Unity by ambiguity

Despite the Church of England's initial unwillingness to engage with theology in its quest for unity the Eighties saw some short-lived progress, as George Austin explains in his exploration of the ecumenical debate

 

The 1975 debate on the ordination of women was introduced by the then Bishop of Oxford and he ended with what would, in his opinion, be its effect on ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

He complained about allegations that it would ‘put a stop to all the progress that has been made in our conversations’ with these two churches. Quite properly he pointed out that ecumenical progress is only made ‘when churches participating in theological conversations bear witness to what they believe to be true.’

International commissions

This was certainly the practice, then and since, in discussions between individual communions. The Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) has always been the most high-powered in its representation, working tirelessly to achieve some measure of progress. Discussions with the Orthodox churches and those of the Reformed tradition have produced reams of reports from international working parties.

Anglican–Lutheran discussions looked likely to make significant steps towards unity, not least because with the Churches of Sweden and Finland there was a recognition by Anglicans that they had retained the historic episcopate. Moreover, unlike many English Protestants, Lutherans hold a firm belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

The major ecumenical debate in the Seventies concerned Anglican–Methodist relations and was based on a 1968 report, which, though carefully prepared and well-intentioned, was disastrously misused by both participating churches. Instead of the two churches bearing witness to what they believed to be true, each to a greater or lesser extent began to develop forms of words, in interpreting the proposals, which could mean one thing to one church and something quite contrary to the other.

Interpretation

This was particularly the case in the proposals for the reconciliation of the ministries of the two churches. The Bishop of Ripon, Dr John Moorman, was a member of the ARCIC and firm in his rejection of this method: ‘I cannot believe the way in which the Service of Reconciliation is being offered to Methodists as not an ordination and to Anglicans as a conditional ordination is likely to be very favourably received when our Commission meets in August to consider the Anglican doctrine of priesthood.’

That it was still part of the proposals was surprising, given that about half the clergy – 1500 priests in the Northern Province and no less than 4000 in the Southern Province – had said they would not be prepared to take part in such a service. Even the authors of the report before the Synod said, ‘The deliberate ambiguity is admitted.’ On 3 May 1972, the Synod failed to reach the necessary two-thirds majority in either the House of Clergy or the House of Laity.

In 1976, the Board for Mission and Unity offered new proposals – the Ten Propositions. It seemed at first that the lessons had been learnt when, introducing the report, the Bishop of Guildford stated that ‘the propositions do not propose a scheme of structural unity, but provide for a relationship of mutual acceptance and commitment between the churches which will enable them to act and grow together in mission.’

Outcome

These led to the Proposals for a Covenant with the Free Churches, finally voted on by the Synod on 7 July 1982. In his opening speech, the Bishop of Guildford reiterated that the Proposals ‘are not a union scheme and do not themselves change the order and practice of our own church nor the terms of its relationships with other churches with which we are in communion.’

However, to the leading Catholic layman, Oswald Clarke, the Proposals ‘would fatally compromise in their outworking the integrity, the essential catholicity of the Church of England, and radically disturb the Catholic, Reformed, ecumenical balance that belongs to the essence of the Church of England.’

When the vote was taken, assent was of course given by the House of Bishops, and this time the Laity reached the necessary two-thirds majority with 68·4%. The House of Clergy managed only 61% and so the motion was lost. But, contrary to some critics, it was not a rejection of ecumenism.

Almost immediately, the House of Bishops established a working party under the Bishop of Derby to discuss Anglican involvement in local ecumenical development and especially in Local Ecumenical Projects (LEPs). Both supporters and opponents of the Covenant proposals were on the whole agreed that local development was the way forward. For the Church of England, this meant a change in law, with a new Measure, and by the promulgation of new Canons.

Already Canon B15a was in existence, allowing baptized members of other churches to receive communion in Anglican churches. The Board for Mission and Unity (BMU) persisted in claiming that it was ‘passed in 1974 after the failure of the Anglican Methodist Scheme,’ but in reality its date was 12 February 1972, three months before the Scheme’s rejection. The Canon had passed easily in all three Houses, while its associated Measure had gained final approval a year before.

Restrictions

The Ecumenical Relations Measure enabled ‘provision to be made by Canon with respect to local co-operation between the Church of England and other churches.’ But there were restrictions. Ministers who had not been episcopally ordained as a priest and whose orders were ‘not recognized and accepted by the Church of England’ could not preside at a Eucharist ‘according to the rites of the Church of England.’

Moreover, the provisions of the Measure were limited to churches which subscribe to ‘the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and administer the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.’ The BMU guide to the Measure carefully omitted this latter limitation, and it does seem that at least some of the restrictions were ignored from the passing of the Measure. But passed it was, on 7 July 1987, and because the debate had been careful and considerate of hesitations and the Measure amended accordingly, it was passed overwhelmingly, with only nine votes against.

It seemed that the Church of England had moved on from ‘unity by ambiguity’ to a more theologically based ‘unity in diversity.’ But in November 1992, a decisive spanner was thrown into the works with the decision to ordain women to the priesthood.

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