Comments: The View from Salisbury

NIcholas Holtam writes: When I became a bishop I hated the shorthand by which I was sometimes referred to as +Nicholas (“plus” Nicholas), as if a super-charged cut above my former self, signified by the plus sign which in fact is the only suitable character on a keyboard to signify the cross of Christ before my Christian name identifying me as a bishop.

We note and we have to live with how being at the back of the liturgical procession has become the place of power and taking a towel and washing feet can be about exercising control."

I don't think I'm the only one to feel - and this is not too strong a word for it - betrayed by Nicholas Holtam. Diarmaid MacCulloch interviewed Nick Holtam when Nick was Vicar of St Martin in the Fields. It was for the wonderful series about the history of Christianity. Nick spoke powerfully and courageously about the conflict within the Anglican Communion and the Church of England over its attitude to homosexuality. He was unequivocally in favour of an inclusive and liberal approach. And since he has has been in a place of power and control where he could influence these things and actually do something, what has happened? Why hasn't he spoken out in favour of Jeremy Pemberton's case? Why hasn't he been more openly challenging in the House of Bishops? Why not on the floor of synod? It has felt like he has been silenced. But there can only be one person to blame for that.

There's a word Jesus uses for that kind of behaviour. And he says a lot more about hypocrisy than he does about what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own homes.
I continue to struggle to hold on - but the words from Nicholas Holtam that I have copied and pasted above make it no easier. They are cheap and achingly cheerful.

Posted by Andrew Godsall at Friday, 30 March 2018 at 12:48pm BST

I remember Norman Pittenger opining that bishops are not so much consecrated as castrated.

It's interesting how most episcopal appointments are greeted on this website with 'very good appointment' or similar but other threads subsequently bemoan the spinelessness of them all ....

Posted by peter kettle at Friday, 30 March 2018 at 9:09pm BST

There are two words used in diverse theological conversation: exclaustration & castration.

Perhaps some bishops are urged to become eunuchs when they assume their holy office. It may not be their fault, but I would scream if it was me.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Saturday, 31 March 2018 at 6:54am BST

I don't believe someone sits down with new bishops and tells them that they can no longer say certain things. Rather I think peer pressure is so powerful that the conditioning happens naturally and most candidates with personal convictions strong enough to resist homogenisation are weeded out during the selection process. And I don't just mean the final process to select bishops - I think it starts earlier than that so that those who might rock the boat get fewer advancement opportunities at every level. That is how it works in most organisations, and the effect seems particularly strong in the Church of England.

It is not just on issues of sexuality. Historically there have been pacifist bishops, even Lambeth declarations, but I don't think any present bishop is a declared pacifist.

There is strong argument to be made that it is this homogenisation which is killing the Church of England. At grass roots, believers are diverse and have strong, principled views against discrimination, in favour of pacifism, as environmentalists, wanting to provide for the poor and homeless... But as one looks up the pyramid of hierarchy one finds less and less support for strong, distinctive principles the higher one looks. Is it really surprising most of the grass roots drifts away?

Posted by Kate at Saturday, 31 March 2018 at 11:43am BST

It’s ironic that this is precisely the same charge levelled by many evangelicals against the (relatively few) evangelical bishops in the 70’s and 80’s, of not holding strongly enough to their evangelical beliefs and practices once they put on the mitre. I suppose it’s partly because they were forced to move outside their party echo chambers and deal with people whose Christian faith was expressed and lived differently. As I realised when I was a Vicar, when you are the public voice of an institution it inevitably means you can’t just speak simply as an individual. I suppose it’s the Biblical tightrope between prophet speaking out and priest maintaining the institution– the Old Testament seems to have included both in the divine economy. Let’s hope that Nick and those like him are working in their own way to move the institution, so that he can speak as its authentic representative when it moves (as I would see it) in a more Jesus-like direction. Frustrating and hurtful for those of us who want to move quicker, I know.

Posted by John Peet at Saturday, 31 March 2018 at 1:01pm BST

There’s a long-standing perception that may or may not be true, that when men and women become bishops they also become less outspoken about things they were previously known to care about. Whether this is because they are older, wiser, less courageous, more risk aware, in greater thrall to the establishment or for some other reason we are not sure, but it makes us feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, when we hear calls, as we sometimes do, for a bishop to be consecrated to represent a particular stance or opinion within the life of the Church, we feel uncomfortable with that too. Deep down we know that this is not what bishops are for.

Presumably bishops also wrestle with this dilemma. What does it mean to be ‘a bishop for everyone’? How does one tend to the flourishing of all for whom one has pastoral responsibility, no matter where they are starting from? How in the midst of it all does one hang onto one’s personal sense of what the gospel lays upon us? It’s on a different scale from the ministry of, say, a parish priest, where people who come to our churches tend to be self-selecting to a greater or lesser extent. If any bishops are reading this thread it would be interesting to hear their reflections.

