Thomas Mason argues that dioceses are neither set in stone nor founded in real estate.

With Bishop Nazir-Ali’s fast approaching report, the spectre of women bishops is raising the prospect of a third province to ever greater prominence; at the same time our brethren in North America are moving to elect their own flying bishop, and in Australia proposals for parishes to leave their geographical dioceses are around. Are these moves schismatic? Are they merely another form of ‘continuing church’? Both of these questions rely on our understanding of the nature of a church and of the dioceses within it; is there a necessary linkage between an area of land, the churches, clergy and laity within it, and one Bishop as ordinary set over all?

Westphalia and all that

The connections, which are historically apparent, between the development of the hierarchical pattern of the Church and of the State can provide an interesting avenue which may validate the call for parallel jurisdictions. The effects of the Constantinian conversion are still very evident in the Church, and one area where this is especially the case is our hierarchical organization. The arrangement of the various churches into dioceses and provinces followed the model of the Roman Empire. It is one which survives to this day. The governmental organization is not as totally opposed to non-geographical structures as one might suppose. But the insistence on territoriality (the co-termination of a structure’s jurisdiction and the physical area covered) is actually quite new, and is being abandoned in many cases.

The political system which emphasizes the role of a nation state as sovereign over a particular area or land arose with the Peace of Westphalia and is thus known as the Westphalian State System (it is also referred to by the cumbersome but descriptive title of Unilinear Territorial State System). Bishops threatened with alternative oversight have developed an obsession with this concept, each diocese or province is likened to a sovereign state within which a Bishop or local synod has the power of absolute rule; incursions are rapidly to be attacked, with the Archbishop of Canterbury playing the role of the United Nations Security Council.


Those who study politics are not known for their agreement on particular questions. There is, however, a point on which the vast majority do agree: Westphalia is definitely passé. Its replacement is the subject of much disagreement; Fukuyama believes in the ‘end of history’ as a universal globalized liberal democracy leaps up, others believe in a ‘clash of civilizations’, or a form of ‘neo-medievalism’. The unifying factor in all of these suggestions is that the nation state is becoming increasingly irrelevant and powerless. The growth of the European Union; Scottish and Welsh devolution; the immense power of the foreign exchange markets; local communities forming credit unions; the withdrawal of police from inner-city estates leaving authority in the hands of drug-dealers and loan-sharks; all of these represent a loss of power and authority by the national government above us.

At all international conferences now there are two certainties: protesters outside and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) within; both of these reflect the change. ‘Greenpeace’, ‘Friends of the Earth’, and ‘Shell’ will all have more real influence at an ‘Earth Summit’ than any individual government apart perhaps from the ‘premier league’ such as the US, Japan, Germany, and Britain. Those outside, frequently (and oxymoronically) organized professional anarchists, realize and manifest that true gravity has left the supposedly sovereign governments.

Precedents various

One does not have to look to the secular world to find such overlapping of sovereign jurisdictions: those of us with a strong penchant for the Tridentine Mass will all be travelling to Campos in Brazil for our holidays, the Holy Father recently reconciled the Society of St John Vianey, a group who left Rome with Archbishop Lefèbvre. In doing so he provided for parallel jurisdictions, one using the modern rite (and no doubt adding to it a fair dash of liberation theology, guitars at Mass, and drip-dry polyester vestments), the other being traditionalist (a similar but world-wide scheme for the Society of S. Pius X has been proposed). ‘Opus Dei’, the favourite target for liberal Roman Catholics, has been granted a ‘Personal Prelature’ which is to say a diocese without geographic nature but which derives its being from the people involved. Our sister church down under has in the name of enculturation, as a constituent part the Church of Aotearoa, separate churches to cater for the Maori. The pronouncement by the Primates Meeting in favour of a Westphalian church came, with great irony, from Portugal where there are no fewer than three Anglican jurisdictions: the Lusitanian Church, the Church of England Diocese in Europe, and the American Episcopalian Convocation of European Churches. Indeed, we need look no further than this green and pleasant land to find in our Royal Peculiars churches which are outside the control of the local Bishop.

Rights of conscience

In these cases an ecclesiastical structure has been created to provide for a particular group of people who are separated from the ‘main stream’ of the Church. No schism has occurred, merely separated provision. Grave doubts about the orders of women bishops (and therefore also those ordained by them) certainly separates those who entertain them from a body which has women-bishops. Tridentine rigourists, those within a religious order, an aboriginal community, English and American ex-patriots and tourists in Portugal, the monarchy – all of these do not necessarily lead to an impairment in Communion, but our consciences will and indeed do. The separation will be created by the acts of consecrating bishops who cannot command universal recognition as such; recognition and containment of this fact would be caused, and allowed, by a separate province. The recent Primates’ Meeting in Canterbury established a task-force to consider this, perhaps recognition of the direction in which matters are moving.

As the Peace of Westphalia was in 1648 it should not surprise us that some in the Church of England are now adopting the system it created as sacrosanct, however, unless it wants a schism it will have to find a means of relaxing the underlying principle in order to create homes for all faithful Anglicans. There is no connection between a bishop and his diocese, and a portion of geographical area, at least no connection which is set in stone and derives necessarily from the nature of a bishop and a diocese. As the relation between political governance and geographical area declines, it should be clear that the Church’s governance can follow the same path.