Pete Broadbent writes:
The news that the election of Nicholas Henderson as Bishop of Lake Malawi has been blocked by the Court of Confirmation is perhaps not surprising in the current climate of relations between the northern and southern parts of the Anglican Communion. Yet, as Nick’s bishop, I could have hoped that he might have been treated with more justice and with attention to what he actually believes, rather than what he is alleged to believe. We need to keep Nick in our prayers at this difficult time.
He was rejected on the grounds that he had previously been Chair of the Modern Churchpeoples’ Union, and was therefore seen to be a liberal in theological standpoint and in putative support for the liberalisation of the Church’s stance on gay relationships. Allegations were also made about his private life. All this despite Nick’s strong declarations that he accepts the faith revealed in the scriptures and set forth in the creeds, that he holds to the teaching of the Church on sexual ethics, and that there never has been any question about the standards of his moral conduct. Nick has become a victim of the warfare between African traditionalism and Western liberalism. I find it deeply sad that, as someone who would find myself more obviously on the traditionalist side of things, my letters in support of Nick and his orthodoxy were quite simply ignored by those responsible for confirming his election. In stark terms, my references as his bishop and Nick’s own affirmations of faith were not believed.
There are several obvious lessons to be learned from this sad case.
First, that guilt by association is alive and well and living in the Anglican Communion. As an evangelical, I’m well used to this particular phenomenon. Some free church evangelicals seek to dignify it by giving it a theological category of “secondary separation” – I can’t be in communion with you if you are in communion with someone who holds views that are perceived as heterodox. In this case, whatever Nick Henderson’s own views (which I would still want to describe as traditionally Anglican), the very fact that he had been an organiser of the MCU was enough to make him unacceptable, because there were some in that organisation who were seen to hold to a revisionist viewpoint.
Secondly, the danger of the power of the internet as a means both of instant communication and instant condemnation. Those who were opposed to Nick Henderson’s election were immediately in action once his election had been announced, spreading defamatory and untrue allegations about him all over the place. This included the release of private correspondence between the consecrating bishop and the consecrand – stuff which, even in the leaky Church of England, we would never consider as public property. And, because journalism these days can become a fundamentally lazy occupation (you google someone’s name, read the stories about them, and retread the material so that it becomes common currency), those allegations spread round the world, but can all be sourced back to one particular American website, which despite their lack of any personal knowledge of the priest they were defaming, was quite prepared to condemn him out of hand.
A third issue is the way in which nuance and complexity are being ignored in these debates. I do not want the Anglican Communion to become a place where a revisionist liberal theology becomes the norm. But equally I do not want to see a witch hunt against liberalism, which at its best (and in the liberality of the classic Church of England ethos) continues to make a huge contribution towards shaping our theology and ethos. The MCU as an organisation is not one I would want to join, but the fundamentally conservative liberalism espoused by many of its members needs to be assimilated and understood by evangelicals, charismatics, conservatives and traditionalists. To insist that membership or leadership of such an organisation should be a ground for blocking a duly elected bishop smacks of McCarthyism. That’s not to say that there should not be grounds for suggesting that a person’s views and teaching might make them a person not suitable to be a bishop – here in the UK we had our own debate about that in respect of an appointment to the see of Reading, and I was one of those who advocated that the appointment should not be made. Some will think that I am now being hypocritical. I would argue that there is a difference between views definitely held and taught by an individual and views held and taught by others within an organisation of which that individual is a member. What is more obviously at stake here is the capacity for us to hold debates about the teachings of scripture and the Church which are not starkly polarised into “Who is not for us is against us” positions. Those charged with deciding whether Nick’s election should be confirmed clearly saw him as part of the liberal Western enemy, despite his long association with, and care for, the clergy and people of Lake Malawi through a mission partnership with his parishes. Many Malawi clergy had visited us here, and I had the privilege of meeting some of them. But all those relationships counted for naught, because complexity is not on the map.
We have so much to lose if our relationships with the vibrant and growing churches of the South are soured or severed. I am deeply saddened at how Nick has been treated. I am saddened that the African bishops could not hear what was being said to them about the nature of his belief and practice and the suitability of his candidature for the calling to be a bishop in the Church of God. But we need to recognise the depths of suspicion about ECUSA, Canada, and now the Church of England that have brought us to this position. Indeed, we need to voice more clearly between ourselves the stark differences between our different theologies. While I am prepared to defend MCU, I would find it much harder to defend some of the positions taken (for example) by various sections of ECUSA on theology, ethics and pastoral practice. We need also to find ways – through personal contact, partnership in the gospel, and the Windsor Report framework – to mend these relationships.
Bishop of Willesden & Acting Archdeacon of Northolt