At this time of year, it’s often preached that Jesus was condemned to death because he was too outspoken and was perceived as a threat by the religious authorities of his day. It could equally be said that he met his death because for some people he wasn’t outspoken enough. Judas, the betrayer, felt betrayed by Jesus, because he saw Jesus as a figurehead for the Jewish liberation movement yet as time went on Jesus was speaking more and more about different things in a different kind of way. Maybe Jesus as a younger man, before he came into the public eye, did talk up the idea of earthly liberation but as the true nature of his vocation became clearer to him the nature of his discourse also shifted. One of the things that challenges all of us about the gospels is that Jesus so rarely makes pronouncements that we can directly apply to the issues of our day.

Ahead of us in Eastertide lies Good Shepherd Sunday when we will have the opportunity to ponder some of these themes. What is a shepherd for, how should a shepherd act, and how will we know a ‘good shepherd’ when we encounter one?

Posted by Jane Charman at Saturday, 31 March 2018 at 3:22pm BST

Wow, and I thought I'd been harsh on Ol' Saint Nick!

Holtam's certainly toed the party line, but the awkward truth's that conformity and compliance doesn't extend to all bishops -- conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics have no compunction in speaking out to defend their own interests, and since open evangelicals decide church policy, they've no need to.

No, this wretched passivity, to the point of betraying all you say you believe in, lands at the door of liberals and moderates, I suspect 'cause we're far too agreeable for our own good. The same traits that make us liberal also make us avoid conflict, even when it's unavoidable. I've no time for bishops who don't speak out, but sadly, this goes way beyond them.

Posted by James Byron at Saturday, 31 March 2018 at 3:35pm BST

Nick Holtam did criticise the archbishops' pastoral letter, which for a bishop is quite remarkable.

I found Jane Charman's comments above helpful and thought-provoking.

Posted by Janet Fife at Sunday, 1 April 2018 at 8:47am BST

Thank you for that Jane. How too do we pick bishops who do or don't speak up on a topic when doing so will cause a backlash a la Phillip North to remove said appointment. Should every controversial bishop be removed?

Posted by Chris H. at Tuesday, 3 April 2018 at 3:24am BST

With respect, the Philip North situation became as serious as it was not because he was outspoken but because he refused to speak at all to set out his position.

Posted by Kate at Tuesday, 3 April 2018 at 3:57pm BST

Jane's remarks are thought-provoking. I would submit, however, that the question of speaking or not is a deeply moral one. Shepherding people who have straight male supremacist views by excluding LGBTQI people and women is morally and theologically problematic. It is actively harmful to the well being of the minority. The default of silence is actively harmful, as was certainly the case with child abuse.

Silence is always on the side of the oppressor, always. Whether it is about child abuse, the exclusion of women and LGBTQI people, the human rights violations at the hands of oil companies, etc, silence is always on the side of the oppressor. Jesus came to be the Good News to the poor and oppressed. You can't be the Good News with silence.

The North case is not really applicable. His "nuanced" position isn't actually nuanced at all and gave no indication as to how women and girls could "flourish" with him as diocesan. The Mawer Report was all about North with very little about the women and girls of the diocese, only an entitled sense that some women should continue to suffer so the church could be acceptable to Parliament.

Posted by Cynthia at Wednesday, 4 April 2018 at 11:49pm BST

I get Andrew Godsall's point entirely, and agree with what he is saying.

But neither I - nor Andrew - know, precisely, from within what the pressures are in the House of Bishops at the moment. If I were in Nick Holtam's shoes (which I'm not), I wonder if I might have been tempted to be cautious in the face of the Pongyan culture of control and bad tempered invectives. I would also be wary of the threatening culture at the Church Commissioners (witness the treatment of Charles Taylor when Dean of Peterborough) which is where a lot of bullying is happening. Any diocesan bishop will know that, if things go unexpectedly pear-shaped, their 'loyalty' is taken into consideration.

Yes, Nick Holtam is a good man, and (as the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has shown) it may be necessary, in the short term, to make the Nazi salute as a prelude to speaking and acting with effect in the future.

Posted by Bill Broadhead at Thursday, 5 April 2018 at 10:02am BST

Given that Bonhoeffer's life was at stake, it's not a comparison I'd make.

Nor do I see how it'd even be possible to "bully" a diocesan bishop, a person with job security that'd be the envy of a Supreme Court justice.

Holtam's not a vulnerable or marginalized person: he's a person of extreme privilege whose precious church adjoined Trafalgar Sq. and the National Gallery. He chose to take a position of power and responsibility. It's not unreasonable to ask him to use it to do justice.

Posted by James Byron at Thursday, 5 April 2018 at 1:25pm BST

I’ll own up to being a bit fed up with this thread.
I wanted my Maundy Thursday sermon posted here because I quoted Janet Fife whose letter I read on TA. Thanks to her for her comment. I also thought it might be interesting and helpful to share what we have been thinking and praying about in Salisbury, given the unfolding international implications. I was glad James Woodward’s excellent contribution was posted with mine but no-one seems concerned with the implications of the Skripal story here.

