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‘Rebel Priest’ Rev Jules Gomes: The Church needs to demolish its wall around conservatism


We don’t need no fence erections!

We don’t need no border control!

Why can’t we be nice and inclusive?

Hey! Trump! Leave them migrants alone!

All in all we don’t want another brick in the wall.

(Anthem sung by Bishops in the Church of England—with apologies to Pink Floyd)

Bishops Without Borders? Why not? Doctors Without Borders have been around for a bit, and they’ve been saving lives. So what’s wrong with a new model of Évêques sans Frontières along the lines of Médecins Sans Frontières? Bishops need balls and brains, not borders. And the new species of bishops in the Church of England have lost both. Évêques sans couilles et sans cervelle!

So what’s the problem? The bishops of the Church of England love the idea of Europe without borders and a world without borders. They detest national borders. They demonise the Donald for his Mexican border wall. They cry foul against the Israeli wall, deeming it a symbol of apartheid. They call down fire and brimstone on immigration policies that defend borders and keep out illegal immigrants.

Roots down, walls down. We are European; we have nothing to fear or to lose if we remain so,’ tweets Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool. ‘Praise the #LambofGod who cannot be out-tweeted by #Trump, limited by #Brexit or alienated by globalisation. He has no borders: He is Lord,’ tweets Stephen Conway, Bishop of Ely. Across the pond, 60 Episcopal bishops gather at the Mexican border carrying white crosses. Joined by another 60 fellow bishops in Phoenix, they urge a US policy of open borders.

Bishops hate borders. Well, the House of Bishops ought to be tossing their mitres in the air like students at a university graduation and twirling their crosiers like the drum major at an army parade.

Why? Because, this week, a bishop without borders has been ordained as a missionary bishop to plant churches and ordain priests in the British Isles. Hip, hip, hurray! This means we will have a church without borders. Isn’t that what Jesus intended? Isn’t that what being church is all about?

Good heavens, no, non, nein! Bishops without borders? You can’t be serious! Where will it all end? When it comes to the Church of England, bishops love borders. Controlling borders, patrolling borders and managing borders is the raison d’être of the House of Bishops.

The episcopal ordination of the Rev Jonathan Pryke, Senior Minister at Jesmond Parish Church in the Diocese of Newcastle, has just blown ecclesiastical and parochial borders to bits. It has left Justin Welby and John Sentamu, Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and Christine Hardman, Bishop of Newcastle, caught purple-faced with pants down and cassocks up. Not in the same room, of course, which might have been a tad more embarrassing.

Jonathan Pryke, who has been serving at the conservative evangelical Jesmond Parish Church since 1988, has just been consecrated as a “bishop in the Church of God” by the Presiding Bishop of the Church of England in South Africa (CESA) at a service in Newcastle upon Tyne on 2 May. It’s put the CofE between a rock and a hard place. For while the Church of England recognises CESA’s orders of bishop, priest and deacon, it is not in ‘full communion’ with it.

That honour it has given to the liberal Anglican Church of South Africa which, you’ve guessed it, welcomes clergy in same-sex civil partnerships, an issue that Jesmond Parish Church and Pryke takes a firm (an uncompromising) stand on. Pryke and his church have been at war with the former Bishop of Newcastle Martin Wharton and even a former Archbishop of York David Hope over the issue of homosexuality.

Pryke has never pulled his punches. He and his church have castigated the present regime of liberal bishops in the Church of England calling them ‘ecclesiastically unhealthy.’ He has blamed ‘inept episcopal leadership’ for buying into ‘Liberal Protestantism’s God, the “God without wrath” who “brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”’ These bishops have ‘trouble saying “No!” to anything except the racism, sexism, and other isms denounced by progressives.’ Jesmond Parish Church, who reject women’s ordination, now have a woman bishop on their doorstep.

The entire episode piles irony upon irony. Welby has been on a 12-day jolly to the Holy Land, walking the tightrope between the Israelis and Palestinians, saying that he will send Sarah Snyder his “impressive head of reconciliation” in July to continue the ‘unfinished business’ of peace-making. Alighting from his plane in London, “Wobbly” Welby has just fallen off the tightrope. He can’t make peace between the liberals and conservatives in his own backyard.

