Updated September 9, 2016:
UPDATE FROM PHIL ASHEY:
When I wrote this article last Friday, the news had not reached us that a “gay bishop” had been “outed” in the Church of England. The Right Rev. Nicholas Chamberlain, a Suffragan or Assisting Bishop, revealed to the Guardian on September 2 that he has been in a long-term, celibate, same sex relationship. But if we go back to the question of “What should we expect in our Bishops?” the Bible says that an “overseer” (bishop) must be “above reproach, the husband of but one wife.” (I Tim. 3:2)
The Apostle Paul considered someone’s lifestyle as relevant to their qualifications for becoming a bishop.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who approved the appointment of Bishop Chamberlain, says the bishop’s sexuality is irrelevant to his skills and office. How does he reconcile the division between qualifications and lifestyle that he is making with the wholeness of the requirements for an overseer in I Timothy 3?
Bishops are held to a much higher standard in their personal and public life than others precisely because of their unique leadership position of “propagating, defending and safeguarding” the teaching of the Church.
How can a bishop who struggles with same-sex attraction, claims to be celibate and yet has a male partner effectively propagate, defend and safeguard the teaching of the church? Would a man who admitted to being attracted to women, claimed to be celibate and yet lived with his girlfriend be above reproach? “Oh but you’re not being fair to this man” some might say. These requirements weren’t invented, they were given by God. Who are we to weaken the requirements? Just because a person is nice, intelligent, experienced or gives assurances that they are abiding by the letter of the law doesn’t mean God calls them to lead his church.
Somewhere tucked away my basement in an old Ashey family album there is a picture of the bishop visiting in our home. It must have been around 1960, when my father was rector in a new posting, and I was just a toddler. In this old black and white photo the bishop is on all fours with me on the carpet, smiling and inspecting one of my toys. In many ways, that picture represents what we would love to expect from bishops: kindness, gentleness and the ability to step down from their office and relate to us on our level. Bishops should demonstrate the love of Christ in a gentle and caring way.
But is that all we should expect, all we should want in a Bishop?
You see, the Bishop in that picture was James A. Pike, Episcopal Bishop of California. He was the bishop whose theology involved the rejection of central Christian beliefs. In his public preaching, teaching, speaking and writing the central Christian beliefs he rejected included the virgin birth, the Trinity and the doctrine of Hell. At that time my father was among the pioneers of the Charismatic renewal in the Episcopal Church. He told me how Bishop Pike wrote a pastoral letter to the clergy of the Diocese of California warning them not to associate with any one “speaking in tongues” because glossolalia was associated with the devil. As we later discovered, Bishop Pike was even then beginning to associate with “mediums” to contact and reconcile with the spirit of his son, who had committed suicide. Later, in September 1967, Pike participated in a televised séance with his dead son through the medium Arthur Ford, who was ordained as a Disciples of Christ minister. Pike detailed these experiences in his book "The Other Side." Tragically, Bishop Pike died wandering in the Judean desert—some say, still searching to contact the spirit of his dead son.
Gentle, kind and caring Bishops can be seriously mistaken. They can be false teachers. They can be so spiritually misguided that they lead themselves and others away from Christ rather than to him.
During our recent American Anglican Council Bishops’ Leadership Summit, Bishop Ray Sutton of the Diocese of Mid-America quoted from St Athanasius at the Council of Nicaea c. 325 AD: “The road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” He then went on to pose the question, “Why is it that bishops began to corrupt so early in the life of the Church?” Bishop Sutton observed:
“When you become a bishop, a bullseye from Hell appears on your forehead... Satan is very clever; he knows that if he can take you [bishops] down, he can take down a lot of sheep with you…”
You can watch the whole excerpt here along with other teachings and testimonies from our Bishops Leadership Summit.
As Bishop Sutton points out, we should expect our Bishops to be spiritually mature and aware of the pressures they face to compromise—and of the very real attacks “from the other side” to take them down. We should expect our Bishops not only to be faithful to Apostolic teaching, but also faithful in drawing upon Apostolic power and practice—the power of the Holy Spirit, prayer, and “weapons of righteousness on the right hand and on the left” to tear down strongholds from the other side.
But I also believe there is a more subtle temptation that bishops face. It is the phenomenon of groupthink. “Groupthink” is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony and conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints and by isolating themselves from outside influences. The groupthink phenomenon among bishops leads to a lack of conciliarism; an insistence upon their own autonomy over against the Biblical, catholic, universal teaching of the Church, and, specifically, against the majority of Churches in the Anglican Communion.
