CHURCH UNIVERSAL?

Geoffrey Kirk concludes that whatever the Anglican Communion is, it is not a Church

 

ON JANUARY 29, 2000 two American priests, Chuck Murphy and John Rodgers, were consecrated in St Andrew's Cathedral, Singapore by the Anglican Archbishops of Rwanda and South East Asia as 'missionary bishops' for the United States. It was the contention of the consecrators that the Episcopal Church of the United States had so far departed from the norms of Anglican belief and practice - from Christianity, even - as to be (as one document presented to the Kampala meeting of concerned primates in 1999 described it) 'irreformable'.

Since the consecrations there has been a predictable flurry of letters, statements and postings on the Internet. Most of these have centred on the related questions of the 'validity' and 'legality' of the consecrations. The Archbishop of Canterbury, whose track record in precision on such matters is not good, has variously described them as 'illegal' and 'invalid'. The consecrations inevitably became a major item on the agenda of the already busy meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion in Oporto, at the end of last month.

But the question of 'legality' or 'validity' of the Singapore consecrations is not the only (or even the primary) issue. They raise fundamental questions about the nature, coherence and integrity of the Anglican Communion - and thus about the ecumenical relations which other bodies (for example, the Roman Catholic Church) can and ought to have with it.

In ARCIC, as Edward Yarnold pointed out in a recent address to interested Anglicans, Rome dialogues with 'Anglicanism' as a whole. Yarnold used the phrase 'the Anglican Church'. But do the varied Provinces of Anglicanism together constitute a 'church', in any meaningful sense of the word? Has the Anglican family of churches ever had (and does it now exhibit) that degree of internal consistency which would justify such a dialogue? Could it ever, at an international (or even a provincial) level, deliver on the agreements which it had made? Those are the questions - cash-value, street-level questions - which the consecrations of 'missionary' bishops from two provinces of the 'Communion' to operate in a third, inevitably raise.

The word 'church' is, of course, a slippery one - if only because its use in the New Testament is not obviously or easily applicable to this schismatic age. The New Testament and the Patristic period envisage two manifestations of 'church' - the local church (gathered, as it was by AD 150, around its bishop), and the Church Universal (until AD 313 a necessarily vague and aspirational concept). What united the two concepts - what made it possible to refer to them both by the same name - was their common institutional witness to the one apostolic and 'catholic' faith.

It looks, then, as though 'church' is a term which could usefully be restricted, in our present divisions, to those bodies which are, or can be, operative in the reconstitution of the Great or Universal Church. That would obviously require a degree of internal coherence and accountability. A 'church', on this understanding, would be the largest ecclesial body which could competently and reliably agree with other (equally answerable) bodies, about what ought to be universally believed and practised. The Singapore consecrations and the debate surrounding them, conclusively demonstrate that the Anglican family of churches is not such a body. Probably it never has been.

The Anglican disease is primarily located in a severely dysfunctional episcopate. Anglican bishops no longer are, and in many cases no longer seek to be, guarantors of the validity of sacraments or the authenticity of dogma and moral teaching. Since the ordination and consecration of women, Orders in the Anglican family of churches have ceased to be equivalent or mutually recognised. Bishops consort and take counsel (for example at Lambeth Conferences) with those whom they suppose not to be bishops; and bishops routinely ordain to the priesthood those (both male and female) whom their fellow bishops suppose not to be priests. Some Anglicans (and they are by no means a tiny minority) entertain misgivings about the orders of some other Anglicans not dissimilar to those which 'Apostolicae Curae' undiscriminatingly extends to them all.

More serious even than that, a generally accepted (though remarkably ill-defined) doctrine of 'reception' has heightened this pragmatic stand-off into a principle of radical sacramental dubiety. It is held (by how many and with what sincerity is impossible to determine) that the admissibility (and so presumably, the validity) of women's ordination can only be determined conclusively at the end of a protracted period of experimentation. Some suppose that the term of this period can be set by the legislature of a single province; some suppose that it inevitably involves all the churches of the Communion; some would involve all the churches of the ecumenical dialogue.

