Some may object to the title of this post on the grounds that we seem to do nothing but gaze at our collective navels in the Church of England. But I think General Synod has just shown us that collective thinking about our future too often becomes simply a restatement of each lobby group’s point of view. Each statement becomes progressively louder, more clearly enunciated and more deeply felt, and positions become ever more entrenched.
I am an insider in the sense that I have been a member of the Church of England for 63 years and, through social media, engage with people involved in the Church from top to bottom of the candle. But I am really an outsider, as I sit on no synods and currently hold no position in the Church. I therefore lack detailed knowledge, but this very weakness is perhaps the strength that I can offer to those who take decisions on behalf of the Church as a whole: I ought to be in a position to see the wood, not just the trees.
The Anglican Communion that is the Church of England
When we say, as we frequently do, that the Church of England is a broad church, we are considerably understating the case. It is more like a coalition. Because of its historical position as the established state Church of the whole nation, it has always attempted to represent the whole nation at prayer. But a visitor from outer space would find it very difficult to understand that worshippers at, say, Walshingham or St Mary’s, Bourne Street belong to the same denomination as, e.g., Holy Trinity, Brompton.
The Anglican Communion Covenant: Lessons and Parallels?
I listened to the live streaming of General Synod in York, and I have checked the agenda, but could find no mention of the fact that diocesan synods recently voted to reject the Covenant, despite, for the most part, strong episcopal pressure for its adoption. I hope that, behind closed doors if not in public, there has been a post-mortem on the reasons why this should be so, and whether there are any lessons to be drawn from it. ‘Peasant Revolts’ on this scale only come along every few hundred years, and their origins and causes are likely to be significant.
As a ‘draft’, may I suggest the following:
- The Covenant arose from a desire to draw up a document which would strengthen the bonds of unity between the Churches of the Anglican Communion. It attempted to do so by imposing bonds of uniformity, a very different thing.
- It ran into difficulties because of, e.g., widely differing cultural attitudes towards LGBT individuals. Whereas in Britain it is illegal to discriminate against them, in parts of Africa -notably Uganda- homosexuality is criminalised, with attempts to introduce the death penalty in certain cases. The respective Churches broadly reflect their countries’ social norms, although in theory ‘practising’ LGBT individuals in the UK are not ordained. In the ‘old Commonwealth‘ countries, there is generally no bar to the ordination, or indeed consecration as bishops, of the LGBT community.
- With hindsight, strict adherence to the letter and the spirit of the Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral might have avoided the whole problem, relying on its provision for Anglicanism to be ’locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples.’
The Measure on Women Bishops
- Whereas consideration of the proposed Measure, with the controversial addition of amendment 5.i (c), was postponed until November to allow for further episcopal consultation, and whereas Sir Tony Baldry, Church Estates Commissioner, declared that Parliament would not pass any Measure which discriminated against women purely on the basis of their sex, it is expedient for the Church to amend the Measure once more. (Apologies for the cod legalese, it is catching).
- All attempts to square the circle by inducing those who are against the ordination of women as priests, let alone bishops, to sign up to a measure committing the Church of England to consecrate women as bishops are doomed to failure, no matter how much time is allowed to lapse, or indaba sessions are undergone, if the Measure is to apply to the Church as a whole. This is because of the physical laws of geometry and the universe. It is unreasonable to expect the Holy Spirit to change the laws of the universe to suit the Church of England.
- Therefore, a means must be found to agree that the Church of England be ‘locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the‘ congregations, as in the Chicago-Lambeth formula.
A Suggested Way Forward
- All those who at present believe themselves to be members of the Church of England may continue to do so.
- In view of the overwhelming support for the Measure on referral to diocesan synods, the Church of England will seek the approval of General Synod to proceed with the submission of the Measure to parliament for approval (as it stood when referred to the dioceses).
- All members of the Church of England will be required to accept the authority and oversight of their diocesan bishops, whether male or female.
- Those who are unable to accept the validity of ordination by a woman priest may choose to form their own congregations, in effect form a denomination within the denomination of the Church of England. In addition to ordination by a Church of England diocesan bishop, they may seek further sacramental measures by a subsidiary bishop of their own choosing, such bishop also to have been consecrated within the main framework of the Church of England. These subsidiary bishops will have no geographical designation, but be available to all.
- The Church of England will seek to re-vitalise its efforts at mission and evangelism, that is to look outwards rather than inwards.
The Message from John’s Gospel
Whatever happens next will not have a successful outcome unless we remember:
”A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35