Graham Collingwood, wonders for how long we can go on re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

Last year I was ordained Deacon and let loose on my unsuspecting Title Parish. After the polarized debates of theological college I followed the advice of friends and senior colleagues, put my head down and just got on with learning the trade. After all, they said, in an ABC parish you won’t need to worry about the question of the priesting of women, you can just get on with it.

How wrong they were. It would seem that my friends and seniors were more naive than I was. The issues surrounding the priesting of women are an ever present reality, even in an ABC parish. After all, parishes do not exist in isolation and a tradition which claims to be Catholic cannot, at the same time, operate as congregationalist. Thus the whole matter of ecclesiology has come to dominate my first year in the ordained ministry. As we approach deaconing and priesting, several of my colleagues and I are having to face these very real questions. What is it that we are being expected to minister in for the next 30-40yrs? What is it we are supposed to baptize and bring people to confirmation into? Can we, in all honesty, bring people into the Church of England and then watch them be hounded by the wolves of hatred and heresy once we, or they, leave the parish ? What, in short, is the ecclesiology which enables and encourages us to stay and fulfil our vocations within the Church of England as it now is ? What is the vision ?

This article is a plea from the heart. Being a young married deacon, I (and others) am searching for a vision for the future. To accomplish this I offer the following observations on the ecclesiological question and hope it will elicit a response.

Firstly, I think we need to bear in mind what the study of ecclesiology actually involves. The ‘New Dictionary of Theology’, defines ecclesiology as “the theological study of the Church”. The ‘Oxford Dictionary’, however, defines ecclesiology as “the science of Churches, especially of Church buildings and decoration ” (I wonder which one of the two the majority of Anglicans get involved in ?). Ecclesiology is, therefore, the study of the theological, physical and institutional aspects of the Church.

In the New Testament the word used to denote ‘church’ is ‘ecclesia’, an assembly of people. Throughout the New Testament ‘ecclesia’ is used to describe both a singular assembly of the faithful and as a generic term to denote all those who, in various places, belong to the community of faith (note that there is no mention of buildings in this usage!). This, as is still the case, led to arguments as to who was, or was not, a member of this ‘ecclesia’. Through many years of controversy the question kept being asked and various answers were given. Three of these answers we will take as examples.

Irenaeus taught that “the church (ecclesia) is the unique sphere of the Holy Spirit, possessing the canon of truth in Apostolic Succession focused in the Roman Church. Against the Novatians, Cyprian insisted that the unity of the Catholic Church (universal ecclesia) is rooted in the oneness of God, and that orthodoxy alone is insufficient for union with the one church. True membership requires unity with the bishops on whom the Church is founded, with the successors of Peter at their centre. And against the Donatists, Augustine declared that the holiness of the Church, too, is derived from God, not from its members. “The Church is a fellowship of love, and schism is diametrically opposed to its essence” (New Dict.Theol.p109).

Thus it is that the ecclesiology of the early church is based upon a unity of faith and love. A unity in obedience to bishops who maintain and safeguard the tradition of faith as they have received it and who, themselves, strive for unity and peace. The subsequent history of the Church down through the Great Schism and the Reformation is well known. After the Reformation, the Church of England (along with the other schismatic bodies) looked back to the early ‘ecclesia’ for its legitimisation and validity. In fact the Church of England thought that it was the nearest in practice to that ‘ecclesia’ because it had preserved the Apostolic Succession and had managed to rediscover the ‘pure’ faith of the early church. This ‘pure’ faith was now purged of all man made accretions and superstitions and was now once again the faith “once delivered to the Saints” (Newman in his ‘Essay on the Development of Doctrine’ did not see these claims in the same light).

The questions raised by this discussion of the ‘ecclesia’ are as follows;

i) What is the relationship of ourselves to this ‘ecclesia’ today ? ii) Is the Church of England, by the very fact of its schismatic origins and nature, cut off from the true ‘ecclesia’ ? iii) If not, what does cut us off, and how and when is it recognisable ?

I also want us to consider the relationship between the Church (as ‘ecclesia’) and the nation state. In 1830 Samuel Taylor Coleridge published his work ‘On the Constitution of the Church and State, According to the Idea of Each’. This work had a profound, if largely unacknowledged effect on those to whom we, in the Catholic tradition, look back to with thanks. One of these had this to say about Coleridge and his ideas;

“(Coleridge was) a very original thinker, who, while he indulged in a liberty of speculation which no Christian can tolerate and advocated conclusions which were often heathen rather than Christian, yet after all instilled a higher philosophy into inquiring minds, than they had hitherto been accustomed to accept. In this way he made trial of his age, and succeeded in interesting its genius in the cause of Catholic Truth”. Newman quoted in Vidler, Company , p214).

It is highly probable that it was Coleridge’s ideas which gave an impetus to Keble’s famous Assize Sermon of 1833 (see Stephen Prickett’s essay on Keble in ‘The English Religious Tradition and the Genius of Anglicanism’). In this work ‘Church and State’, Coleridge identified two ‘churches’ within the nation state of England. One was the ‘National Church’, and the other was the ‘Catholic Church of Christ’. Coleridge was able to do this not only from observation but also from his detailed reading of Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity’ which he undertook during the years 1825 and 1826. Coleridge took five years to write it and this implies that he spent a lot of time thinking and reflecting on what he had read and observed.

