The Gracious Gift of Prophecy

Geoffrey Locke fears that 'cronyism' may affect Turnbull as well as Runcie

The theological basis of the Turnbull Commission’s proposals has received “strong support” to use a phrase from GS 1188, a General Synod paper published in February, to assess initial reactions to the Turnbull Report. In one sense, therefore, this article is something of an anchor from the stern.

That is not to say that I would seek to decry the plaudits which that theology has earned. First things first - it is refreshing to find a report on management structures which begins with theology at all. Secondly, it is also refreshing that such theology is not mere window-dressing for the conclusions which follow. I have served on at least one committee where policy was decided first and a theological rationalisation was concocted later.

The Turnbull Commission genuinely seeks to carry its theological thinking through to the main body of the Report. Whether it succeeds may be debatable, but it makes a laudable attempt.

Moreover the Commission had as its Theological Consultant a bishop widely valued as a theological heavyweight. Stephen Sykes, formerly Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at Durham and now Bishop of Ely, brought great acumen to the task. For example, his book The Integrity of Anglicanism (1978) helpfully engaged some of the problems resulting from ambiguous expressions of belief. When the Durham affair caught fire in 1984, Professor Sykes was well ahead of the game in addressing some of the relevant issues.

So what is the theology with which Bishop Sykes sought to undergird the Turnbull Commission’s work and which has been so widely welcomed? The report calls it “a theology of gracious gift” (1.10). Put simply “we are convinced that God in his goodness has already given to the Church the resources it needs to be God’s people, and to live and work to his praise and glory”. Amen to that.

God’s gifts include “the gift of leadership” (1.12). Indeed they do. The Apostle Paul includes it in the variety of gifts which he discusses in Romans 12. However - and as the Turnbull Report readily acknowledges - this gift of leadership is differentiated.

One aspect of it is episcope - the Greek word for “oversight”. Hence a bishop in the New Testament is an “overseer”, but the word equally describes the role of those otherwise known as “presbyters” or “elders” (Acts 20). In the early centuries of the Christian Church, these roles were separated but their derivation is important.

The Turnbull Report notes how our present ordained ministry (often regarded as a single entity distinct from the laity) has developed. The Apostle Paul is cited (1.14) as speaking of “the ministries of apostles, prophets, teachers and many others”. Paul’s own description occurs in Ephesians 4, in a passage forming the Epistle in the Ordinal for Priests (dropped, alas, by the ASB).

So then, if there is so much agreement with the Report’s theologising, why any misgivings? I find my theological hesitations arising later in the Report, over the much-discussed question of accountability. The Report takes the model of “Bishop-in-Synod” (1.18), applies it to Archbishops-in-General-Synod. and tilts the balance in the Archbishops’ direction. However what might happen if things were to go wrong?

The Biblical role model here is the prophet. Nathan opposed to his friend King David. Elijah opposed his enemy King Ahab. Isaiah found himself isolated at court and Jeremiah was banned from the Temple. In fact, the role of prophet is not even a role exclusively for the clergy - Amos, for instance, saw himself as neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son. Those who seek preferment need not apply.

When Paul opposed Peter to his face over race relations, we need to remember that Paul was a prophet (Acts 13.1) before he became an apostle. Prophecy, whatever else it entails, includes the exercise of loyal opposition. It provides the theological groundwork for the separation of powers and the concept of checks and balances.

Anglicanism is pyramidal. Between one vicar and the next we have an interregnum (“amidst the reign”) - and the very word used is quite revealing. But nowadays things have improved and incumbents are counterbalanced by PCCs. As Bishop Hugh Montefiore recently observed, what the Nine O’clock Service lacked was a PCC. Brooke’s “sly shade of a Rural Dean” (and I hasten to add, I do have good friends who are Rural Deans) is checked by a Deanery Synod. Bishops are in Diocesan Synods and the House of Bishops (and Archbishops) is in General Synod.

But where in the Turnbull Report’s theology is the voice of prophecy discussed? What provision is made to ensure that it is heard? The only reference to it is as an aspect of the leadership gifts of the ordained. Theologically that will not do. It is why the bland reassurances about the composition of the proposed Archbishops’ Council and the ongoing role of the General Synod are so inadequate.

I can hear some objections already. “The ball’s at our feet,” some evangelicals would claim. “Why not welcome the Turnbull proposals, after whatever modest tinkering may be necessary, with open arms? There is a world to win.” Indeed there is, but it will not be won by temporary partisan advantage. A good constitution must function in all climates, not just the one we prefer.

In November 1987, General Synod overwhelmingly carried a motion upholding the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. Lord Runcie, who was then Archbishop of Canterbury, now says that he “knowingly” ordained practising homosexuals. He adds, “A liberal élite was part of my agenda.” If such an agenda can exist, of whatever partisan flavour, would Archbishops’ nominees to the proposed Archbishops’ Council include prophetic types gifted to challenge Their Graces? Or would a moderate sycophantic “cronyism” (Runcie’s word) be the long term result?

Elections, let it be said at once, are no guarantee of a prophetic voice. Those of us who are elected to General Synod may pander to populism and bend to the wind just like anyone else. But what elections do make possible, which almost by definition, appointment and preferment cannot provide, is an independent voice.

It is a solemn responsibility before God to exercise that voice prophetically. We must wrestle with the question of what it is to be prophetic. Working as One Body, for all the worth of its theological introduction, passes the question by. But the theology of gracious gift rightly implies that this gift of prophecy is already given.

Geoffrey Locke is Lay Chairman of Lichfield diocesan synod, a member of the General Synod and a member of the Church of England Evangelical Council. The views he expresses are his own

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