Mark Stevens argues that the Archbishop of Canterbury's reactions to several recent debates are based on an ecdesiology which fails to reflect the true nature of the Anglican Communion
Not entirely unpredictably, Rowan Williams is responding to the increasing dysfunction of the Anglican Communion by attempting to apply to it a catholic ecclesiology That is, as the cant phrase used to have it, the tradition from which he is coming. But equally unsurprisingly, a catholic ecclesiology does not fit.
Consider first Rowans response to the Gene Robinson effect, as it played out in the Church of England.
Here the star of the show was Jeffrey John, an out-gay cathedral canon, and personal friend of the Archbishop, who had been selected as Bishop of Reading. (John, incidentally, had been the principal advocate in the Southwark diocese of Williams as bishop - an appointment, it was widely alleged at the time, vetoed by George Carey on the grounds of Rowans own attitude to homosexuality.)
A catholic argument
As Archbishop himself, Williams went on to veto, somewhat asymmetrically, John's appointment. He did so with an argument that, whilst further enraging the enrage, seemed at first sight incontrovertible. He began by stating that 'it would be anomalous to appoint as a bishop one whose ministry would not be received by many in the diocese or the wider Church'.
He went on later to affirm that 'the concerns of many in the diocese of Oxford are theologically serious, intelligible and by no means based on narrow party allegiance or on prejudice. They must be addressed and considered fully. Confidence in the ability of a new bishop to minister to those in his pastoral care is a centrally important matter, and it is clear that serious questions remain in the diocese' [Archbishop's Letter to the Bishops of the Church of England, 23 June 2003].
But was the argument - catholic with a small 'c' though it undoubtedly is - quite as unexceptionable and useful as it at first seemed? The problem, surely, is that what apparently (and usefully, in the ambient circumstances) ruled out a gay bishop, appeared at the same time to rule out women bishops.
What the Windsor Report had held up as an example of good practice ['The story of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate provides us with a recent example of mutual discernment and decision-making within the Anglican Communion', The Lambeth Commission on Communion, the Windsor Report, 2004, Section A, para. 12], the Archbishop was implicitly calling into question.
The bishop's role
William's argument, it has to be said, was soundly based not only in a catholic ecclesiology, but also in recent Anglican thinking about the episcopate. The Cameron Report [Report of the Archbishops' Commission on the Episcopate, 1990] was quite clear:
'In the local church the bishop focuses and nurtures the unity of his people; in his sharing in the collegiality of bishops the local church is bound together with other local churches; and through the succession of bishops the local community is related to the church throughout the ages. Thus the bishop in his own person in his diocese; and in his collegial relations in the wider Church; and through his place in the succession of bishops in their communities in faithfulness to the gospel, is a sign and focus of the unity of the Church' [p. 160, para. 351].
This vision of the bishop effecting and expressing unity on three different but interrelated 'planes' effectively rules out the selection as a bishop of anyone whose ministry cannot command general acceptance. It is part, though by no means all, of the argument which has led the Holy See to the conclusion that the Church has no authority to ordain women.
But, alas, no such seriousness or rigour seems to apply among Anglicans. Rowan Williams, who in a moment of crisis was prepared to sacrifice a friend, is nevertheless famously sympathetic to gay ordinations and on record as opining that there
are no 'theological' (for which also read ecclesiological') objections to women bishops or even to a female Archbishop of Canterbury. And where is Sheila Cameron (the chairperson of the eponymous Commission) now?
Answer: on the Manchester Group, in all probability arguing forcefully for women bishops and for minimal provision for those who cannot in conscience (informed in part by the views expressed in her own Report) accept their ministry.
Letter to Howe
Consider next Rowan's now famous letter to the Bishop of Central Florida, John Howe. (The text of Bishop Howe's letter is to be found on p. 20 of this edition of New Directions.) Like a number of other American bishops, Howe is experiencing parochial defections from the diocese. He sought the advice of the ABC. Williams replied in a manner few had expected:
I would repeat what I've said several times before - that any Diocese compliant with Windsor remains clearly in communion with Canterbury and the mainstream of the Communion, whatever may be the longer-term result for others in The Episcopal Church.
