Edwin Barnes evaluates a significant development in Anglican ecclesiology

Truths which the Church has asserted with great energy in one generation have often been allowed to lie dormant in the next, only to be rediscovered at an opportune moment. So the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century blew cobwebs from church doctrine, and found great joy in proclaiming again, what their predecessors of two centuries earlier had known so well, that the Church of England was, and had always claimed to be, part of the Church Catholic. In our own day we are less given than our tractarian forefathers to the study of the Church Fathers of the first four centuries, and the decisions of the early Councils of the undivided Church. Just occasionally, though, some forgotten part of our history comes to mind again, and we find ourselves like that wise steward commended in the Gospel, who brings out of his treasure “things new and old”.

Part of our Anglican treasury is hidden in the Church of England’s thirty-nine Articles of Religion. No longer do clergy have to subscribe to the Articles. They still assert, however, on being appointed to any ecclesiastical post, that those Articles bear witness, along with the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal, to the catholic truths held by the Church of England. Of all the thirty-nine Articles, the most distinctively Anglican is #XXI. In attempting to pre-empt the decisions at that time still to be made by the Council of Trent, Article XXI declared that “General Councils …. may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God”. This was written as a protection against the overweening claims of another part of the Church. It might yet save us from ourselves. For if General Councils may err, then even more Councils (like Trent) which claimed to be General Councils but were in reality no such thing could err. Thus a Council or Synod of one fragment of the Church Catholic, the decision-making body of a couple of Provinces of the Anglican Communion, must have an even better chance of being in error.

Now the General Synod of the Church of England has not precisely spelled that out. In its decisions concerning the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood, however, it certainly said that those decisions were provisional, and might be wrong. Curiously, the novelty of women in the priesthood was partly justified in the Synod debates by a theory which owes its first expression to the ex-Anglican Cardinal Newman, and which has subsequently been taken up by the Roman Catholic Church to defend those doctrines most disapproved of by the keenest proponents of women’s ordination. Newman expounded the development of doctrine. Whereas many protestant Christians thought that the faith was perfectly and entirely expressed in scripture, Newman argued that revelation was continuous, and the Church was God’s instrument for unveiling new truths in new generations.

This became particularly useful in defending the Papal dogmas concerning Mary, her immaculate conception and her bodily assumption into heaven. Only the most far-fetched exegesis of verses from the Song of Songs, or the book of Revelation, can provide any sort of biblical foundation to these dogmas. Accordingly, it is hard to see how any Anglican could assert these dogmas as “necessary to salivation”, for such beliefs have to be read in Holy Scripture and proved by reference to Scripture (Article VI).

Nevertheless, the Marian dogmas had already become part of popular belief, so the theory of development in doctrine includes in it the theory of ‘reception’. This says that the welcome acceptance by the faithful, as well as promulgation by central authority, is part of what authenticates a doctrine. Accordingly those Anglicans who accept the Marian dogmas have, hitherto, been thought extremists, not least for relying on the Roman doctrine of reception rather than those chaste Anglican pillars, scripture, reason and tradition.

Yet this language of ‘reception’ was heard a good deal in the debates which led to the ordination of women in the Church of England. First, it was asserted that there was such an overwhelming acceptance by the laity of this move that this in itself was evidence for God’s will in the matter. That is, the ‘reception’ had already happened. It was also said, though, that the matter should be treated in a Gamaliel-like way; that the church should ordain women, and then see how rapidly it became accepted.

In the voting in the General Synod, even at the very last, on November 11th 1992 almost a third of the lay and clerical members were still opposed, besides a quarter of the bishops; so the ‘reception’ at that time was a good deal less than total. To win Parliamentary approval of the legislation, the Church needed to show that proper provision was being made for those who still did not accept women as priests. Part of the way of doing this was to create a compensation package for clergy who gave up their ministry because of it. There were many more clergy, however, who said they would not take such compensation. They were and intended to remain members of the Church of England. There were also very many lay people equally determined to remain in the church of their baptism, who needed reassuring that this would still be possible. For these “traditionalist” priests and lay people (and “traditionalist” is not an ideal word, but it is better shorthand than most) the solution was an Act of Synod, attached to a document of the House of Bishops called “Bonds of Peace”.

