Gerry O’Brien on the ties that unwind

THE HUMAN CAPACITY for self-deception apparently knows no bounds. Saddam Hussein apparently believed that he could ignore United Nations resolutions with impunity and get away with it. ECUSA thought they could consecrate a man in a homosexual relationship as a bishop and that the church at large would acquiesce. A bishop thought he could appoint an avowed advocate of homosexual relationships as Dean of his cathedral and that nothing would come of it.

Some of those advocating the consecration of women as bishops imagine that if they get their way their opponents will simply vanish away like the dew in the mom and that the church will continue serenely on. Some people believe that there is such a thing as costless Christianity and manage to turn a blind eye to the suffering of fellow Christians in many countries around the world.

One local vicar explained the absence of any Sunday School work in his parish by asserting that there were no children living in the parish Mother vicar believed that his church’s witness to the sanctity of marriage meant that divorce hardly ever happened in his parish. He was blissfully unaware of the number of divorcees in the parish who had been to church for years because they had been made to feel so unwelcome.

It is not just other people though. The apostle John tells us that ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,’ but then most of us have fairly sophisticated defence mechanisms to prevent us taking such sentiments to heart.

By the time you read this, the Windsor Report from Archbishop Eames will have been published. People of all shades of opinion will have been eager to have their say. Web sites will be buzzing, the press will be full of it. There will be interviews on radio and TV Pressure groups will be pulling their spin on the Archbishop’s every word, and the pressure will be building on the members of the House of Bishops who will be discussing the report in December.

I suppose the problem with which we will all have to wrestle is rooted in the untidy nature of the Anglican Communion. We do not have a magisterium like the Roman Church. We are not congregationalists like the free churches. In fact we don’t really know what we are.

The Anglican Communion was not planned or designed in the way that a large multi-national conglomerate might have been. We started off as the Church of England. In time various overseas offshoots became autonomous and new provinces were formed. Parliament hived off the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh for reasons which appear to have little or nothing to do with theology, and we have finished up with what we have today.

The rules, such as they are, seem to be akin to those of a club, relying on the good manners, the honesty and the integrity of the members. Time was, when our unity was evidenced by the fact that we all believed the thirty nine articles and used the Book of Common Prayer. Today, what unity we have is evidenced by the fact that many of our clergy don’t believe the thirty nine articles and very few of us use the Book of Common Prayer.

With nearly forty provinces, all laying claim to autonomy, there are bound to be tensions when disagreements arise. The three cornerstones of autonomy, authority and affiliation do not sit easily together.

For each province, the price of affiliation to the club will be some restraint on autonomy. The price of autonomy will be some restraint on the exercise of authority. The price of authority will be some control over affiliation.

In short, do we accept people as Anglicans because they lay claim to the designation? Or do we place some requirement of conformity to norms and the sharing of authority and the limitation of autonomy? This is the nub of the problem that the Windsor Report seeks to address.

It is all very well looking at others but we haven’t exactly set a very good example ourselves. At the last General Synod the clergy vetoed a discipline measure which sought to set boundaries on permissible variations of opinion on doctrinal matters. As things stand, if your vicar turns out to be an atheist, there is precious little you can do about it.

We do seem to be remarkably shy when it comes to veiling candidates for ministry. Surely if Bishops and DDOs are doing their job properly they should go to some lengths to ensure that they are not drawing people with unsuitable dispositions, opinions or lifestyles into the ministry of the church. Not so. The whole ethos of the selection process seems to work on the principle of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.

It would seem that though it may be late in the day, the Windsor Report may offer us the tools we need to impose a necessary light touch of order on an increasingly indisciplined organisation. The Anglican Communion is fragmenting before our eyes. With Bishops here, there and everywhere offering oversight to congregations who are out of sorts with their own bishops, whatever unity we may think we have is becoming purely illusory.

And let us not delude ourselves that this fragmentation is something that will only happen far away beyond our shores. Within ten years, we could find a chunk of the Church of England has disappeared into a third Province. There would be as much chance of stopping it as Canute had of stopping the incoming tide. If legislation permits it, so be it. If legislation does not permit it, then the Anglo-Catholics might well go to Rome and the Evangelicals could finish up as FIEC free evangelical churches.

Either way the Church of England would lose much of its life, its vigour, its money and its people – and the rump that was left would be a very different place from the Church of England that we know today. The broad church and the diversity we cherish would be gone forever.

However, when we look into our crystal ball and don’t like what we see, the prospect of behaving like an ostrich can seem quite attractive.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester