Delegated Oversight in London

Photos: Edward Dobson

By Colin Podmore

On the last day of June — a glorious summer Saturday — the Rt. Rev. Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Fulham (a suffragan in the Diocese of London), ordained two men in their early 30s to the diaconate at the church of Our Most Holy Redeemer in Clerkenwell, one to serve there and the other in a parish in outer West London.

In many ways it was an ordination like so many others: a packed church; 40 robed clergy; rousing hymns; the now familiar 2005 Common Worship ordination rite; Byrd’s Five Part Mass and anthems by Palestrina and Vaughan Williams; songs by the choir of the Parochial School (one quarter of England’s state-funded primary schools, educating children ages 5 to 11, are Church of England schools); prosecco afterwards in the hall and courtyard — followed for many by a late lunch.

There were moving moments, as when the ordinands prostrated themselves for the Litany of the Saints, and moments of suspense: would the very small boy in cassock and cotta, struggling to hold the bishop’s enormous gold mitre, fully half as tall as himself, manage not to drop it?

But however much it was like many other ordinations, this service was also novel and significant. For a quarter of a century, the last two bishops of London had ordained all of the diocese’s deacons in St Paul’s Cathedral but none of its priests: that arrangement could not survive the appointment of a woman as bishop. This year, therefore, 33 deacons (19 women and 14 men) were ordained by the Bishop of London, the Rt. Rev. and Rt. Hon. Dame Sarah Mullally, but a quarter of the diocese’s male deacons were ordained by other bishops: these two by the Bishop of Fulham, and three conservative evangelicals by the Rt. Rev. Rod Thomas, Bishop of Maidstone (who ministers to conservative evangelical parishes across the Church of England).

These ordinations were a result of the 2014 agreement that enabled women to become bishops in a church in which significant minorities are unable, for theological reasons, to receive their sacramental ministry. So far, 62 of the Diocese of London’s 398 parishes (15.5%) have passed a resolution under the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests because they require the ministry of male bishops and priests.

Episcopal oversight of a parish depends on the theological conviction underlying its resolution. For the Diocese of London, detailed arrangements are set out in the London Plan, a declaration made by the diocese’s college of seven stipendiary bishops, the current version of which was published in May ( Where the theological conviction “requires the ministry of a male bishop who, on the basis of his understanding of catholic order and sacramental assurance, does not ordain women to the priesthood or participate in the consecration of women to the episcopate,” the London Plan places the parish under the oversight of the Bishop of Fulham. He currently has 47 parishes in the Diocese of London (one-eighth of the diocese’s parishes), plus 14 in the Diocese of Southwark (which covers most of London south of the River Thames). The other resolution parishes are under either the Bishop of Maidstone or one of the men serving as area bishops.

Like Anglo-Catholic parishes more generally, the Bishop of Fulham’s parishes are disproportionately poor. Whereas 22 percent of the Diocese of London’s parishes are among the 10 percent most deprived in the Church of England, 36 percent of the Diocese’s Fulham parishes fall into that bracket. Our Most Holy Redeemer Clerkenwell is among the 10.5 percent most deprived in England: despite its church’s location in Exmouth Market, where trendy young professionals might stop for supper on their way home from the office, this parish on the fringe of London’s East End includes much social housing, and many of the congregation are far from affluent.

In his parishes the Bishop of Fulham exercises most of the powers that would otherwise be exercised by the area bishop. Of his 20 functions specified in the London Plan, the first is “all decisions in relation to the sponsorship, examination, and admission of candidates into Holy Orders.” There is a lively Fulham Vocations Group, which includes 11 London and Southwark ordinands who are (or will be from September) in training for the priesthood: four on courses and seven at St. Stephen’s House in Oxford. Six of them are in their mid- to late 20s. More aspirants hope to be accepted for training in future years.

The Bishop of Fulham also exercises all episcopal functions in relation to parish vacancies and appointments, and institutes or licenses parish priests. Confirmation is a significant part of his ministry: In 2016 he confirmed 233 people (199 in London and 44 in Southwark) in 31 services. In the same year, in 18 of the Church of England’s 42 dioceses fewer people were confirmed (in most cases, by two bishops) than were confirmed by the Bishop of Fulham. As Mark Twain did not say, reports of the death of Anglo-Catholicism in the Diocese of London, as elsewhere in the Church of England, have been more than a little exaggerated.

