An Anatomy of Error VII

Eucharist, Bishop, Church

At the heart of the Tradition stands the figure of the bishop. His role, from the time of Ignatius of Antioch (the immediate sub-apostolic period), has defined the parameters of the Catholic Church. The bishop, says Ignatius, surrounded by his presbyters is the very image of the Father. ‘Take heed’, he wrote to the Philadelphians, ‘to have but one Eucharist. For there is but one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup to show forth the unity of his blood; one altar; as there is one bishop along with the presbytery and deacons my fellow servants: so that whatever you do may be according to the will of God.’ It is the tragedy of those who are now seeking the ordination of women as bishops that the means they adopted to secure their ordination as presbyters has deformed – perhaps permanently destroyed – this ancient heritage among Anglicans.

Diocesan cohesion

A diocese is a local expression of the universal Church, and its local unity and cohesion serves to set forward the unifying and reconciling work of Christ himself through the relationship of priests and bishop in one ministry of service. The Church of England, of course, has no document which so clearly states the collegial relationship between priests and bishop in one diocese. (‘The sixteenth century documents of the Church of England concerning the ordained ministry reflect in a remarkable degree the familiar truth that in England the battle between Reformation and Counter-Reformation was not fought to the finish’, the Report on The Priesthood of the Ordained Ministry comments rather coyly.) But the traditional formula used at the induction of an incumbent, ‘Receive the cure of souls which is both thine and mine’, whilst it has no formal status as an expression of Anglican doctrine, accords reasonably with the view expressed above. And Canon A4, remaining unaltered from the canons of 1603, expresses the same notion in a rather defensive and juridical fashion.

The ordination of women to the priesthood, however, which by internal agreement between proponents and opponents within the House of Bishops has been introduced into every diocese, has brought about a radical change. The aim of opponents in the period preparatory to the legislation had been to preserve, as far as possible in changed circumstances, the role and authority of the bishop as focus of unity and fount of order within his diocese. They proposed that the ‘diocese’, which had come to be seen in crudely geographical terms would return to its origins as a gathered community of bishop, clergy and people, and that each diocese should retain the necessary integrity of order and doctrine.

But it was a manner of proceeding which proved hugely unattractive to the English House of Bishops, whose attachment to the principle of territoriality above all others is probably unique among any comparable group of mammals. The Measure upon which the vote was eventually taken was largely the creation of the bishops themselves, as was the Act of Synod which followed and completed it.

Desiring the undesirable

The two documents together have perpetuated a state of war in the Church of England and fatally compromised the integrity of the bishop’s role in the diocese and wider church. The language of the Act of Synod deserves careful attention.

1) The Church of England through its synodical process has given final approval to a Measure to make provision for the ordination of women to the priesthood.

2) The bishop of each diocese continues as the Ordinary of his diocese.

3) The General Synod regards it as desirable that

a) All concerned should endeavour to ensure that (i) discernment of the rightness or otherwise of the decision to ordain women to the priesthood should be as open a process as possible; (ii) the highest possible degree of communion should be maintained within each diocese; and (iii) the integrity of differing beliefs and positions concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood should be mutually recognised and respected.

b) the practical pastoral arrangements contained in this Act of Synod should have effect in each diocese.

From the prominence given it in this preamble, it will be seen how important to those who drafted the Act was the fact that the diocesan bishop was to remain the ‘Ordinary’ of his diocese. But we need to ask what that might mean in altered circumstances.

Among the many ‘desirabilities’ which follow is a respect for ‘differing beliefs and positions’ and the notion that women’s ordination is subject to an ‘open process of reception’. Effectively what this obscure example of churchspeak actually means is that no bishop can act upon his own convictions (or on what he takes to be the doctrine and tradition of the church universal), but is constrained to behave as though he had no opinion (or rather as though there was as yet no reliable opinion to be had). If this is jurisdiction, then it cannot be described as ‘Ordinary’.

Dumb show

But actions speak louder than words. For those who did not immediately grasp these contradictions in cold print, the Bishop of London (now Archbishop of York) obligingly played them out in dumb show. Having surrendered his undoubted right to forbid the action, he attended, in his own cathedral, the ordering of women as priests by a representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury (one of his own suffragans), himself engrossed the meanwhile in the writings of the Fathers.

That the ‘Ordinary’ should be present at, and yet be overtly inattentive to, the very rite which characterizes and defines his relationship to the college of priests in his diocese, is powerfully eloquent of the theological disruption which the ordination of women has caused and which the Act of Synod has regularized. It was a neat reversal of the rites of the Western Church for the morning of Holy Thursday. And yet, apparently, it is well within the understanding of episcopacy envisaged by the Act.

By attempting to hold together irreconcilable and incompatible opinions under the jurisdiction of one bishop the Act of Synod has effectively redefined episcopacy. Though the Act asserts that the diocesan remains the Ordinary, such can no longer be the case in any real and practical sense. Whilst Canon A4 is suspended (by the mutual recognition and respect for ‘the integrity of differing beliefs and positions’ which the General Synod regards as ‘desirable’) and whilst those differing positions and beliefs are objectified in the existence of what is, in fact if not in theory, an alternative episcopate, the diocesan bishop is rendered dysfunctional. He exercises with regard to many in his diocese a merely juridical and largely secular role. He looks like, and on occasion acts like, a true bishop; but he can no longer be that focus of unity and fount of authority which bishops exist to be.

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