Dividing treacle

John Hunwicke looks first at the Rochester Report and its commendation of the corporate nature of a bishop's office, and then at the Guildford Report with its apparent complete denial of this important truth

Perhaps the strongest part of Rochester is its section on the patristic view of bishops.

Analysing the teaching of St Ignatius, the earliest of the Fathers to give a full treatment of episcopacy, Rochester tells us (2.3.14): ‘in his view the government of the Church has been committed by God to the Bishop together with his presbyters and deacons. This view of the government of the Church was accepted throughout the patristic period. It was not the bishops alone who governed the Church. Rather, the bishops governed the Church together with their presbyters, who shared in their priestly ministry and formed their governing council, and with the assistance of their deacons.’

Ecumenical documents

In other words, the bishop is not a solitary ruler; his ministry of ‘oversight’ is meshed into his presbyterium. Dom Gregory Dix pointed out that, in as far as you can find concepts of ‘jurisdiction’ in the early centuries – and he could not find many – it is the presbyterium that is usually found exercising it and not the bishop; certainly not the bishop in isolation.

So hooray for ecumenical documents – designed to recommend episcopacy to ecclesial bodies that lack it – which talk about episkope as ‘exercised in personal, collegial and communal ways’ (Baptism Eucharist and Ministry, WCC 1982). Some schemes for unity with Presbyterians have even hit upon the admirable phrase ‘bishops-in-presbytery.’ I like it. We should go for it.

That is why the Guildford Group Report (let’s call it Guildford) makes such weird reading. It employs a model of episcopacy in which medieval, feudal or Tudor complexities of ‘jurisdiction’ are completely central. I have recently been doing some work in the registers of the fifteenth century Bishops of Exeter, and when I turned to Guildford I found myself in exactly the same crabbed and clerkly world of stuffy and formulaic legalese.

Jurisdiction, for Guildford, is an all-important substance not unlike treacle which Nanny has up her sleeve and which is entirely at her disposal to ladle out. If this is episcopacy then, frankly, I can see why Methodists and Presbyterians have their reservations. The authentic Catholic tradition, on the other hand, makes clear that, just as the ordained minister is bishop, priest or deacon in community with the faithful people, so the bishop exercises episkope in and with his presbyterium. Either it is a corporate function corporately exercised or – to be blunt – it is corrupt. Jurisdiction, if authentic, should be the consequence and expression of personal, corporate and sacramental categories.

We need to repudiate, and repudiate strongly, the suggestion of Guildford that what we are concerned about is simply that jurisdiction must stem from a male bishop. And we need to repudiate this all the more resolutely because some of the compromises we have reluctantly made in the last fifteen years do give the impression that this is the be-all and end-all of our problem.

Not about jurisdiction

Let us be clear. What traditionalists have problems with is bishops who have women priests in their presbyterium. A priestly body which has for some of its ‘members’ those who have undergone a simulation of priestly ordination is a corrupt institution (I use the word technically) and the bishop who is meshed into such a body is, to that extent, himself a corrupt phenomenon. The question is not whether the Bishop of Barchester has laid hands on women. It is whether he has women in his presbyterium.

I fail to see any difference between a bishop who has women in his presbyterium because he has ordained and licensed them, and a bishop who, for whatever reason, declines to ordain women but licenses them or commissions somebody else to license them. We have an impaired relationship of communion, not with a bishop who has ‘tainted hands,’ but with a bishop who has women members in his priestly community.

‘My’ priesthood is not my private individual possession but a participation in Christ’s priesthood given to me to be exercised corporately. If the corporate presbyterium to which I belong includes women, then I am formally involved in their ministerial actions. This means that I am ‘forced to accept the ministrations of a woman against [my] conscience’ (HoB 1988 cited with approval by Rochester). If I conducted myself as a member of some bishop’s presbyterium, and that presbyterium had women members, I would, in the words of Rochester, be ‘sharing in their priestly ministry.’ I cannot do that, because I truly believe that they are not priests.