If the Bishop of Fulham ordaining deacons was a novelty, then so was the presence of the diocesan bishop at such an ordination. The Bishop of London and the Bishop of Stepney (the area bishop of the area in which Clerkenwell is situated) sat in choir, along with Bishop Robert Ladds (an Anglo-Catholic and honorary assistant bishop in the diocese); Archdeacon Elizabeth Adekunle of Hackney; and the Rev. Preb. Irena Edgcumbe, area director of training and development for the Stepney Area. The diocesan bishop — to whom the ordinands had previously taken the oath of canonical obedience — carried her crosier, the archdeacon presented the candidates for ordination, and the director answered in the affirmative the liturgical question about the candidates’ suitability.

In the run-up to the ordination, a journalist was busy trying to elicit facts and quotations to support a pre-conceived story of unhappiness with the arrangements, or to present the ordination as something more than a natural consequence of what had been agreed back in 2014. That effort failed. At the beginning of her new ministry, the Bishop of London had a very happy meeting with the diocese’s Fulham clergy. In her May Ad Clerum announcing the new edition of the London Plan, she wrote that the London College of Bishops believes “it provides a framework within which those who hold sharply defined differences about the ministerial priesthood can live together in simplicity, reciprocity and mutuality” ( She added: “We are praying and working together for a Diocese where there is genuine commitment to — and experience of — mutual flourishing in our ministry, and where we can find unity in our diversity.”

Although she was to preside at her first ordination in St. Paul’s that afternoon, Bishop Sarah stayed for three-quarters of an hour at the social gathering after the Fulham ordination, with clergy and laypeople approaching her to introduce themselves and thank her personally for her attendance. Secular people (and perhaps also some in other churches) imagine that the stark theological differences within the Church of England must result in its clergy and people being at war, but the Church is a community of love, so its life can be, should be,and isdifferent. Moreover, the Church of England’s clergy and people are bound together by networks of friendship, past acquaintance, collaboration, and affection that transcend theological difference.

When he presented the arrangements to the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament in 2014, the Archbishop of Canterbury was asked how he would explain them to the public. “That is how I explain it: it is love,” he said. “It is not a deal, it is a promise to love one another.” Some thought that sentiment hopelessly optimistic, but four years later, love is at least part of the explanation for why the arrangements have worked.

Of course traditional Anglo-Catholics would prefer their church not to ordain women as bishops, and doubtless these bishops and their supporters would prefer to be in a church in which everyone could receive their ministry. Both have to accept that if their ideal were achieved, the resulting church would not be the Church of England, because it would have lost a huge number of its members. The Five Guiding Principles enshrined in the House of Bishops’ Declaration commit us to seek mutual flourishing across the lines of difference.

For his sermon at the diaconal ordination, the Bishop of Fulham took as his text a comment of St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Magnesians: “Let my special friends the deacons be entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ.” After the ordination of priests on the previous Sunday, the deacon of that Mass, who also served in the first part of the Clerkenwell Mass, said to the bishop: “See you next weekend, Father, for the usual double act” (or words to that effect). The bishop said this remark neatly encapsulated that the ministry of a deacon “is one of service to the bishop, in the service of the bishop’s ministry to the people of God committed to the bishop’s oversight and pastoral care.”

Alongside the clear sense in the Acts of the Apostles that deacons are to ensure that those in material need are supported by the household of faith, there was “an equally primitive sense of the deacon being, par excellence, the bishop’s minister and assistant in the celebration of the Christian mysteries.” The bishop concluded: “To be close to your bishop; to proclaim the Good News; to serve the Holy Mysteries; to encourage the mission of all God’s people. … It is to this ministry that God is calling you.”

If the deacon’s ministry is first and foremost “one of service to the bishop, in the service of the bishop’s ministry,” then for the deacons ordained in Clerkenwell to be ordained by the bishop whom they will serve was — after all — entirely normal.

The Fulham parishes, the people of God committed to the Bishop of Fulham’s oversight and pastoral care, supported by his college of presbyters and especially his “special friends, the deacons,” are a church within a church — for that is what every diocese and every episcopal area is or should be. But they are not a church against the diocese and the wider Church of England to which they belong. Rather, they are a church for the Church, offering to the wider Church of England a witness to the tradition as we have received it: vibrant, engaged, outward-looking, and flourishing.

Colin Podmore is director of Forward in Faith and a member of the Living Church Foundation.


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