Andrew Burnham revisits the concelebration debate

The debate at the Forward in Faith assembly about Concelebration led to a very close vote. The problem was clear. At the traditional anglo-catholic rallies, particularly at the Walsingham National Pilgrimage (each Spring Bank Holiday Monday), there is a scrimmage of concelebrating priests. What happens if that scrimmage includes – as it did last May in Walsingham – both Forward in Faith priests and Affirming Catholics? Does it matter? What about the Communion Document? The motion debated at the assembly was not a very restricting one but it was a very divisive one. Technically the rigorists won, and if Walsingham and Glastonbury do not begin to apply the Communion Document, restricting concelebration to Forward in Faith priests, we may see either the collapse of concelebration altogether or, more likely, the ascendancy of Affirming Catholics in these places of pilgrimage.

The rigorists have a point. ‘In a special way concelebration shows the unity of priesthood and of the sacrifice, and the unity of the people of God’ says the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (para. 153). Whatever the feud between F-in-F and Affirming Catholics means, there can be no pretence of eucharistic unity. It is not that either denies the validity of the orders of each other’s male priests, nor that each sees itself (yet?) in a different denomination from the other. It is rather that priests of the two movements see themselves as being in different colleges of priests, serving different bishops.

In the view of the Affirming Catholic, the flying bishop is an uncatholic arrangement. Such a bishop is a special provision to suit special pleading. At best the gift of PEVs to those who have not accepted change is a pastoral way of managing change, at worst it is a sign of the Anglican inability to act decisively and confront and quell rebellion. F-in-F supporters, the Affirming Catholics say, live in Wonderland. A sign of that has been their refusal to accept an authentic Anglican synodical decision, a decision supported theologically by most of the world’s progressive theologians, not least Roman Catholic theologians.

F-in-F, by contrast, sees intelligent Affirming Catholics as men and women who have sold out to the Zeitgeist. Their bishops – especially diocesan bishops – have betrayed the Faith and led their flock away from Catholic truth into heresy. Not only have some Anglican provinces made changes to Holy Order and discarded part of what is Catholic – what Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics repeatedly urge is Catholic – but, in purporting to ordain women to the catholic priesthood, they have done what an Ecumenical Council of the Church has expressly forbidden.

We may note that, though our earlier quotation from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal spoke about ‘the unity of priesthood’, the discussion we are having is rather more about bishops. Most people understand that bishops are intended to be the focus of unity. It may be clearer, therefore, to look at the relationships of bishops and see their presbyters (priests) as deputies.

Flying bishops – Provincial Episcopal Visitors – may not be an institution the need for which everyone accepts but there can be no doubt that they are Anglican bishops. All three were consecrated by the Archbishop of the province in which they serve and the legal formalities – for instance, the relationship with the Crown – were the same as for any other suffragan bishop. Nor can there be any doubt that the PEVs are different from other suffragan bishops. Though they were consecrated to suffragan sees, they were consecrated to serve a province – a collection of dioceses – and not a single diocese.

It could almost be said that PEVs function pastorally as diocesan bishops – with a diocese parallel to many other dioceses – but with many of the powers (and almost all the committee meetings) of a diocesan bishop denied to them. There is an argument that, if these extra powers were assigned to them – appointing to Resolution C livings where there is no private patron, sponsoring ordinands, placing assistant clergy, acting as liturgical Ordinary – the Anglican system would break down in England. There is also an argument that, whilst these extra powers are not assigned to them, the day is being hastened when F-in-F will consecrate its own bishops, in continuity with historic episcopacy but entirely independent of the Provinces of Canterbury and York. We live, as they say, in interesting times but, presently, there can be no doubt that the PEVs – from the vantage point of ordinary Anglicans – are proper Anglican bishops.

There is some doubt, however, about Anglican bishops who have ordained women priests. English understatement and politeness have been discarded by F-in-F and the result is astonishment and hurt. It is not easy to call diocesan bishops heresiarchs, yet that is the view many F-in-F priests have of their former pastors. Heresy, of course, was the early verdict of the Archbishop of Canterbury on the view that only men could represent Christ at the altar. It was, no doubt, the ecumenical sensitivity round describing Catholics and Orthodox of two millennia as heretics which led Dr Carey to withdraw the accusation. It is less easy for the other side to withdraw. Rome and Constantinople have devised appropriate circumlocutions for the words ‘heresy’ and ‘Heretic’ but bolshie anglo-catholics have never discovered the art, not to say the good manners, of circumlocution.

It follows that, if the rationale of concelebration is based on episcopal considerations, we will not find F-in-F priests concelebrating with ‘affirming’ bishops but we probably will find priests from the Affirming Catholicism movement concelebrating with PEVs (who are, in law, Anglican suffragan bishops). This, of course, is exactly what is happening at Walsingham, to the great distress of many F-in-F priests.

It seems to me, though, that the problem F-in-F has is far less than the problem faced by Affirming Catholicism. If, as the Roman Missal describes it, ‘in a special way concelebration shows the unity of priesthood and of the sacrifice, and the unity of the people of God’ it is less than ideal if concelebrants disagree fundamentally about which colleges of priests they belong to. Unity is, to say the least, impaired, and that is the problem F-in-F faces. Yet, whilst the bishops who preside at the celebration are bishops whose colleges of priests are traditionalist, what are the Affirming Catholic priests who associate with them at Walsingham and elsewhere saying to their absent ‘sister priests’? N-I-M-B-Y? Be patient?

My own conclusion is that, since being Catholic is not about being exclusive and being Anglican is not about over-defining who does and who does not belong, I can with integrity concelebrate at Walsingham whilst the celebrating bishops are orthodox. I can put up with fellow priests of a different point of view: who knows, they might be on the road back to orthodoxy in these matters? (Conventional wisdom is that all the movement is away from the traditional position to a more ‘open’ one. In fact there is plenty of movement in the other direction. Look at Sweden. Look at the doubts your own friends express). Meanwhile, if I were an Affirming Catholic, wild horses would not drag me to the National Pilgrimage at Walsingham until the Guardians of the Shrine allowed my ‘sister priests’ to concelebrate and the Anglican parish of Walsingham rescinded Resolution A.

What is unclear from the F-in-F assembly is whether the resolution that narrowly succeeded is likely to move the Walsingham Guardians into action and whether the nearly 50% of the assembly who voted against the resolution will be bound by it. What badly needed to succeed was the motion to proceed to next business – that is, leave the matter formally unresolved until a proper debate could be mounted, informed by discussion papers. Meanwhile the ministry of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham has not been furthered and the proclaiming of the Gospel of the Incarnation, I suspect, has been hindered.

Andrew Burnham is acting principal of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford.