

This relationship of bishop to priest gave substance in the daily life of parishes and dioceses to the theological truth that priests and their bishop oversaw the parish church. This truth was most movingly enacted when, at their induction, parish priests were handed their licence with the words “Receive the cure of souls, which is both mine and yours.”

The diocese and the parish are not, then, neutral institutions, whose usefulness may pass away; they make real a sacramental idea of the Church with which some have always been uneasy. The Puritans sought to abolish bishops, and to stop paying the Church of England’s debt to its Catholic, hierarchical past.

The threat is no longer abolition, but irrelevance. Bishops who do not oversee parishes through their relationship with their priests are no longer what we used to mean by bishops; parish priests who are held accountable not to their bishop but to their fellow presbyter, the area dean, are not longer what we used to mean by parish priests.

Until recently, nothing has been allowed to diminish the ministry of bishops to their parishes. Indeed, measures were taken to strengthen it. The creation of new dioceses in the 20th century was meant to keep the distance between the episcopate and the presbyterate as small as possible.

The attraction of the deanery as a device for reforming the Church of England is obvious. Unlike the diocese and the parish, it has no sacramental foundation, it has no history to speak of, and it can be made into anything that the current generation wants to fashion. What this generation of administrators — ordained and lay — wants, it seems, is a Church that runs on as pragmatic a basis as possible.

That will not do. When they make the Declaration of Assent, bishops, priests, and deacons affirm their loyalty to the “inheritance of faith”, which includes the “ordering of bishops, priests, and deacons”. The structure of the Church is, then, not something that each generation invents, but something that it inherits. Our inheritance is the ministry of a bishop exercised through the priest: a sacramental link given institutional form in the intimacy of the connection between parish and diocese.

NO ONE questions the motives of those whose plans will sever that link. The current crisis demands a plan. Those who have given the deanery its new powers have done so to save the Church of England. The tragedy is that, if the deanery does succeed where the diocese and parish have allegedly failed, what is saved will not be the Church of England.

That Church will survive only if its parishes retain their dignity and remain under the care of their bishops. After all, if a bishop’s ministry is not a Christian presence in every community, then neither is the Church of England.

The Revd Dr Thomas Carpenter is the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Southport, in the diocese of Liverpool.


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