Geoffrey Kirk explains why a ‘Free’ Province would be very Church of England.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has indicated that a third Province for those who are opposed to women in the priesthood and the episcopate ought to be one of the options on the table as the Rochester Commission completes its work. He has sensibly suggested that, this time round, those for whom provisions are to be made should be consulted about what they need and what is acceptable to them.

These suggestions, which go far beyond previous statements from Lambeth or elsewhere, will no doubt encourage further discussion both in the constituency and beyond it. Indeed, it is already proposed to set up a residential round-table discussion in Oxford later this year, when differing ideas about the necessity and nature of such a ‘Free’ Province can be assessed.

As National Secretary of Forward in Faith, and thus as one who has played a large part in forming up opinion to date, I offer these reflections. They are my convictions. Probably those convictions will be modified in the course of debate; but I offer them now in the awareness that both the Church of England and those opposed to women’s ordination within it will have only one bite at this cherry. We need to get it right.


Forward in Faith, after much internal debate, entitled its preliminary study document on the subject ‘A Free Province of the Church of England’. The question therefore arises: what do we mean by ‘free’, and what do we mean by ‘of’?

The study document which calls our proposals a ‘free’ Province goes on to use terms like ‘separate’, ‘autonomous’ and ‘independent’. So we need very carefully to define what we mean by ‘free’, if we are not to compromise our use of the potent preposition ‘of’.

It seems to me that by ‘free’ we intend an arrangement which will allow both parts of the Church of England (‘the two integrities’, as they were once upon a time quaintly called) to be themselves. At present the need to accommodate in a Church with women priests (and soon bishops) Anglicans who cannot accept the innovation has put us under such ecclesiological strain that it is sometimes difficult to make sense of ourselves.

Effectively the Schedules of the 1993 Measure suspend Canon A4 and allow parishes, some institutions and some individuals to refuse the orders of some who are canonically ordained. As tensions in the USA have shown this is a state of affairs which cannot continue indefinitely. GRAS and other groups rightly point to the anomalies of the present situation. We need a solution to this dilemma which utilizes Anglican ecclesiological principles as they have recently unfolded. Anglicans now believe that within a Province orders ought to be equivalent, interchangeable and unchallengeable; but that they need not be so among or between discrete Provinces. This is the doctrine upon which women were ordained in the first place.


What I am proposing is that individual parishes which cannot accept the ordination of women be linked together across the Church of England (as discrete geographical units) in such a way that they form one of those Provinces of the Communion which are already agreed to have autonomy in the matter. Canon A4 would thereby be restored in its fullness of operation, both in the parent body (the Church of England) and in the new ‘Free’ Province. In the Church of England, Schedules A and B of the 1993 legislation and the Act of Synod could both be abandoned. The orders of both Provinces would be fully accepted and interchangeable within them, but not between them. Relations between the two bodies, now fraught with rivalry and dissension, would become, at a stroke, as reasonable and amicable as those, for example, between the Church of England and the Province of Nigeria. Both would occupy a position found and respected in the wider Anglican family.

Ecumenical horizons

Others freedoms would accrue. The Church of England is presently at something of an impasse in its relations with the Methodist Church in England because the CofE’s tolerance of dissent on women’s ordination is not acceptable to Methodists, for whom the innovation is not a theologumenon but an article of faith. Catholic Anglicans, who had placed so much hope in the ARCIC process, are similarly frustrated by the Church of England’s adoption of women’s ordination in direct opposition to the pleas of both Rome and Constantinople. The creation of a ‘free’ Province would release both parties to follow agendas which, though not strictly incompatible, are more likely to be achieved, in the short run, in independence of each other.

‘Free’, of course, as we have used it, means just a little more than all this.

Wheat and Tares

It means, in effect, a serious acceptance of the ‘Doctrine of Reception’, which already figures largely in the Anglican Communion’s post-facto rationalization of the ecclesiology of women’s ordination. In the period before women’s ordination much use was made of what was called the ‘Gamaliel Principle’. It is time to appeal to what one might call the ‘Wheat and Tares Principle’ (which has the advantage of being dominical rather than merely rabbinic). On that principle the Church, like the Father himself, ought to send sunshine and rain allowing both kinds of seed to develop, until the harvest comes and the judgement of souls makes apparent a discrimination which earthly authorities are incompetent to make.

But you will ask about the relations of such a ‘free’ Province with the General Synod.

It has been suggested that opponents of women in the episcopate might be accommodated in a discrete diocese, which had the right to ratify or dissent from new canons of the General Synod (by analogy with the dioceses of the Anglican Church of Australia, or nearer home, the Diocese of Sodor and Man). That, I suggest, would not be freedom, but a very sophisticated sort of enslavement. It would condemn us to a life of resistance and reaction in an institution over which we would have little or no control, and which would undoubtedly pursue an agenda which we could neither support nor embrace. We want to live the Catholic life freely and independently; not merely to subsist as a protest group within a larger body from whose aims and principles we would frequently diverge.