In Coleridge’s estimation the National Church was an educative body which consisted of all those who promoted the values and interests of the nation, so this included not only the clergy but teachers, lawyers, architects etc. as well. This National Church owed its allegiance to the head of state and need not be specifically Christian at all. The Catholic Church of Christ, however, was Christian and was charged with the salvation of souls and the proclamation of the Gospel. It owed no allegiance to any one particular state, its head was Christ, and the values it promoted were timeless and universal. Coleridge, through a fortuitous gift of providence, felt that in England (at least in his time), the National Church and the Church of Christ were co-terminous. As a commentator on Coleridge has put it:

“Coleridge’s position on the relation of Christianity to the state was as follows; the Christian faith or ‘Church of Christ’ is an ecclesia; the communion of such as are called out of the world. The Church of England, which is only improperly called a Church at all, is an ‘ecclesia’, an order of men chosen in and of the realm, and constituting an estate of that realm. Though Christianity has immeasurably enriched the English Church, it is not, theoretically speaking, essential to its existence. (Calleo, p131).

Coleridge himself commented on the particular state of the National Church as follows; “that cowardly half-in-half, semi-moral, semi-theological only wholly unspiritual, fluctuating yet most intolerant tacit compact of belief, the tone of which is given by the preferment hunting party of discreet correct dignitaries and expectants of dignities” (Notebook). And as for the term ‘Church and State’, Coleridge had this to say ;

“The phrase, ‘Church and State’ has a sense and a propriety in reference to the National Church alone. The Church of Christ cannot be placed in this conjunction and antithesis without forfeiting the very name of Christian. The true and only contraposition of the Christian Church is to the world.” (Church and State, p117)

The main point of all this about Coleridge and his idea of Church and State is to draw our attention to the claims of loyalty which both the National Church and the Church of Christ have. The National Church owes its loyalty to the State and to the Monarch. The Church of Christ owes its loyalty to Christ and the Catholic faith. The National Church is, by its very definition, the body which furthers and is, in turn, dependent upon, the values of the State it serves. The Church Catholic, however, is charged with furthering the values of the Kingdom of God as traditionally believed and practised. If these values come into conflict with the values of the nation then the Church Catholic is obliged to stand up and be counted (this can be illustrated perhaps most powerfully by the calling out of the ‘Confessing Church’ from the National Church of Nazi Germany in the 1930s).

The questions raised are as follows; i) What is the relationship between the National Church and the Church of Christ today, when we live in a nation which is no longer recognisably Christian ? ii) What does State control of the National Church (especially bearing in mind a recent case in the High Court) mean for the Church of Christ contained within her? Can the Church of Christ tolerate such control and remain true to its calling? iii) Are we really kidding ourselves and everyone else if we really believe that after a period of discernment we can go back on our decision to ordain women to the priesthood ? Isn’t it plainly obvious that even if the Church of England did decide it was the wrong decision we would still be compelled by Parliament to maintain it ? iv) In fact, in light of the above, is it not well within the bounds of reason to think that, on St. Bartholomew’s Day (remember 1662) some way into the future, it will be the Orthodox clergy who will be deprived of their livings rather than those who are not really priests at all ? Events in Sweden point to just such an eventuality.

I also want us to consider what it is that theology is all about. Is theology just one ‘ology’ amongst all the others or is it (for Christians at least) the light by which we illuminate and consider everything else? We have already seen that ‘ecclesiology’ is the theological study of the Church, and if that is the case then the function of theology is of vital importance for our understanding of our ecclesiology. In his magisterial work ‘Theology and Social Theory Beyond Secular Reason’, John Milbank demolishes the claims of secular reason in general, and sociology in particular, to have any controlling influence on the articulation of theological constructs. Using the post-modernist techniques of deconstruction, Milbank demonstrates that secular reason has no greater claim to truth than has theology. Secular reason is just that, secular, it does not and can not legitimately challenge theology as a discourse on how things are, or are meant to be. For Milbank

“the pathos of modern theology is its false humility. For theology, this must be a fatal disease, because once theology surrenders its claim to be a meta-discourse, it cannot any longer articulate the word of the Creator God, but is bound to turn into the oracular voice of some finite idol, such as historical scholarship, humanist psychology, or transcendental philosophy. If theology no longer seeks to position, qualify or criticise other discourses, then it is inevitable that these discourses will position theology” (p 1 )

In terms of modern secular society, the so called ‘scientific’ understanding of human existence and social processes is a falsity, an understanding which in its very concept is anti-Christian and heretical.

“The secular ‘scientific’ understanding of society was from the outset, only the self-knowledge of the self-construction of the secular as power. What theology has forgotten is that it cannot either contest or learn from this understanding, as such, but has either to accept or deny its object” (p10).

