‘Carey on Denver’

John Richardson on the Episcopate and authority

Writing an article about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent pronouncements on the Denver consecrations has turned out to be the hardest thing I have ever had to do for New Directions, mainly because I have no wish to launch a personal attack on a man with a difficult enough job to do. Yet the Bible tells us that personal disagreements within the Church cannot always be avoided, and that in such circumstances directness is best. When the apostle Paul was faced with Peter’s desertion of gospel principles he reported, ‘I opposed him to his face’ (Galatians 2.11). Not that I am comparing myself with Paul – I am simply saying that when the Gospel is at stake, plain speaking is better than dissembling. Dr Carey has written, in language, whose restraint, one feels, belies his underlying mood, to the Anglican Archbishops of Rwanda and South East Asia telling them more or less that they have a choice – to proceed with consecrating bishops to the Anglican Mission in America or to remain in unimpaired communion with himself. Since this is an open letter, it is now for the Church as a whole to face up to and resolve the issues involved.


The occasion for these consecrations is, of course, the increasingly desperate mood of orthodox Anglicans, in America and elsewhere, regarding the views and actions of some Anglican bishops in America. There would have been no irregular consecrations if all was felt to be well with ECUSA. Dr Carey’s latest contribution to this long-standing and ongoing dispute, however, has been fiercely to censure the latest actions of the orthodox.

Nevertheless, some may argue that Dr Carey is at least being even-handed in his dealings with the two sides. The language of his letter to the two Archbishops is, after all, not much stronger than the terms in which he wrote in 1997 to John Spong, one of the very bishops whose activities precipitated the present situation. However, from the point of view of the orthodox, this is part of the problem, for even-handedness is only justifiable if you have reason to treat things evenly. If you treat those who have sought to marginalize and oppose traditionalist views and persons on a par with the traditionalists themselves then there must be some other bar of judgement to which you believe they can both be brought.

In Dr Carey’s case, that bar seems to consists of what, from an Evangelical point of view, can only be described as a revisionist view of Anglicanism and episcopacy.


Dr Carey has previously declared himself to be a Christian, an Anglican and an Evangelical in that order. What he means, no doubt, is something like this: ‘Christianity is the important thing, Anglicanism is that branch of Christianity to which I belong, and Evangelicalism is that theological standpoint which most reflects my own views.’ However, his acceptance of the revisionist view of Anglicanism causes considerable problems. The revisionist view is that Anglicanism should remain distinctive, and should expect conformity from its members, in non-essentials of the gospel. To recognize this as revisionism, however, we need only look at the Anglican formularies in their historical context.

The Church of England first emerges as a self-consciously distinct body in the Reformation. The Anglicana Ecclesia is, until that point, the Church in England, rather than the Church of England. Even at the Reformation, however, ‘Anglicans’ still thought of themselves as Catholic because they regarded what they believed as being what all Christians should believe. The split with Rome was a rejection of Roman teaching, not just of Roman style. However, Anglicanism did not exclude local variations of Christian expression, provided they were in accordance with the essentials of Christian belief. Hence Article XXXIV says,

‘It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like … [provided that] nothing be ordained against God’s Word. … Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority.’

Cultural variations between churches were expected and allowed for, whereas doctrinal error was not acceptable. Thus the church of Rome was held to have ‘erred’, along with those of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch (Article XIX – examples of ‘Romish’ errors are given in Article XXII).


At the same time, however, true Anglicanism wisely allowed even some theological differences of view, as expressed in Article VI:

‘… whatsoever is not read therein [in holy Scripture], nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite and necessary to salvation.’

The litmus test of true Anglican comprehensiveness is thus that nothing should be taught or done which is contrary to God’s word, but that nothing is to be required as a necessary belief which cannot be proved from holy Scripture. Within these two guidelines, the only other requirement is to abide by lawfully imposed ‘Traditions and Ceremonies’. There is, however, an important exception to this last rule, contained in Article XXXIV:

Whosoever through his private judgement, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God … ought to be rebuked openly. (emphasis added)

Even those ‘Traditions and Ceremonies’ imposed locally by lawful authority are not binding on the individual if they are ‘repugnant to the Word of God’, for what cannot be permitted in a ‘particular or national Church’ cannot be required of an individual in the local church. Revisionist Anglicanism, however, uses the laws of the church rather than the truths of God’s Word as the ‘last resort’ in determining the permissible response of the individual to error in the leadership. Thus in his letter to the two Archbishops, Dr Carey five times refers to ‘authority’, twice to ‘lawful authority’ and once to acting ‘lawfully’.