The Act of Synod, drafted by the Bishops in June 1993, was passed overwhelmingly by the General Synod in November that year, every Bishop voting in favour. It was concerned with arrangements for pastoral care following the ordination of women. Whereas the Church of England had determined to ordain women to the priestly ministry of the Church, it admitted2 “Discernment of the matter is now to be seen within a much broader and longer process of discernment within the whole Church under the Spirit’s guidance”. In presenting the Report to the Synod, the Archbishop of York, John Habgood, spoke of “discernment” and “reception”: ‘We are trying to think of this within the context of the Church universal and “reception” implied to some that we had to move inevitably in one direction. We believe we are moving in that direction, but we have also to be sufficiently open to go on listening to what our fellow Christians in other traditions are saying. that is why the word “discernment” is in.’ 3

The Act of Synod, therefore, provided space for “reception” or “discernment” to take place. For this to be genuine discernment of the will of God, there had to be an admission that it was possible that in this matter the Synod had erred and might even need, at some time in the future, to undo what it had purported to do.

To make space within the one church for those supportive of women’s ordination, and those convinced it was wrong, the House of Bishops “now indicates how in practice the dioceses and the local churches can live with this diversity.4 A diocesan bishop might remain opposed to women as priests, but permit another bishop to ordain and license women within his diocese. A diocesan bishop in favour might invite a bishop who does not accept women’s priesting to minister to priests and congregations in his diocese who themselves do not accept it. This would express the collegiality of a House of Bishops which “accepts the legitimacy of both positions. What is more,5 each Diocesan Bishop will ensure that provision continues to be made for the care and oversight of everyone in his diocese, including those opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood.

To enable all this to happen, the Bishops saw the need for appointing a new sort of bishop, a suffragan who would have provincial and not just diocesan responsibility. The Archbishop of Canterbury would be able to appoint two such bishops for the southern province, and the Archbishop of York, one for the northern province. These Provincial Episcopal Visitors, or “PEVs” [dubbed by the Press “Flying Bishops”] would be commissioned by the archbishop of the province to “carry out, or cause to be carried out, for any parish in his province, such episcopal duties, in addition to his other duties, as the diocesan bishop concerned may request”.6 Moreover, although such duties presupposed the good will of the diocesan bishop, he also “will work with the diocesan bishop concerned in enabling extended pastoral care and sacramental ministry to be provided.”

Now all this arrangement is very new in the Church of England, and it would be easy to think this was the easy-going pragmatic C of E trying to square the circle. Curiously, though, a remarkably similar arrangement has recently been devised in the Roman Catholic Church, and it may be that here (as with “development in doctrine” and “reception”) the two Churches are converging.

The Second Vatican Council envisaged, in “Personal Prelatures”, a new Church institution, and what the Council permitted was developed by legislation under Pope Paul VI and in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Its principal aim was to provide pastoral care for particular groups of people. It was envisaged, for instance, that there might be bishops appointed for immigrant groups who would have a personal prelature of this sort. In commenting on this development, Pedro Rodriguez 7 says “… personal prelatures could only be possible if the classical territorialism were made flexible by applying the personalist principle”. Although such a prelature would not be a “particular church”, in the sense in which a Roman Catholic diocese is seen as a particular church, nevertheless it would be comparable with a particular church.

What began with Vatican II has so far only had one actual application; Opus Dei is a personal prelature, with priests and lay people under the direct care of their own prelate, appointed for the purpose by the Pope and responsible directly to him. Nevertheless, the idea of personal prelatures is now established, and available for the Church to use in other cases of special pastoral need.

All this can perhaps help us to understand the development in the Church of England of PEVs. We are unlikely to want to define or legalise the development as carefully or thoroughly as Rome has done, but looking at the Roman system might help us to appreciate that here is a genuine development of ecclesiology, not just a pragmatic expedient – and also to foresee how similar provincial bishops might be used in other instances of pastoral need.