That is why, if I find myself using a Eucharistic Prayer in which ‘our bishop’ (i.e. the bishop to whose presbyterium I belong) is to be named, I have to name the Bishop of Ebbsfleet. I do so with regret. I have never liked sandbanks.

They do not understand

Guildford recommends, as the solution to our present problems, ‘TEA’ (Transferred Episcopal Arrangements). If a parish refuses women’s sacerdotal ministry, the diocesan will still retain some of his jurisdiction over that parish, but he will consign the most important bits of it to his archbishop. The archbishop will then pass on the exercise of these bits to a PRB (Provincial Regional Bishop). Everybody is then supposed to be happy, especially the legal staff in Canterbury and Barchester who will be able to buy new wigs out of their overtime payments.

Unfortunately, I will not be happy. My ecclesiology is not an ecclesiology of manipulating and dissecting treacle – dividing up and dishing out to different people the different bits of the exercise of jurisdiction – but of relationships between people within the sacramental structures of Christ’s Body the Church.

As a priest, I need to function among the holy people of God and to do so with fellow priests as a member of some bishop’s presbyterium. If that is denied me, I do not understand who or what I am. But what does Guildford offer me? If I am lucky enough to be in a parish which has passed a resolution drafted by Guildford, we shall be transferred to the archbishop, who will replace the diocesan bishop as our and my Ordinary and will be the recipient of oaths taken by clergy. Rowan will then, while remaining my Ordinary, delegate (because his treacle is his to give to whomsoever he wills) the exercise of his jurisdiction, together with actual pastoral and sacramental ministry, to a PRB, who will be rather like the area bishop of a diocesan bishop.

This means that although the everyday episcopal ministry I receive will be from or through a PRB, it will be Rowan’s ministry that he is (by delegation) exercising, and I (and that PRB) will be a member of Rowan’s presbyterium. And Rowan has women priests in his presbyterium. What will I have gained except a slightly more upmarket brand of treacle?

At several points Guildford seeks to tease out the basic minimum we can live with. Speaking for myself and as a priest (the problems are not precisely identical for bishops, priests, deacons, and laypeople), the ‘minimum’ is to be member of a presbyterium the other members of which I know actually to be priests.

Rochester also laudably talks about the bishop’s ‘role as an instrument of the Church’s unity’ and claims: ‘Like a bishop in patristic times the role of a Church of England bishop is an instrument of unity.’ It appropriates Gore’s summary of St Cyprian’s teaching: ‘of this unity the bishop is in each community at once the symbol, the guardian and the instrument.’ Yet Guildford, in a paragraph that is new to its latest revision, talks about ‘shared jurisdiction’: ‘in the case of TEA, we would have a form of shared episcopal ministry between Diocesan, the Metropolitan and the PRB.’

Multiple unities

What on earth does this leave of the bishop as a ‘symbol, guardian and instrument of unity’? Since episcopal ministry will be shared between three bishops, how can we avoid the conclusion that the episcopate will become a ‘symbol, guardian, and instrument of disunity’? In Guildford the very reason why three bishops are to be involved is precisely that a radical disunity, impaired communion, exists between those who do, and those who do not, accept that women can validly receive and exercise sacerdotal ministry. Those three pontiffs, sitting round their treacle pot with their three spoons, will be effectual sacramental signs and expressions of disunity.

Furthermore, for patristic writers, the One bishop expressed the Oneness of the One Father. In offering us multiple episcopacy, polyepiskope, Guildford unintentionally but by implication offers us polytheism. Yes; I really do believe the problem is as serious as that. If you think I am scaremongering, ponder this. Guildford reminds us that the measure for women bishops will be accompanied by ‘necessary consequential legislation and liturgical business.’ This means that feminist Newspeak will have to displace expressions of authentic biblical and patristic theology in texts like Canon C18.1: ‘Every bishop is...father in God.’ When this goes as presumably it must, so will an understanding of episcopacy which reaches back to the New Testament [I Timothy 2–3].

The day when, formally and solemnly, the Provinces of Canterbury and York thus by implication deny that the God whom the bishop images is Father, and that he is the One Source of that Godhead which he shares with Son and Spirit, will be their most profound lurch into heresy since 597.

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