The numbers game

 

It was surreal, a day before the moving funeral of Pope John Paul, to listen (courtesy of SSC) to Bishop Christopher Hill and Dr Mary Tanner on ecumenism and the doctrine of reception.

The Anglican Communion, they implied, is too diffuse and centrifugal; the Roman Church too centralized and totalitarian. The future Great Church will emerge from a dialogue between the two. And that dialogue, they seemed to imply, is a dialogue of equals.

Not so. Provoked by pertinent questions, the two speakers were obliged to admit the disparity between the two bodies: seventy million Anglicans as opposed to one point two billion Roman Catholics. But the disparity, of course, is not primarily one of size, but of origin.

The Roman Church, as the burial of Pope John Paul among so many popes and close to the tomb of Peter graphically demonstrated, is the rock from which the Church of England is hewn. The orders of the Anglican Communion derive, even in its own understanding of authority and apostolicity, from those of Rome. At the Reformation the CofE embraced a paradox with which it must forever live until its days are done. It turned half its back on that upon which it is dependent.

Bishop Hill told us that we have to live with current Anglican realities, among them provincial autonomy in the matter of orders. Here again we are living with paradox. Provincial autonomy in orders is not a stand-alone ecclesiological principle. No one in the Communion, fifty years ago, supposed that provinces could make unilateral decisions of this kind, any more than they thought they could alter the Canon of Scripture or the Catholic Creeds. The interchangeabilty and mutual acceptability of bishops was rightly seen as both sign and agent of catholicity.

Provincial autonomy is not a ‘principle’ of Anglican ecclesiology. It is an adventitious development which exists merely to accommodate dubious innovation. In what other areas of doctrine, order and morals will it now be invoked with impunity?

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