The organ of union with the wider Church is the Bishop and the Diocese rather than the Provincial structure as such. Those who are rushing into separatist solutions are, I think, weakening that basic conviction of Catholic theology and in a sense treating the provincial structure of The Episcopal Church as if it were the most important thing ...' (The text of the Archbishop's letter is to be found on p. 20 of this edition of New Directions.)
Again the sentiments are unexceptionably catholic. But again they hardly fit the observable facts. The Anglican Communion is not, after all, a worldwide Church in which all dioceses relate equally to all other dioceses and to its focus of unity, the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the contrary, it is a loose association of separate churches. They have no common doctrine or ethics, no common liturgy and orders which are no longer mutually acceptable. It is simply the case that the Primate of one of those Churches could not even be accepted as a priest in others, or in some dioceses in her own.
In this federation of separate Churches it makes little or no sense to suppose that each bishop, regardless of the doctrinal, ethical and canonical position of the Province to which he belongs, stands in an individual and direct relationship to Canterbury (much in the way in which dioceses of the Roman Church relate to the Holy See). The Roman Pontiff 'has pre-eminent ordinary power over all particular Churches' [The Code of Canon Law, in English Translation, 1982, p. 57, Canon 332]. Canterbury has no power whatever over any of them; and what power he might have been thought to have now seems to have been dispersed among the various other 'instruments of communion.
A loose association
For example, when the Diocese of Hong Kong - which at the time was an extra-provincial diocese under the Archbishop of Canterbury - sought to ordain women to its priesthood, the bishop approached and received encouragement from the recently created Anglican Consultative Council. (The first meeting of the Council took place at Limaru, 1971.) Michael Ramsay, who might have been thought to have been the relevant authority for that approach, could not, of course, have decided the matter contrary to the canons of his own church without seeming to have pre-empted a debate which had not yet taken place. So there was no point in approaching him! Even Ramsay was not the free agent which Williams wants John Howe to be or to seem be.
The truth is that, quite unlike Rome, where national hierarchies are subordinate to the central authority and bishops have direct access and responsibility to the Holy See, in the Anglican Communion individual churches are sovereign and autonomous. Anglican ecclesiology, in the end, comes down to who pays, hires and fires.
Bishops, even Archbishops of Canterbury, are beholden to the canons and discipline of their provinces - as Bob Duncan, Jack Iker and the rest will most certainly discover if they are found to have 'abandoned the Communion of TEC, and Katharine Schori begins the process of establishing dioceses and bishops in their place, which will claim and hold all real estate and assets. (See the letters of PB Katharine Schori to Bishop Duncan and Bishop Iker, and their replies on p. 21 of this edition of New Directions.) With which dioceses will Rowan be 'in communion? Will it matter?
There is, in truth, no appetite in the wider Communion (on either side of the divide over human sexuality) for the kind of ecclesiology which Williams is seeking to adopt. Both Michael Peers (former Primate of Canada) and Peter Akinola of Nigeria have been forthright
in repudiating any suggestion of a 'special role' for Canterbury (which both, in their different ways, have seen, not as an essential of a coherent Communion-wide ecclesiology, but as an undesirable offshoot of colonialism).
Exercise of the prerogative of the Archbishop to invite or dis-invite to the Lambeth Conference whom he will also looks likely to backfire. Provinces have already begun to indicate that they will attend on an all-or-none basis. Even if they back off from that position, the prestige of the Conference will suffer from the selective nature of its participants. It is probably safe to say that it will never regain the moral authority it once had, or was thought to have.
There is tragedy in all this. Of course, Rowan is right: there is, for a worldwide episcopal Church, only one ecclesiology up for grabs, and that is one substantially similar to that outlined in the Canons of the Catholic Church (see especially Canons 368-439). But no power on earth is going to make the vociferous and affluent minority of the Anglican Communion accept the fact; nor the belligerent and aggrieved majority either.
And, alas, the current strategy of inventing a new ecclesial quango for every crisis (the Anglican Consultative Council; an Archbishops' Commission on this or that; the Panel of Reference; the Primates' Meeting; the Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting) is destined to run out of time very soon. It must surely be abandoned before it becomes risible. \ND\
Return to Home Page of This Issue
Return to Trushare Home Page