Comment: February 1997

 

IF PROFESSOR SCHUMACHER is right and small is indeed beautiful, then the autonomous province of the Anglican Communion over which Richard Holloway presides is exquisite.

The Provincial Office in Edinburgh boasts 54,382 members of whom 33,795 have `communicant status'. But those figures are universally regarded as optimistic. A more realistic assessment of the church's strength can be gained from the communicant count undertaken in congregations on the `Sunday next before Advent' (Feast of Christ the King). Take the diocese of Brechin.

In 1991 Brechin had 7,068 members, of whom 3,563 were `communicants' and 1,298 were present and communicating on the last Sunday of the Church's year. In 1995 the same diocese had 6,394 members of whom 971 were recorded in the end of year count. After a shocking decline of over one third in practising membership in five years, an extrapolation from the Brechin figures would give a national count of around 8,500. Not surprisingly no figures are available centrally for the 'Sunday next before Advent'; but a generous estimate would be around 14,000. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

For a once doughty and vigorous little Church with a proud history of resisting the pressures of the politically correct in succeeding generations, all this is nothing short of tragic. Such figures would, one might suppose, curb the exuberance of any bishop - and certainly discourage him from deriding other groupings as `tiny'. Not so with the Scottish Primus. Richard obviously enjoys being a relatively large fish in a very small pond, and the curious ecclesiology of the Anglican Communion, which allows a tiny body like the Scottish Episcopal Church plenary rights of self determination, encourages his truculence. But perhaps he is now less confident than he has sometimes seemed. The episode of the `inhibition' of Edwin Barnes revealed him as more threatened than threatening,

`The little group here - and it is a little group,' he told The Scottish Episcopalian (January 9) ' - have refused to accept that we are not going to provide flying bishops and they are trying to align themselves with the group in England...I have no doubt that there is a hidden agenda. The fact that they have done this seems to me to suggest they are manoeuvring for a show down.'

Just so; except that the agenda has never been hidden. Affirming Apostolic Order agreed some time ago to enter into a new and closer relationship with Forward in Faith. There was no secret; the matter was openly discussed at the Forward in Faith National Assembly in September 1996 and reported in New Directions. A joint letter from the Chairmen of AAO and FIF publicly announced the fact in The Scotsman.

If size is what matters most to the Primus, then he is right to feel threatened, and AAO is right to make common cause with friends in England. With 258 registered parishes, 1,152 priests, 6250 paid up lay members and 17,000 registered supporters Forward in Faith is already probably as large as Holloway's entire Province. And unlike the Scottish Episcopal Church it is growing.

But of course, as the Lambeth Conference of 1948 made clear, in matters of the development of doctrine, numbers are largely irrelevant. Developments which affect the whole life of the Church, the Lambeth Fathers decided, require `a consensus of the whole people of God which does not depend on mere numbers or on the extension of a belief at any one time, but on continuance through the ages and the extent to which the consensus is genuinely free'.

A similar view was taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Communion and Women in the Episcopate (`The Eames Commission') which argued for maintaining a plurality of opinion within the Communion and in every constituent part of it. Richard Holloway's attempt to make of the Scottish Episcopal Church a one party state of which he is the Milosevic flies in the face of that advice and is not likely to commend his activities to the originator of the Commission.

`I have written to the Archbishop of Canterbury', said Holloway of Barnes's inhibition, `because...it is inappropriate for them to be operating up here even with an invitation.' Reliable sources suggest that Dr. Carey's response was less than cordial, for Carey is just what the Primus cannot cope with: a recent but sincere convert to tolerance.

Before Margaret Thatcher set him on a steep learning curve, George Carey had opinions not unlike Richard's. He was all for the extirpation of opposition. Asked if he thought that opponents of the ordination of women should be forced to leave the Church he told the BBC:

"... if they are to come out in opposition once that legislation becomes law, then I don't think they have any choice because we must, in a democratic Church, be willing to work with men and women together. And if a group of men declare their opposition it is very sad, but I think the logic of their opposition must mean that when it becomes law they will be placed in an impossible position".

All that, if rather tortuous in syntax, was in full accord with the declared (and `unanimous') opinion of the then House of Bishops:

`Once a province has expressed its mind in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood 'it would be anomalous to appoint a bishop who was actively opposed to the mind of the province and in particular opposed to the common mind of the college of bishops. A common mind on the understanding of the ministry, the bond of communion, is essential within the college of bishops if the unity of the ministry and thus of the Church is to be maintained' GS 769 para 40 (vii).

But the `common mind of the college of bishops' has changed, and with it Dr. Carey. Asked, in Question Time at the recent session of the Synod, whether the views expressed in GS 769 40 (vii) were still those of the House, its Chairman was eager to deny it. `I want to reject immediately the substance of that,' he told his questioner, '...people of both integrities are considered seriously for senior appointments'. And this time he probably means it.

It is merely human nature for Carey, who after all has come a long way, to be impatient with Holloway, who has hardly begun the journey. Thereby hangs the moral of this tale: that tolerance, quite simply, is a virtue hard come-by, even among clergymen; and that it is more likely, alas, to be the result of robust political encounter than of theological reflection. So the association in Scotland between Affirming Apostolic Order and Forward in Faith may yet be the salvation of Richard Holloway. If, that is, he still believes that toleration is a Christian virtue.

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