The Jesmond crisis: My shocking suggestion for the Bishop of Newcastle
The bishop of Newcastle finds herself in a bit of a pickle right now.
For suddenly – out of the blue – she finds herself with an unexpected extra bishop on her patch.
The consecration of Jesmond Parish Church curate Jonathan Pryke as a bishop has been widely reported. He was elevated to his new role by bishops from the Reformed Evangelical Anglican Church in South Africa, and the move followed unhappiness within the church at Jesmond about the direction of the Church of England.
But this all presents a bit of a conundrum for the Bishop of Newcastle, Christine Hardman. For what, if anything, should she do about this unexpected episcopal presence? Or would it, indeed, be better not to do anything?
As various commentators have pointed out, she seems to face a 'lose-lose' choice between two options. On the one hand, if she decides she will take action against Bishop Pryke, she runs the risk of getting involved in costly and time-consuming litigation. It would appear from the various legal opinions flying around she cannot be confident of winning. And media coverage of such a fight is likely to damage Church, gospel and her own reputation.
Moreover, she will confirm many conservatives in their view that the Church of England is far more concerned with upholding denominational structures than maintaining doctrinal truths. Anglican divisions will intensify.
On the other hand, if Christine Hardman decides not to take action, it could be argued she is undermining her own authority and effectively giving up on the idea of the Church of England's parish and diocesan system. And if she does nothing, it will be said, what is to stop Jonathan Pryke merely being the first of a whole stream of alternative bishops?
For what it's worth, I do not think there is a big queue of parishes and clergy lining up to come under the wings of Bishop Pryke right now. Most Anglican evangelicals – even if theologically sympathetic – seem to have been perplexed by what has happened, its timing, and the lack of communication surrounding it. The majority are not looking to jump ship, at least for the time being.
So what should Bishop Hardman do? Well, there is another option in addition to either 'doing something' (going down the route of litigation) or 'doing nothing'.
And that is the way of grace. Grace is unmerited kindness, favour and blessing. Grace is at the heart of the gospel – for it is how God deals with us. Grace is the truth that 'while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,' (Romans 5:8). Grace is shocking, for it is never merited, never earned, never deserved. It is a gift – which we can accept or reject.
For the Bishop of Newcastle, the 'grace option' in her current situation might involve her deciding to say to Jonathan Pryke something like this: 'I do not like what you have done and I do not agree with it. But I want, nonetheless, to offer you the right hand of Christian fellowship. I want to say that if your ministry is from God then may it be blessed. I want to meet with you and pray with you.'
She could even go on to add something along the lines of these famous New Testament words: 'The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.'
From a purely pragmatic point of view it would be unexpected. In terms of church politics it would demonstrate magnanimity. And from a theological point of view it would be a wonderful manifestation of grace in action.
Grace is a profoundly Christian concept. It inverts secular concepts of power, authority and merit. It shows power in weakness and wisdom in apparent foolishness. Grace cuts through the twisted boundaries of legalism and liberty.
I have never met Jonathan Pryke. But from all I have read he is wholeheartedly committed to the beliefs and doctrines of the Church of England as they have generally been held. For Christine Hardman to launch a legal crackdown against such a man would merely inflame denominational tensions. Then again, to do nothing might just look odd.
But to take the radical, transformative option of grace? Well, that might actually make a watching, cynical world sit up and think, 'Perhaps, just perhaps, there is something we should take note of here.' Because grace, truly, is amazing.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A