Synods and parliaments

Mark Stevens has some further reflections for Abp Rowan

When a small national church with a radically erastian polity - the Church of England - gave subconscious birth to a world-wide communion, there were obviously going to be major problems and unanswered questions. Part of the fascination of the present crisis is that those problems are now being raised in an acute form. The crucible of these developments is, of course, the United States; but the implications affect us all. When, as with the Church of England and other State Establishments of Northern Europe, the Church was effectively co-terminous with the State, there were relatively few problems. The doctrine of the Church of England was precisely what Parliament said it was, neither more nor less.

 

Church and state

The Crown in Parliament was the sole authority. But what authority was there where the writ of Parliament did not run? That, in brief, was the dilemma which American Anglicans faced at the Revolution.

The solution (remember that a remarkable number of the same people who attended the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church had also been in Philadelphia for the Continental Convention which established the United States) was to create a body remarkably similar to the secular polity in which it was to operate. The two polities, secular and ecclesiastical, shared the same problems. Were they Unitary, Federal or Confederated? Could states or dioceses accede and secede freely or were they (and others after them) indissolubly bound together by the decisions taken in 1776 and 1785? The United States fought a bloody war to settle the equivalent question. The Episcopal Church is presently occupied by a similar struggle.

All this is not merely a matter of internal American concern. It raises questionsthatthe Communion as a whole will need to address. Are the dioceses of one province related to those of another directly, as cells, or organs so to say, of one Church? Can a diocese establish bonds of fellowship and communion with other dioceses irrespective of the relations between the local churches to which they belong? And what does it mean, when a diocese secedes from one province and is received into another, for its bishops to be deposed by the original province? How does this affect the relations between the two provinces, and the relationship of the seceding diocese and its bishop to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the rest of the Anglican fellowship?

 

Seeking new models

These cease to be merely theoretical questions, when some sort of doctrinal standard affirmation is required of constituent parts of the Communion.

For then the pragmatic erastianism, whereby a General Synod or Convention merely replaces the Crown in Parliament as the ultimate ecclesiastical authority in one geographical location, breaks down. There emerges an inevitable degree of subsidiarity. Some parts of a local church may well wish to submit to a standard which other parts, or the majority of that local church, rejects.

Rowan Williams, it seems from recent statements, is trying to side-step the issues by adapting another secular polity - that of the emerging EU, with its two-tier and two-speed membership-to solve the Anglican conundrum. But one cannot see this being attractive in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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