Michael Houghton has been in India, where he discovered that personal prelatures are alive and well
The Bishop of Richborough’s recent article Upholding the Bonds of Peace (New Directions December 1995) pointed to the significance of the jurisdiction of the “flying bishops”, who may represent an important development in Anglican ecclesiology. He noted that the non- geographical nature of the P.E.V.’s episcopal ministries bears a close resemblance to the concept of a “personal prelature” which has appeared since the Second Vatican Council.
Nevertheless, many voices – and not only Church of England bishops – continue to plead the case for “one territory, one bishop”. Even some who welcome the ministries of the Bishops of Beverley, Ebbsfleet, Fulham and Richborough seem keen to assure us that such sees are ecclesiological anomalies – but is this so?
Even within the Anglican Communion itself there are already several examples of the development of “parallel Jurisdictions”. Examples include the (“Maori”) Diocese of Aotearoa in New Zealand, the existence of two overlapping Anglican Churches in the Philippines (the Philippine Independent Church and the Philippine Episcopal Church), the Order of Ethiopia in Southern Africa, and the Iberian Episcopal Churches and Convocation of American Churches which overlap with the Diocese of Europe (not to mention military and prison jurisdictions).
It was not until the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 that the idea of territorial episcopacy received firm sanction. Canon 9 laid down the principle of “one territory, one Jurisdiction, one bishop” while rejecting what the Canon described as “many headed monsters”.
However, Rome didn’t take long to abrogate its own principles in the matter. As soon as 1239 the Armenian Patriarch of Antioch was accorded independence of jurisdiction from the Latin Patriarch of the same city. Further incursions into the principle continued through the centuries, especially with the recognition of so-called “uniate” churches in communion with Rome, which occupy overlapping territorial jurisdictions with Latin, or even other “uniate” churches. In Aleppo are based no fewer than four archiepiscopal sees – Melkite, Syrian, Maronite and Armenian!
The State of Kerala in South India (which the writer has recently visited) provides an instructive case. Kerala is the home state of indigenous Indian Christianity, said to have been founded by the Apostle Thomas himself After 15 centuries of life largely isolated from other Christian communities, the majority of the “St Thomas Christians” (or “Syrian Christians”) came into communion with Rome at the Synod of Diamper in 1599. Despite the subsequent dissatisfaction of the “Syrians” with the various steps taken to “Latinize” them by the Portuguese bishops, they were consistently refused a separate jurisdiction through three centuries. All Catholics in Kerala, Syrian or Latin, had a single hierarchy until 1886, when the Vatican erected two vicariates for what it then began to call the “syro-malabar” Christians. By this time, the distinctive spiritual and liturgical tradition of the St Thomas Christians had been very substantially eroded. In 1896 the vicariates became dioceses and in 1923 a fully fledged “Syro-Malabar” Hierarchy was established. Today there are 10 Syro-Malabar dioceses, 4 of them in India outside Kerala. This development of Syro-Malabar dioceses in parallel with “Latin” dioceses even outside the “home” state of the St Thomas Christians revived the argument about territorial or non-territorial jurisdictions in the Indian Catholic Church and although the arguments rumble on even today, it seems clear that the existence of parallel jurisdictions is not merely tolerated but regarded by Rome as natural, appropriate and theologically sound. The 13th century Lateran ecclesiological doctrine is dead and buried and orthodox Anglicans need to be aware of this and open to the creative possibilities this may open up.
As Bishop Edwin Barnes notes, Vatican II made clear provision (OE 4) for “parishes and a special hierarchy” for the “spiritual good of the faithful” and for “the preservation and growth of individual churches”. Pope Pius XII said at the time that “the territorial concept of ecclesiastical law is an impact of feudalism”. Western canon law was said to have developed a concept of episcopacy which was “per se territorial” but it was recognized that Eastern canon law had preserved an older concept which was “per se personal”. Vatican II could be seen as simply giving post-hoc justification for what had been happening long before. And when the present Pope visited Kerala in 1986, he spent equal time in the (adjacent) Latin and Syrian Cathedrals of Ernakulum, symbolically giving his blessing to the existence of the two overlapping Roman jurisdictions.
Indeed, there are in fact no fewer than four! In 1930, Mar Ivanios and Mar Dioscoros “poped” from the Syrian Orthodox Church and founded what is now known as the “Syro- Malankara” Church, a fast growing jurisdiction in communion with Rome, but retaining its use of the Liturgy of St James. Even more significant perhaps is the year 1911 when Rome erected yet another parallel diocese in Kerala, the diocese of Kottayam, which exists for the so-called “Southists” or “Knanayites”, who claim to be descended from a 4th century migration from the Near East under one Thomas of Cana. Though there are some minor customary differences, there is no discernible ethnic, linguistic or liturgical difference between “southists” and “northists” but the Vatican has nevertheless seen fit to accept that a distinct alternative episcopal oversight is appropriate.
It is true then that, like Bishop Edwin Barnes, we can be encouraged by Rome’s adoption of the concept of a “personal prelature”, a concept embodied by Opus Dei. However, despite the scorn which some pour on the concept of parallel jurisdictions – a scorn surely emanating from a narrow and outdated western viewpoint – Bishop Edwin Barnes can be even more encouraged by the Vatican’s evident acceptance and encouragement of patterns of “Alternative Episcopal Oversight” which the history of the churches of Kerala so vividly illustrates. Michael Houghton is Vicar of St Peter’s, Folkestone, in the diocese of Canterbury