Archbishop John Sent-to-moo has been struck dumb like the priest Zechariah in Luke’s gospel after he saw a vision in the temple. He can’t say moo to the new bishop in Newcastle. Newcastle isn’t his backyard; it is his front yard. Poor Sentamu can’t even cut up his dog collar on national television threatening not to don it until he is rid of the new turbulent bishop because he already cut up his collar on the Andrew Marr show in 2007 saying he wouldn’t replace it until Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was kicked out.

Both Welby and Sentamu have issued a pre-election manifesto calling for ‘cohesion, courage and stability’ in the new government. In a delicious irony, they now find their own church imploding with division, cowardice and chaos.

Sentamu must be catatonic. He’s notched up more cock-ups to his credit in the last couple of years than the commanding officer leading the charge of the Light Brigade. When the bells of York Minster fell silent under the ‘elf and safety’ spell cast by Dean “Vicious Viv” Faull, he stepped in and put his foot right into the Doberman droppings in the bell tower.

Bishopette Christine Hardman (shouldn’t it be Hardwoman or Hardperson?) is flooding her Twitter feed with superlatives, hopelessly trying to sweep the rebellion under her magic carpet. While conservative Anglican bishops from the Church of England in South Africa were laying their hands on Pryke, Hardman was tooting her tuba and announcing a ‘great service’ at Newcastle Cathedral with ‘4 fantastic new canons.’ If you take a look at photographs of the service, you will see a geriatric gathering of around fewer than 50 worshippers.

This compounds the crisis of the new bishop without a border. He’s got the most thriving congregation in Newcastle. It is bursting with children and young people and international students. It’s got pots and pots of dosh and doesn’t have to go to the Heritage Lottery Fund begging for a large tip (Newcastle Cathedral has just been given a handout, which is currently near the top of Bishop Hardwoman’s Twitter feed). The vicar, David Holloway, was born in 1939, the year World War 2 began, and so Ms Hardman can’t sack him for fomenting the rebellion since he has a freehold which he hasn’t given up like many other clergy, poor suckers!

And if she files a Clergy Discipline Measure against Pryke on grounds of ‘conduct that is unbecoming or inappropriate to the office and work of the clergy,’ he can flip his Bible and point her to Paul’s first letter to Timothy, ‘If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.’ She can expect a nuclear fallout if she sues him under the obsolete Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963 since Pryke’s vicar, the Holloway, has threatened ‘reciprocal heresy trials’ if legal action is taken against his curate.

A Church of England spokesman has released a typically anodyne statement stating its legal position. ‘No overseas bishop may exercise episcopal functions within the Church of England without the express permission of the Archbishop of the province and a commission from the Bishop of the diocese in which they wish to minister.’ Hmm… bishops who don’t respect borders are worse than child molesters or serial killers!

But the Church of England already has flying bishops, crawling bishops and amphibious bishops. So what’s wrong with Celtic missionary bishops? Moreover, under Welby, the Church of England has spawned a plethora of neologisms like messy church, radical new inclusion, mixed economy, mutual flourishing and good disagreement. Welby’s buzz-phrases have come back to bite him on the episcopal rump. He’s now got a really ‘messy church,’ and he needs to practise ‘radically including’ the new conservative bishop in a ‘mixed economy’ to ensure ‘mutual flourishing’ by observing ‘good disagreement!’

In the 500th year of the Reformation, for which Welby and Sentamu offered hand-wringing apologies, Anglicanism in the British Isles is on the cusp of a new reformation, as former Queen’s Chaplain Dr Gavin Ashenden points out. Bishop Pryke is spearheading a rebellion and a reformation and will soon be joined by a flotilla of rebel bishops armed with balls, brains and most importantly, the Bible!

Meanwhile, what Susan Howatch’s character quips in her novel Absolute Truths might well be repeated by the new ‘bishops without borders’ about the current Church of England bishops: ‘My predecessor as bishop, I regret to say, had reputedly died of inertia.’

(Image: Quinn Dombrowski)

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‘Rebel Priest’ Rev Jules Gomes
‘Rebel Priest’ Rev Jules Gomes
The Rev’d Dr Jules Gomes, BA, BD, MTh, PhD (Cantab) is a journalist and academic.

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