There is, however, a second barrier to resolving the problem of erring leaders and that is the revisionist view of episcopacy. It is this view which seems to lie behind Dr Carey’s insistence that the opponents of the America bishops be reconciled to them before Dr Carey will ‘recognise’ them as ‘bishops in communion with’ himself. 1

The revisionist view of episcopacy is that the unity of the Church is secured by the person of the bishop rather than in the doctrines of the Church and is expressed very clearly in the 1990 report Episcopal Ministry, which constructs a curious argument based partly on Trinitarianism and partly on a bizarre instance of ‘natural theology’:

‘Mathematically speaking, three planes must intersect at a point. It is in the belief that we are speaking of something more than an analogy, and are indeed describing a visible expression of a spiritual reality, that we have argued that in an episcopal Church the three dimensions of the Church’s life [the local diocese, the wider church in space and the wider church in time] … meet in … the person of the bishop.’ (para 381)

Now this view of bishops is, of course, found nowhere in Scripture, nor may it be proved thereby. On the contrary, the report admits as much:

‘Because the New Testament material is fragmentary it is all too easy to read back into this picture familiar models of ministry and to see there an episcopacy like our own. The evidence of modern scholarship must make the Church of England now question the Preface to the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer which says that it is apparent ‘unto all men diligently reading the [sic, BCP omits ‘the’] Holy [sic, BCP has ‘holy’] Scripture and ancient Authors, [BCP adds ‘that’] from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church: [sic, BCP has ‘;’] Bishops, Priests and Deacons’. But we can say confidently that a ministry of personal oversight clearly emerged …’ (para 46, emphasis added) 2

This is an amazingly candid admission. Our own episcopal model is not derived from Scripture but ‘emerged’. But then how can we as Anglicans, who insist that nothing be taught contrary to God’s word, demand submission to or communion with our own bishops who do exactly that? To insist that Anglican identity and unity depends on honouring such persons despite their teaching is to have created a doctrine of the church without any proper foundations.


By contrast, the title page to the Thirty-Nine Articles affirms that church unity is established doctrinally not institutionally. The Articles themselves are described as being ‘for the establishing of consent concerning true religion’. Hence the royal Declaration preceding the Articles says,

‘We hold it most agreeable to this Our Kingly Office … to conserve and maintain the Church committed to Our Charge, in Unity of true Religion … We have therefore … thought fit to make this Declaration following: That the Articles of the Church of England … do contain the true Doctrine of the Church of England agreeable to God’s Word.’ (emphasis added)

Anglican unity, as with all Christian unity, is found in agreement within the truth, not by acceptance of the office or office-holder. Hence in the prayer for the Church Militant we ask God,

… to inspire continually the universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord: And grant, that all they that do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity, and godly love.

To this end, therefore, we further pray that our heavenly Father will,

Give grace … to all Bishops and Curates, that they may both by their life and doctrine set forth thy true and lively Word.

Of course, some would argue, following Article XXVI, ‘Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament’, that the ministry of the bishop is still to be accepted whatever he believes. However, the Article is not advocating acceptance of the man ‘willy nilly’ but acceptance of the Sacraments and the Word of God when he delivers them as effectual because they are Christ’s. By contrast, the Book of Common Prayer says to newly consecrated bishops, ‘Take heed unto thyself, and to doctrine … for by so doing thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee’. The implication is that a bishop who teaches what is false is imperilling not only his own soul but the souls of others. And a church which seeks to find its unity in the person of a bishop without ensuring that the bishop personally knows and teaches Christ is a cucumber sandwich short of a vicarage tea party.


The reality is that the Church of England is, once again, the victim of its own muddled thinking. Increasingly, we are working with unmanageable, untheological and unhistorical concepts of office, ministry, church because the nature of Anglicanism itself needs to be re-examined. It is surely time to recognize that the Church of England as we know it is not a theological inevitability but an historical accident. Within the Church of Rome, there is a logical (though as an Evangelical, I would say indefensible) rationale for having a worldwide communion. There exists no such rationale within Anglicanism. The very word ‘Anglican’ betrays this fact. The worldwide Anglican Church is, in reality, the tide mark of the British Empire, shaped by the few ‘golden ages’ of English theology and shot through with the relics of English history, both ecclesiastical and political. Frequently this history is misunderstood. Even more often today, the preceding theology is simply ignored.

It is impossible any longer to construct an entirely consistent Anglican ecclesiology via the ‘string and sealing wax’ approach currently in vogue. Where we have an Archbishop of Canterbury defending the authority of non-traditionalist bishops in one country against the ministry of invited helpers from other countries on the (arguably misunderstood) basis of ‘lawful authority’ it is time to overhaul the creaking edifice. As E J Bicknell observed in his work on the Thirty-Nine Articles, the current condition of the Church of England,

… is not the result of the consistent working out of any theory, but of gradual growth and development. Much that appears at first sight illogical and absurd is a survival from past days when conditions were very different from the present. (539)

To this, one can only add that some things which appear ‘illogical and absurd’ do so not merely because they are survivals from the past but because, simply, they are.

John Richardson

Senior Assistant minister to Elsenham, Henham and Ugley


1. Quite what they would be bishops of is not made clear.

2. It is, incidentally, astonishing to find in an official Church report no less than four errors in such a short quotation from the Prayer Book (it would have been five had the quotes included ‘apparent’, where BCP says ‘evident’)!

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