There are Anglican Provinces, it is true, which have rejected this curious idea, mandated the innovation, refused ordination to those who cannot agree it, and penalised those, both lay and clerical, who will not accept it. But even they are obliged to give 'reception' a nod and wink - if only to secure their membership in that 'seventy million strong world-wide communion' which gives them kudos and respectability, as its (often diminishing) local manifestations.

Other Provinces have been reluctant to mandate women's ordination; they operate instead a mixed economy of orders. In Wales and England, a compromise has been negotiated whereby women can be ordained and serve in every diocese, whilst alternative episcopal provision is made for those who cannot accept them. (It remains to be seen whether these tortuous arrangements can withstand the strain which will be placed upon them by women bishops.)

Other provinces, like Australia, have a federal constitution which in effect allows decisions about orders, doctrine and morals to be made at diocesan level. It is perfectly possible (likely even) that in the near future the Australian church will be made up of dioceses which do not ordain women, dioceses with women bishops, and dioceses where celebration of the Eucharist by lay people is permitted and encouraged. In the foreseeable future, in the diocese of Sydney, it is possible that the only women authorised to celebrate the Holy Communion will be lay women.

What is true of Orders is true of doctrine. The presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States recently and famously remarked, in defence of his province, that he knew of 'no active bishops who are other than completely orthodox in their understanding of the creeds'. Wily commentators were not slow to point out that he had made the claim only hours after the retirement of John Shelby Spong, the heresiarch Bishop of Newark, New Jersey.

Spong (as the Archbishop of Canterbury's son Andrew was at pains to demonstrate in The Church of England Newspaper) stands in a long tradition of American heterodoxy. Spong's genius (in that not always talented catalogue of apostates) was one of self-publicity. He is a man of considerable personal charm, who has used the media, and latterly the Internet, to great advantage. His correspondence with the Archbishop of Canterbury before the 1998 Lambeth Conference was a consummate 'softening-up' operation. Letters to the Archbishop about human sexuality and the 'Twelve Theses' (which set out systematically to deny all the major dogmas of Christianity) were posted on the Internet even before they had been received at Lambeth.

The clear intention was publicly to demonstrate that someone holding the most extreme views would nevertheless be admitted to the Conference, as a bishop in good standing, without censure or comment. In that it was eminently successful; thereby opening the way to the rejection, by anyone, of any resolutions of the Conference which might, for any reason, prove uncongenial. Where anything goes; anything goes!

What is true of orders and doctrine is equally true of ethical teaching. The cause celebre in this area is the Lambeth 1998 Resolution on human sexuality. Diocese after diocese in the Episcopal Church of the United States has repudiated that resolution, and the Standing Committee on Liturgy of its General Convention has recently recommended that decisions about rites of blessing for same-sex unions should be devolved to individual dioceses. Meanwhile St Paul's Cathedral, Seattle has given an extravagant welcome to the first openly gay Dean in America. Significantly, the event was graced by the presence of retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who, in some Anglicans circles, has been elevated to the status of the late Mother Theresa.

(American razmatazz, however, in this as in other things, undeservedly steals the limelight. In its comfortable Pacific obscurity, Dunedin (Province of New Zealand) boasts not only a woman bishop, but the Communion's first openly gay Dean, an Englishman, and formerly a selection secretary in the Church of England's Ministry Division.)

But same-sex relationships (currently the presenting issue) are not the beginning, the end, or even the heart of the matter. Paradoxically the enthusiasm for blessing 'stable and permanent' same sex relationships is a spin-off from the abandonment of similar standards of fidelity in marriage. Second and third marriages, for clergy as well as laity, are a feature of North American Anglicanism. William Righter, the retired bishop who was acquitted on a heresy charge for ordaining a priest in a declared homosexual relationship, was himself thrice married with two former partners living.

The Singapore consecrations, I suggest, focus attention on the inter-connectedness of these radical departures in order, dogma and morals whose implications for the coherence of the Communion must now, at last, be taken seriously. It is a disaster for world-wide Anglicanism that the Primates' meeting in Oporto has treated the consecrations as a discrete event, and failed to see and act upon them as symptoms of very grave underlying problems.