First, the very notion of a bishop acting for an Archbishop across a whole province is not a total novelty. It already exists where there are bishops to the Forces, or bishops with responsibility for prisons. These are special pastoral arrangements, aimed at assisting and not undermining diocesan bishops. Then again, the authority of the two Archbishops in England has barely existed from the reformation down to the present century. Yet the pre-reformation system is recalled at a consecration or enthronement when even so senior a Bishop as the Bishop of London is referred to as a suffragan of Canterbury. Perhaps it is as we have considered the primacy of the Pope (for instance in the ARCIC discussions8) that our part of the Church has felt the need for the exercise of primacy. In the decade when the Archbishop of Canterbury was sought to help an African nation remove its Archbishop because of his connections with genocide, it is perhaps not surprising that he takes seriously his oversight of other bishops in his province. So, “Each provincial visitor will act as spokesman and adviser for those who are opposed to the ordination of women … and will assist the archbishops in monitoring the operation of this Act of Synod”9

PEVs, then, have their parallels with Roman Catholic personal prelate. They are appointed:-

i) for pastoral reasons ii) under the direct authority of the primate iii) working with diocesan bishops where possible iv) referring difficult matters directly to the primate v) ministering to clerics and lay people alike, who seek their pastoral care.

Is it inconceivable that similar arrangements might be made, for instance, over reunion with another church? So, if the Methodist church wished to take episcopacy into its system, but felt obliged to ordain women as bishops while the Church of England did not do so, then could not Methodism operate as a separate prelature, until such time as it and the Church of England felt ready to amalgamate into a single church?

We might go even further. Suppose that the PEVs and those in their care were able to develop a closer relationship with another church. In the 1930s, the Romanian Orthodox Church pronounced favourably on the validity of Anglican Orders. In 1948, though, the conference of the Orthodox Churches in Moscow decided that the Orthodox Church as a whole was not prepared to enter into communion with the Church of England because of doubts over the orthodoxy of its articles of faith.10 If the Church of England were able to demonstrate its union in faith and witness with Orthodoxy, then there would be no doubt about the validity of its orders. What now if the PEVs were able to persuade another church, whether Orthodox or Catholic, that the faith of the traditionalist part of the Church of England was, indeed, recognisably that of the whole church, and was a distinct prelature, is it unthinkable that such a prelature might enter into a new relationship with that other part of the universal church, while remaining part of the Church of England? This would be a development far removed from the various schemes for union which have foundered down the last half-century.

It is, perhaps, surprising, that over the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood, which appears to drive the Church of England further from the Roman Catholic Church, there have been so many developments which have worked in the other direction, among them reception, the development of doctrine, and, with the PEVs, something very like personal prelatures. But then, we prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit throughout the debates on women’s ordination, and the Spirit blows where he wills. There may be many more surprises yet in store for us, if we seek to remain faithful.


1 Voting figures were: House of Bishops, Ayes 39, Noes 13; Clergy Ayes 176, Noes 74: Laity Ayes 169, Noes 822 “Bonds of Peace” para. 2. 3 Synod Report of Proceedings Vol 24 #3, page 995 4 “Bonds of Peace” para. 5. 5 “Bonds of Peace” para. 12. 6 Act of Synod, 5.3. 7 “Particular Churches and Personal Prelature” Four Courts Press 1986 p49 8 The Statement on Authority in the Church: of the Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission 1976: VI 24 9 Act of Synod op. cit.5.4 10 Romanian Orthodox Church and the Church of England: Bucharest, 1976.: esp. pages 68-86, “The Orthodox Church and Anglican Orders” and “The Resolution passed on ‘Anglican Hierarchy’ (1948)”.

Edwin Barnes is Bishop of Richborough with a pastoral responsibility for those opposed to the ordination of women in the Eastern part of the Archdiocese of Canterbury.