Thomas Seville CR explains why, despite the Church of England’s problems, we are called to stay and bear witness in order to meet our responsibilities to those within the Church and those outside it
Many Anglo-Catholics can feel like the lepers outside Samaria who are faced with two alternatives, to die where they are or to die by going into the besieged city [2 Kings 7.4]. To continue in the place whither we have been led does not seem to promise much life and to go to a city which has hitherto rejected us offers little promise of food. The latter option does have proponents who say: ‘there is food there, really there is’. While respecting those who speak like this, I disagree and like the lepers do not think it an option.
As we know, the Church of England has made a serious error in admitting women to the presbyterate; one which is graver still threatens with the proposed ordination of women to the episcopate. That love which God gives to his Church in institutional form, the bishop as focus of unity and first servant of the Eucharist, will be harmed and diminished by this, there is no doubt.
There are the attractions about the Church of Rome: order, clear faith and teaching, good resources and the like. That picture which Anglo-Catholics have often loved to see does look somewhat different if seen through Roman eyes; there is a much bigger divide in the Church of Rome than in the Church of England , a divide between public teaching and authority on the one hand and the faith as lived by most on the other. The picture is not all it seems.
There are issues of teaching. Most Anglo-Catholics are now inclined to take what, in the history of the Anglo-Catholic movement, was a minority position, namely to accept the bulk of Papal teaching, the dogmas of Pastor Aeternus apart. Although these (comparatively novel) teachings have been the subject of creative reappraisal as in The Gift of Authority and in the Church of England’s response to Ut Unum Sint, they remain a barrier to Christian unity. One of the worries about Pastor Aeternus is that it undermines the reality of episcopacy, that love which God gives to his church in institutional form, the bishop as focus of unity and first servant of the Eucharist. And how many Anglo-Catholics teach and live as if artificial means of contraception is something ‘intrinsically evil’, something which is never lawful [Veritatis Splendor, 80]?
There are of course other dogmas. Most Anglo-Catholics rejoice in celebrating the Conception and the Bodily Assumption of the Mother of God. Yet neither of these are really candidates for dogmatic status, dogma as that in which belief is required for salvation. I rejoice in preaching on both mysteries, but the Augustinian background to the former and the weak support in the early and later tradition for the latter must make the demand to believe these as matters required for salvation a demand too far. Moreover, the authority Rome claims for such demands is ill-founded.
Anglo-Catholics have served the Church of England well. At times, however, the direction towards Rome has led us to be less than thankful for the rock whence we have been hewn; at best we regard parts of a multi-coloured stone as mere splinters. I wonder whether we do justice to the grace which has brought us to where we are; the good news which we have heard, communicated through saints and sinners, prayer and teaching, some Catholic, some not, all that which has taken us from among the lost and given us a hope to grasp life in God. If you can recognize that way of grace for you, then pause before thinking that salvation is no longer possible while you are a stone of that rock.
Of course we live far closer to our own mess than the mess of another church. It may be that the mess in which we live is different in kind from that mess in which the Church has lived since the time of her first love; I doubt it. Yet being in a mess has never been a reason for separation. I suggest that mess is rather an invitation to remain and to bear witness, however great a challenge that maybe.
In mess, God will give his grace and what he sends to us will be sent for our penitence and for our holiness. In our mess, God remains who he is. That is who he is. It means – paradoxically – it remains a good time to be in the Church of England.
There is our responsibility for those who are not with us. To bear witness in a church with women bishops presents big challenges; it will be the same Gospel we preach, the same sacraments by which we are sustained and the same love we receive, all of God. These things we do for the sake of those who do not know this love, those who do not know Christ: our first aim. Mission remains the same.
Representing the church
We do these things also for the sake of those who go with woman bishops. We have a responsibility for others in the body of Christ. As members of such a church we have the calling to represent her clearly before the Lord, where there is less certainty about her own form; perhaps it is a calling to be a part for the whole? We may, by the grace of God, be the ones who ‘carry’ her story, her deepest memory and her identity; and we will have the responsibility of calling that to mind and doing so with confidence.
The lepers go a third way, to the Syrian camp, a brave choice. It is certainly an exciting choice, though at first it does not seem to promise much. They find that God has removed the threat to them and to Israel and they cannot only be free and live, but what is more they become the bearers of good tidings [2 Kings 7.9], Gospel. This is all through the grace of God and it is a grace which calls us still in the fields of Samaria!