The consecrations are symptomatic quite simply because they would not have taken place without the repeated repudiations of the Lambeth Resolution on human sexuality and the repeated ordinations, appointments and preferments of openly gay clergy. Nor would those repudiations, ordinations, appointments and preferments have come about apart from the prevailing ethical climate in ECUSA which routinely condones and blesses divorce and remarriage.

What is meant by the irreformablility of ECUSA in matters of both doctrine and morals is clearly demonstrated in the acquittal of Bishop Righter. The tribunal (two of whose members had themselves committed the offence of which the bishop was accused) determined that heresy charges could only be brought over what were termed 'core doctrines'. (These were never precisely specified, but the doctrines of the Nicene Creed were cited as examples). Issues of moral conduct, even conduct universally condemned by the tradition, were judged to be of a different order.

The implications of this decision will be immediately apparent. Righter had acted on behalf of Jack Spong (he was assistant bishop in the diocese of Newark at the time); and Spong was contemporaneously engaged in denying 'core doctrines' with impunity. It follows that, henceforward, the only sanction remaining against episcopal misconduct in the Episcopal Church rests with the civil courts.

The Singapore consecrations, however, are not merely symptomatic of the exercise of what is called 'provincial autonomy'. They are also symptomatic of the manner in which Anglicans have chosen to deal with the resultant impairment of Communion.

The 1998 Lambeth Conference requested the Archbishop of Canterbury to set up the Eames Commission on Communion and Women in the Episcopate. The Commission attempted (by means of Alternative Oversight or 'Extended Episcopal Care' ) to ensure that doctrines once cherished and upheld in every province, and still maintained in many, would continue to be available to Anglicans everywhere. Many concluded that the project was doomed before ever it was initiated; and certainly very few provinces have adopted its suggestions, the province of its Chairman not among them.

But Eames has now had the unexpected effect of encouraging some Primates, at least, to consider what provision they themselves should make where such extended care is refused. What, they asked themselves, stood in the way of their providing what was needed?

In the absence of any competent central authority, which could exercise a magisterium by which all would abide - and 'absence' here is probably too weak a term - all that, in practice, stood in their way was the cherished doctrine of episcopal territoriality.

Anglican bishops are probably the most territorially protective of all known mammals. In various parts of the Communion an ecclesial equivalent of the famous formula of the wars of religion is being expounded: 'Cuius regio, eius religio'. Appeal is made (by the Archbishop of Canterbury no less) to Canon VIII of Nicea. ('that there may not be two bishops in the city').

But what (rather predictably) is forgotten, is that the Nicaean canon was promulged at a time when the Church had only recently triumphed over the Cathari and the Novatianists. The purpose of the slogan 'One City; One Bishop' was to bolster a renascent orthodoxy.

It is in a spirit of daring paradox that the same canon is now being deployed (by American Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold and the new Primate of Australia, Peter Carnley) to accommodate varied and often conflicting heterodoxies. And it is an added irony that the Primates met in an area of Europe where no fewer than three jurisdictions of Anglican bishops not only overlap, but are co-terminous with each other. Small wonder, then, that the Singapore consecrators had few feelings of constraint!

The Oporto meeting was probably a last chance to address the Anglican malaise. Without resolute action (and Dr Carey confided to his fellow bishops before the meeting that, personally, he entertained no confident hope or expectation) there will be further disintegration and decay. It is clear that Anglicanism cannot go on being in several minds about every major issue. And it cannot hope to be taken seriously ecumenically (about accepting a Petrine Primacy and 'The Gift of Authority', for example), whilst hurling anathemas and intercontinental ballistic bishops internally from province to province.

This Anglican family squabble is one which Rome should be watching with care, for it shows every sign of getting out of hand. The time has surely come when the Vatican ought be dealing ecumenically, not with the Anglican Communion as whole (as though it were what it is not), but with individual Provinces or even parts of Provinces.

In so doing the Secretariat for Christian Unity would simply be adopting the ecumenical strategy of Anglicans themselves, who see no problem in simultaneously concluding separate and even incompatible local agreements (with Lutherans or Methodists, for example) in different parts of the world.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen's Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark. A shorter version of this piece appeared in a recent edition of The Tablet

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