Aidan Nicholls responds to
“A wounded Church”

The Anglican Communion has three souls – Catholic, evangelical and liberal – contending for mastery within one bosom. Fr Geoffrey Kirk is an anima naturaliter catholica analysing in his Tablet article last week the impossible contradictions to which Anglican pluralism currently leads, and doing so with the lucidity of a lawyer’s brief or a preconciliar scholastic treatise.

When Anglicans ceased to be held together by the straightforward Erastian fact of accepting the religious claims of the united Crowns of England and Scotland (and that happened as long ago as the reign of William and Mary), they could have sought to preserve their unity in one of three ways. First, they could have reproduced the pattern of the historic Churches of Christendom and found their unity in the interwoven inheritance of a single doctrinal patrimony and a common ministerial order – “interwoven”, because the rationale of an ordered succession of ministers lies in large part in the transmission of a shared faith. But, unfortunately, the rivalry of the three “souls” – Protestant, Catholic and latitudinarian – with their differing accounts of the Gospel, put that ideal solution out of the question.

Secondly, Anglicans might have contented themselves with a unity in faith, while leaving questions of ministerial appointment to determination by congregations. But if the first and most comprehensive option, unity in faith and order, was ruled out by differences in believing, then to concentrate on faith alone was manifestly a non-starter. In addition, as the Puritan crisis showed, Catholic-minded Anglicans would never have allowed church government by bishops, priests and deacons to be so completely marginalised. Even if the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Ordinal, to subsequent Anglican-Catholic regret, treated the principle of Holy Order as itself non-sacramental, the ordained ministry was still regarded by both articles and ordinal as the apostolically given way of governing a sacramental Church.

Thirdly – and this was the road which historically was chosen – Anglicans could postpone to some far-off day of final theological reckoning the issues of the content of doctrine (what as Christians we should believe) and doctrine’s foundations (how as Christians we come to entertain that content), and rely instead on the more tangible circumstances of a common ministry. In the era of British colonialism, which saw not only the creation of an English-Anglican and Scots (and Irish) Episcopalian diaspora abroad but also, let it never be forgotten, an extraordinary efflorescence, at any rate within the British Empire, of Anglican missionary activity, when the Anglican Communion came into existence in fact and in name, what held that Communion together – thus rendering it a Communion — was a shared episcopate and its corollary, a shared presbyterate or priesthood.

It is obvious that, in this situation, any threat to the universal acceptability of episcopal or presbyteral ministration within the Communion becomes a threat to the Communion’s very existence. For in the meanwhile, despite the deliverances of doctrine commissions and the decisions of the Privy Council, despite the urgings of successive Lambeth Conferences and the recommendations of agreed statements from a variety of bilateral dialogues with other Christian bodies, it cannot be said that Anglicans are any nearer today to agreeing on a common catechism than they were on the day in 1688 when the Prince of Orange sent the Jacobite court into exile, thus precipitating the first internal schism of Anglican history. The ordination of women, and the concomitant insistence that accepting the ministrations of women priests is merely optional, has created a situation where there is in practice an undeclared schism within the Church of England, and one which through the official status of its grounding measures affects all English Anglicans, whether they like it or not – unlike that late seventeenth-century schism of the Non-Jurors.

Geoffrey Kirk’s account of the implications of the present disarray for Anglicanism’s doctrine of the Church cannot be faulted. Its history and its theological theory are altogether persuasive. But historical reason and theological reason are not the only forms of rationality we know. There is also the little matter of practical reason. And when they come to his practical conclusion with, not least, its final appeal for (I take it) Roman Catholic support, many may jib.

It is sometimes suggested by church historians that Catholics abhor schism more than heresy, the Orthodox heresy more than schism. The sense of faith of Catholics does still, I hope, lead them to have that instinctive repugnance for heresy which Cardinal Newman saw as the other side of the coin of their attraction to divine Revelation by grace. But the feeling that the unity of the faithful, and ultimately of the whole human race under God, is a prime objective of the saving work of Christ (compare John 17), makes Catholics treat more seriously than separated Easterners those jurisdictional divides, leading often to ruptures in communion, which the modern Orthodox appear to take in their stride.

It is one of the real gains of the ecumenical movement that well-instructed Catholics no longer rejoice in fresh evidence of Protestant fissiparousness – which Geoffrey Kirk’s proposal for a “Free and Independent Anglican Province”, if enacted, would certainly be. The late Cardinal Hume gave as the chief reason for his (eventual) judgement that he could not support an Anglican “Uniate” Church, united to Rome but not absorbed, the fact that he did not wish to be responsible for creating yet another Church in England.

With all due respect to the beloved cardinal’s memory, an Anglican Uniate Church, maintaining much of the best in the Anglican inheritance but within a Catholic ecclesial framework, would not have been “another” Church – unlike what Forward in Faith are now proposing. If in this article I refer to that earlier crisis which broke in the immediate aftermath of the General Synod’s vote to ordain women, and do so by resurrection of the suggestions then made, it is because Geoffrey Kirk’s present counsel of despair seems to follow from the rejection of those suggestions. It is my impression that the “Free and Independent Anglican Province” now put forward as desirable is actually understood by the members of Forward in Faith as a half-way house from where they may as an independent body propose to the Roman authorities that final solution which the Latin bishops in England withheld from their grasp. This way of dealing is understandable from people sent searching for stratagems by their distress of mind in crucial matters of faith.

Understandable, but by no means wholly desirable. It would be better, I submit, for the Catholic archbishops and bishops of England and Wales to initiate – in the serener atmosphere which distance from the General Synod vote provides – a series of soundings, involving both Anglicans and Catholics, to resolve the question: did what was decided then, from the Catholic side, fully answer Catholic-minded Anglicans’ needs?

Aidan Nichols is the prior of the Cambridge Dominicans. This response to Fr Kirk’s article was followed with one by the Revd Jane Shaw, which we hope in due course to publish here.