I am surprised by those who think I have said nothing about inclusion and homosexuality. My own account would be that in February 2012 I was the first diocesan bishop in the Church of England to publicly support same sex marriage. In June 2012, though not yet a member of the House of Lords I wrote an open letter to Lord Alli explaining why I supported the proposed legislation. The Archbishop of Canterbury said it was “a strong and welcome contribution” and it was referred to several times in the debate.
More recently, when asked at Diocesan Synod if I would rescind my views on same sex marriage for the sake of the Diocesan link with the Episcopal Church in the South Sudan and Sudan no-one challenged my observation that it would be more of a problem to have a bishop who denied his conscience than who had views.
I am not a single issue campaigner but I have been consistent in contributions to the debate about sexuality; some will say too often and some not often enough. When I spoke on ‘Reforming Marriage’ last October Jeremy Pemberton thanked me for the clarity and openness of my contribution. I was touched by that.

For those who are interested in the workings of the House of Bishops I have tried to summarise where we are in a chapter “Good News for All” in the recently published collection of essays in honour of Michael Perham: Aidan Platten (ed) Grasping the Heel of Heaven, Canterbury Press 2018. It does not describe anything other than the public position of the House and I do not doubt that many who read TA are disappointed with that. Oddly enough not everyone holds the same views as me and we live in a Church which together seeks the mind of Christ.

Happy Easter!

Posted by Nicholas Holtam at Sunday, 8 April 2018 at 4:54pm BST

Nicholas: I'll own up to being a bit fed up by your response on this thread for the simple reason that it smacks of the power and control that you seem to lament in your Maundy Thursday sermon.

i apologise if I misrepresent you but I clearly noted what you said to Diarmaid publicly back in 2009. There are those of us who regret the 'miserable experience' (his words) that he suffered from the church because of its double speak on the question of homosexuality - different things were said privately and publicly. Is it too much to hope that the 'public position' (your words) of the House of Bishops, which came to grief so clearly at the February 2017 General Synod, might at least now demonstrate a bit more of the truth that is expressed privately?

Posted by Andrew Godsall at Monday, 9 April 2018 at 12:53pm BST

My thanks to Nicholas Holtam for his response.

For my part, my disagreement lies in two specific actions: to my knowledge, you've not said plainly that current English church teaching on homosexuality is wrong, inherently homophobic, and should be changed and repented of; nor have you suspended discipline against clergy in same-sex relationships in Sailsbury diocese.

I accept that the second can be explained by a belief in the rule of law (I also believe in the rule of law, but interpret it differently); but find it much harder to understand your refusal to vigorously challenge homophobic teaching in public, and to make clear that you view any discipline you consider yourself forced to impose to be a grave moral wrong. I understand the concept of episcopal unity well enough, but strongly disagree that it should trump equal rights.

Your previous statements on civil marriage equality are welcomed, but you would surely agree that subsequent actions must be judged on their own merits.

Posted by James Byron at Monday, 9 April 2018 at 6:07pm BST

+Nicholas, a great deal of the "problem" with which you are fed up is that LGBTQI people have modest opportunities to speak for themselves (ourselves) in CoE, and don't have the power and privilege. Meanwhile, the homophobes have all the platform they want and suffer no loss of power and privilege for it. CoE leadership does a lot of "speaking about us, without us."

Some would find that you haven't spoken enough about equality. Can one speak enough about justice when there's injustice? Can one speak the Good News to the oppressed while going along with the Bad News of exclusion? While it is perfectly Christian to love all of our sisters and brothers, enabling the power of one group of sisters and brothers to oppress other sisters and brothers is problematic.

Social Justice 101 asks who has the power? Who's at the table? Jesus invites all to the table, CoE most certainly does not. That isn't Good News. Sadly, "unity" has seemingly become an idol that transcends the message of Jesus, the inclusive, radical, loving message of Jesus to the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, etc.

As for the workings of the House of Bishops, it seems like one dysfunctional tome after another is being produced by an insular group of mostly men. Hearing, and empowering, more diverse voices from the actual Body of Christ could go a long way.

I agree that the Skripal case may have far-reaching implications.

Posted by Cynthia at Tuesday, 10 April 2018 at 7:45pm BST

+Nick.... I think the 'outrage' against him is unfair. I don't share his views but to suggest he's been quiet or hypocritical is a poor understanding of his record and if the role of a bishop, Not everything said or done is public in any case.

Posted by Ian H at Saturday, 14 April 2018 at 6:33pm BST

"I agree that the Skripal case may have far-reaching implications."

UPDATE. We (US, UK, and France) are now bombing Syria in what seems to be a proxy war against Russia. Three countries that are least likely to care enough to accept Syrian refugees.

Posted by Cynthia at Monday, 16 April 2018 at 3:45am BST
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