When a group of bishops insist upon their “autonomy,” selectively chooses theological points of view, marginalizes qualified and respected Biblical points of view (as I wrote about several weeks ago), and suppresses viewpoints that are not politically or socially “correct” you are seeing the hallmarks of the “groupthink.” We see it among Bishops in The Episcopal Church that promote false teaching on human sexuality, marriage and leadership in the Church. We have seen it all before here in North America. It looks like these same dynamics may be at work among many of the Bishops of the Church of England who are prepared to vote in favor of blessing same-sex civil partnership, in disregard of the rest of the Communion and its teaching (Lambeth Resolution 1.10 1998).
So what should we expect of our Bishops beyond kindness, gentleness and “generous pastoral accommodation”? Here are some of the standards we should expect Bishops to live up to in their lives and their ministries:
- From the Bible: “An overseer (bishop) must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9) Within the Anglican Church in North America this and other Biblical citations (I Peter 5:2-3, I Tim. 3:1-7 and 5:17) have led us to state in our Canons that a Bishop is, above all, a faithful teacher of the people of God entrusted to his care, “called to propagate, to teach and to uphold and defend the faith and order of the Church…” (Can. III.8.1)
- From Thomas Cranmer, the BCP 1549, “Consecration of a Bishop”: during the examination, the candidate is asked “Will you call upon God by prayer for the true understanding of [the Holy Scriptures], so as ye may be able by them to teach and exhort with wholesome doctrine, and to withstand and convince the gainsayers?” and “Be you ready with all faithful diligence to banish and drive away all strange and erroneous doctrine contrary to God’s word, and both privately and openly encourage others [sic] to do the same?”
- From the Book of Common Prayer 1662 and its Ordinal, recognized as a standard for doctrine among most Churches of the Anglican Communion—Almost the same language from Cranmer’s BCP 1549: “Will you faithfully exercise yourself in the Holy Scriptures, and call upon God by prayer for the true understanding of the same, so that you may be able by them to teach and exhort with wholesome Doctrine…to banish and drive away from the Church all strange and erroneous doctrine contrary to God’s word…” Note: This language is the basis for the Examination of Bishops in the proposed Ordinal of the ACNA
- From the Principles of Canon Law Common to the Churches of the Anglican Communion (2008) (a kind of “common law” among the Churches of the Anglican Communion)—In Diocesan episcopal (meaning “bishops”) ministry “the bishop must teach, uphold and safeguard the faith and doctrine of the Church” (Principle 34.7) and generally, in the presentation of Doctrine, bishops have the special responsibility “to teach the faith, to state publicly the doctrine of the Church, and expound their application to the people and the issues of their age.” (Principle 48.3).
The principle responsibility of the Bishop is to proclaim and teach what the Bible teaches. The flip side of that is the responsibility to guard the faith and order of the Church by “banishing strange and erroneous teaching contrary to God’s word written.” It is nothing less than the teaching Jesus gave in John 10 on the Good Shepherd who drives away the wolves, and in John 21, His charge to Peter the Apostle to “feed the sheep” with wholesome food. Whether the bishop is kind, gentle, caring and “pastorally generous” in doing so is not the issue. Faithfulness is the issue.
It was ACNA Archbishop Robert Duncan (ret.) who said “There may be prophets in the Church, but they will not be bishops.” Indeed. But we must also ask ourselves as bishops, clergy and laity in the Church how we can protect Bishops from temptations to compromise and spiritual attacks “from the other side.” What prayers, structures and support can we put in place so that they will not surrender to “groupthink” and preservation of the institution of the Church as an end in itself?
Some of you will remember the words of former Episcopal Presiding Bishop John Allin who is reported as saying before he died, “I fear I have loved the Church more than I have loved the Lord of my Church.” Are we faithful to Jesus—Bishops, Clergy and Laity alike and together? Two different groups of bishops will be meeting in the next few months. In October, Primates and Bishops of the Global South will be meeting. In the coming months, the House of Bishops of the Church of England will be meeting to consider the results of the “Shared discussions” and the recommendations to bless same-sex partnerships.
Please pray that they may be faithful to Jesus, and not ordain or bless anything contrary to God’s word written.
The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is President & CEO of the American Anglican Council.