ON WENLOCK EDGE
Geoffrey Kirk examines an ill-considered attempt to end the Act of Synod.
AT THE TAKING of biscuits (and / or crackers) John Saxbee is probably as adept as anyone in the long history of effrontery. The Bishop (and Archdeacon) of Ludlow is also President of the amusingly retitled Modern Churchpeople's Union and has recently written to The Church Times [Jan 1,1999] on the subject of the 1993 Act of Synod.
The Bishop (and Archdeacon) was consecrated in 1994. He was then asked by the Archbishop, as are all upwardly mobile clergypersons before their consecration, the two defining questions of modern episcopacy: whether he would uphold the document 'Issues in Human Sexuality' and whether he would 'work' the 1993 Act of Synod.
We can be reasonably confident that the Bishop (and Archdeacon) answered affirmatively. He may even have said 'yes'. But now, in the public press, he vaunts his ambition to see the Act terminated on November 11, 2002, and adds insult to injury by priding himself on his own 'generosity' in the matter, and that of other Modern Churchpersons generally.
There are two principal reasons why this is being hailed as a landmark in the history of bare-faced cheek.
The first, of course, is that it demonstrates a woeful (and perhaps wilful) ignorance of the nature and spirit of the legislation which it aims to terminate. A few vocal gems from the Manchester Statements of the House of Bishops which preceded the 1993 Act will suffice to make the point:
We recognise, however, that there are those who doubt the theological and/or
ecclesiological basis of the decision, and we accept that these are views which will
continue to be held within the Church of England, and that those who hold them remain
valued and loyal members of the Anglican family. At the same time as we affirm that
differing views about the ordination of women to the priesthood can continue to be held
with integrity within the Church of England, we encourage a willingness on the part of all
to listen with respect to the views of those from whom they differ, and to afford a
recognition of the value and integrity of each other's position within the Church.
We believe that the Anglican ethos and tradition which has been developed under God
through our experience and history gives us particular resources for living through our
present disagreements and uncertainties and doing so together. This ethos, tradition and
communion include commitment to Biblical authority, Trinitarian worship, respect for
traditional doctrinal formulations, agreement about the need for an ordered and ordering
ministry, and the practice of mutual responsibility and fellowship of a particularly open
kind. Although we have differing interpretations, views and practices we maintain a shared
commitment to belong together and to serve God together. [Manchester I]
The bishops, corporately and individually, are pledged to maintain the integrity of both positions. Both are represented in the House of Bishops. The House now indicates how in practice the diocese and the local churches can live with this diversity. [Manchester II 'Bonds of Peace']
The Act of Synod, uniquely in the history of the Synod's legislative relations with Parliament, was an expansion of an existing Measure intended to secure its passage through the Ecclesiastical Committee. To put it bluntly, it was not an act of grace but of bitter necessity. There was a clearly perceived danger that the Measure would not be deemed 'expedient' without it.
Moreover, though the Act had its origins in a fear that without it the legislation might fall at the final hurdle, it had its intellectual foundations in a doctrine of reception which derives from the work of the Eames Commission (as the Manchester bishops freely acknowledged). And as Eames constantly repeats, and the 1993 Act itself explicitly states, the process of reception involves not only the Church of England, but the wider Anglican Communion and the world-wide Church. Through a careful development of the notion of 'reception' Eames sought to locate current controversies in the Anglican communion within the whole historical development of doctrine.
Now the Bishop (and Archdeacon) of Ludlow may, for all I know, think that the Act itself, and the notion of reception which underlies it, are so much tosh and verbiage. He may believe that they should never have been enacted in the first place (and he may suspect, as I do myself, that many voted for them at the time, whose hearts were not in it).
But John Saxbee's opinions on the matter (or those of the Modern Churchpeople's Union) are neither here nor there. The Act was enacted; assurances of toleration and equal treatment were given; and men and women of integrity and faith made their ecclesiastical dispositions accordingly. They did so precisely because those assurances were said to be theologically-based, wide-ranging and long-lasting. They may even have been encouraged to do so because the proposed arrangements had been placed, not only before the General Synod, but before a committee of the High Court of Parliament.
To end those arrangements after a mere ten years would be an outrageous and scandalous breach of trust. It would, in all probability, result in a disaffection with the national church of a vigour and scope unprecedented in its eventful history.
But there is a second and more compelling reason for regarding the Bishop's (and Archdeacon's) proposal as both infamous and insolent. It derives from the very nature of the body from which it comes.
The Modern Churchpeople's Union is neatly described in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church as 'An Anglican religious society for the advancement of liberal religious thought, esp. in the C of E...Among its aims are to uphold the comprehensiveness of the C of E and to maintain the legitimacy of doctrinal re-statement and the adjustment of forms of worship to accord with the believed requirements of modern discovery.' Just so. Except that we are to understand that the Union has recently decided to curtail the comprehensiveness which it aims to uphold. The proud champions of scepticism, it seems, have embraced dogma; Galileo has joined forces with the Inquisition. And everything is to be tolerated, except consistency, fidelity and apostolicity.
The cheek of the thing is that this momentous change of heart is proclaimed with deafening self-approbation by a man whose theological opinions would not long ago have precluded his elevation to the episcopate, and who should consider himself extremely lucky that it was only the Act of Synod and 'Issues in Human Sexuality' to which the Archbishop required his specific assent.
The tragedy of the contemporary Anglican Communion is the arrogance of the soit-disant liberals within it. Their hectoring posture (from what is, in the communion at large - and overwhelmingly among Christians world-wide - a minority position) celebrates, in advance of the judgement of God, the triumph of the present over the past; the first world over the third; the rich over the poor; the self-opinionated over the faithful.
But it is futile to be surprised; rather be prepared. Liberal theology, with its adoption of a doctrinaire egalitarianism, is the theological successor of the French Revolution; and we owe to Lady Bracknell the invaluable reflection as to what excesses that unfortunate event gave rise. To adapt that once modern, but now rather demode Churchperson, the Abbe Loisy: 'the apostles expected the return of Christ; but they, have had, in more recent times, to put up instead with the advent of the Modern Churchpeople's Union'.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen's, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.
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