Pertinent Preposition

So what is meant by ‘of’? How would ‘Free’ Province be part ‘of’ the Church of England? It is a question which the Archbishop of Canterbury himself has asked. The answer, surprisingly no doubt to some, is geographical rather than ideological.

Until recently (politely ignoring similar arrangements among its ‘ecumenical partners’) the Church of England covered every part of England and Wales with its network of parishes and dioceses. When, in 1920, a part of that structure was separated off into a free and autonomous Province, the Church of England did not operate in parallel with the new body, but, as one might say ‘conceded territory’.

The Welsh Church became, at a stroke, the authentic expression of Anglicanism for the Welsh people. I believe that just such a ‘concession of territory’ to a ‘Free’ Province is what would best serve us in the present dilemma.


Parishes of the ‘Free’ Province would exist alongside those of the Church of England, enjoying all the reciprocal arrangements and parochial rights which now exist. Regulations with regard to baptisms, weddings, funerals and other occasional offices involving parishes of differing jurisdictions would mirror those already in operation within the Church of England, and legislation equivalent to Canon C8 (4) would everywhere apply. Tenure of property and endowments would remain unaltered. The Crown in Parliament (which is alone competent to do so) would settle the establishment status (if any) of the two bodies. The respective Houses of Bishops would decide appropriate common structures. Canon Law (initially held largely in common) would continue its evolution independently in the two bodies.

The ‘Free’ Province would be ‘of’ the Church of England in the sense that its parishes would share the privileges and responsibilities of mission and service expressed through parochial structures with Church of England parishes. It would also be ‘of’ the Church of England in the sense that its canons and formularies would derive ‘from’ those of the Church of England, and consequently bear that ‘family resemblance’ which marks the Anglican identity world-wide. The ‘Free’ Province and the Church of England would be partners in gospel evangelism and partners is maintaining the Anglican heritage in its comprehensive fullness.

Anglican adaptability

The ordination of women has shown, as nothing else in its history, the flexibility and adaptability of Anglican ecclesiology. Who, fifty years ago, would have argued that orders need not be mutually interchangeable across the whole Communion? Or have proposed a close ecumenical alliance with churches some of whose bishops the Church of England could not recognize? Who would have predicted a Lambeth Conference at which some bishops present held that other bishops present were not bishops?

Some might argue that these changes, adopted to facilitate the ordination of women, are more momentous than female ordination itself. But the innovations have been made; and it is hard to see how they could be unmade. There is no way back; and we must take account of those changes as we move forward. A ‘Free’ Province such as I am proposing involves no ecclesiological novelty which the Church of England and the Anglican Communion has not already somewhere embraced.

What not

But it is important to note what I am not proposing.

I am not proposing (as is sometimes said) a ‘non-geographical’ Province. The ‘Free’ Province would be quite as geographical as the Province of Wales – though its parishes would not necessarily be contiguous to each other. Nor am I proposing a ‘parallel church’ which would in some ill-defined sense in ‘competition’ with the Church of England. The relationship between the parishes of the two bodies would remain as it is now. We are not proposing a ‘breakaway church’. The ordering of the ‘Free’ Province would be by agreement between parties who would remain in the closest possible relationship – closer indeed than that between the other Provinces of the Anglican Communion in the British Isles.

I am not proposing a tiny or inviable Province. If all the parishes presently under the Provincial Episcopal Visitors were to enter the new Province it would, in communicant terms, be larger than the Province of Wales and several times larger than the Scottish Episcopal Church. It is sometimes said that the parishes which would make up the new Province are dependent on the financial resources of the rest of the Church of England. Our own audit of those parishes persuades us that this is not the case, and that together they would have all the resources needed for continuing life and growth. They would, in any case, on entry into the new Province, cease to be a drain on the Church of England’s resources.

‘Big Sister’ status

Of course the Church of England will continue to be the ‘big sister’ of all the Provinces of the Anglican Communion in the British Isles. Her sheer size, her establishment status and the presence of her bishops in the House of Lords mean that she will always overshadow any new Anglican presence and be the voice of Anglicanism to the nation. Rivalry between the two bodies would be as absurd as it is unthinkable.

But that does not mean that such a new arrangement would be without benefit to the parent body. In liturgy, in doctrinal and ethical development, and in ecumenical advance the presence of a vociferous minority in the Church of England inclined to oppose, in each and every instance, the will of the majority has been neither helpful nor edifying. A ‘Free’ Province (which might, in any case, wither away in time) would be a small price to pay for the consensus needed speedily to bring about changes which many regard as necessary and essential for mission in the modern world.

In short, the absence of some who would adhere to the new Province might well render the CofE more tractable and governable.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.