For Milbank orthodox Christianity can therefore only reject the aims and motives of secular reason, it cannot learn from them, or it ceases to be truly Christian. It therefore “follows that if Christianity seeks to ‘find a place for’ secular reason, it may be perversely compromising with what, on its own terms, is either deviancy or falsehood” (p23). Milbank then proceeds to deconstruct and demolish the claims of secular reason and point forward to the only social theory that is truly Christian, namely ecclesiology. It is only within the ecclesial community which, in Christian terms should be the whole community, that theology can be properly understood. To use the techniques, language and methods of secular reason is to introduce heresy and falsehood into the Church. Orthodox Christianity makes a mockery of its claims by doing so.

Milbank’s book is very rewarding but a very hard read. The questions that it raises for me are ones of our identity with the true ecclesial community, and whether or not by using the tools of secular reason (especially those who advocate the ordination of women in these terms), we have actually unchurched ourselves. Those who support the ordination of women need to ask themselves (in the light of Milbank’s thesis) what their reasons are for supporting such a break with the tradition of the ecclesial community to which they are supposed to belong. And those of us who are opposed need to ask ourselves searching questions about the whole nature of our ecclesiology.

Two articles in April’s ‘New Directions’ have prompted me to write this piece. One was by John Broadhurst on Women Bishops, the other was by David Dale on the connection between women priests and the new sexuality. Both currently identify their concerns with each of the areas they have discussed, as a Christological problem. However, as many of you may know, in Catholic terms, ecclesiology is Christology by another name. We are Christ’s Body; what affects Him affects us. Broadhurst, in his article, seems to advocate a form of Nestorian dualism with regard to the Body of Christ (then again are we not already living with that in our ‘two integrities’?). Dale, on the other hand, rightly points out the dangers of Docetism within the Church of England. Are we, however, not in danger of trying to project to the world, and to ourselves, a Docetic Church? Something which looks like a Church but is not really one at all? St. Augustine’s dictum which forced Newman to reconsider his Anglican position may soon be ringing in our ears again, “Securus judicat orbis terrarum”. Like Newman, in Tract I, we may be forced to ask ourselves “Upon what ground, O Presbyter of the Church of England, do you take your stand ?”.

A retired priest in my Title Parish has said to me that the crew do not abandon a sinking ship before the passengers are safe. He meant by that, that it is the duty of the orthodox clergy to remain as long as possible so as to try and help the laity. I have no doubt at all that he is right but, if I may he permitted, I would like to take his analogy further. On a sinking ship there are three main options;

Option 1 – Ignore what is happening, re-arrange the deck chairs and listen to the band as the ship slowly sinks beneath the waves. Option 2 – Repair the hole, pump out the water, refloat the ship and pilot it to a safe harbour. Option 3 – Instruct and lead the passengers to the lifeboats, see them safely off and steer them to a safe haven.

It seems to me that once we have decided upon our ecclesiology then we can decide what option to take. If someone will give me a vision, then I am prepared to plunge into the icy waters, repair the hole and help refloat the ship. If that is impossible, I will help lead the people to the lifeboats and steer them ashore. But what I will NOT do is simply hang about, re-arrange the deckchairs and listen to the band as I dream about how glorious and sound the ship was before she hit the iceberg.

Finally, I hope that the quote attributed to the Bishop of Basingstoke in The Tablet, (Easter 1996) is not saying what I think it is. The Bishop is quoted as saying;

“There is plainly an eschatological perspective in calling the Church One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. It is self-evidently not yet one and holy, so I can accept that its catholicity and apostolicity may be impaired as well.”

If that is so; if that is the case; that he can accept that Christ is divided and just carry on as if nothing has happened; then I really have to ask myself: Why did Athanasius bother ? Why did the Martyrs give their lives for the Church which is the Body of Christ on earth? According to the Bishop of Basingstoke (if he were the captain of our ship) we may well have heard him say; “Don’t worry lads and lasses, everything is all right. All will be well in the end. Now come on! Just keep re-arranging those deck chairs and doesn’t the band sound lovely ?”

I therefore ask, not only for myself, but for all the younger orthodox clergy and ordinands out there, what is the vision ? Or is it, as is so often the case, that the words of the Prophet Joel (2:28) will challenge us once again ?


A New Dictionary of Christian Theology. Richardson & Bowden (Ed). London. SCM. 1983.

A Theological Word Book of the Bible. Richardson (Ed). London. SCM. 1957. The

Oxford Illustrated Dictionary. Oxford. OUP. 1981. Calleo, David P. ‘Coleridge and the Idea of the Modern State’. New Haven. Yale University Press. 1966.

Coburn, K. ‘The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’. London. Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1957.

Coleridge, S.T. ‘On the Constitution of Church and State According to the Idea of Each’. London. 1830.

Milbank, John. ‘Theology and Social Theory – Beyond Secular Reason’. Oxford. Blackwells. 1993.

Newman, J.H. ‘Essay on the Development of Doctrine‘(1878 ed). Notre Dame. University of Notre Dame Press. 1989.

Rowell, G. (ed). ‘The English Religious Tradition and the Genius of Anglicanism’. Wantage. Ikon. 1992.

Vidler, A.R. ‘F.D.Maurice and Company’. London. SCM, 1966.

Graham Collingwood is Assistant Curate of Heavitree in the diocese of Exeter.