Geoffrey Kirk explains how women’s ordination and provincial autonomy come from the same stable

THERE ARE AT PRESENT four Independent Autonomous Provinces of the Anglican Communion in the British Isles: the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, the Church in Wales and the Episcopal Church of Scotland. None of those churches is the largest Christian body in the territory it covers, and apart from the Church of England, the bodies in question are small (Ireland 630 clergy, 53,200 ‘active membership’ [cf. diocese of Oxford: 55,200 in 1994] Wales clergy 740, 44,500 ‘typical Sunday attendance’ [cf. diocese of Chichester: 44,000 in 1994]; Scotland 355 clergy, 32,415 ‘typical Sunday attendance’ [cf. diocese of Salisbury: 31,300 in 1994]). Two of these independent Anglican Provinces (Ireland and England) are internally divided into separate Archbishoprics (themselves sometimes rather confusingly also called ‘provinces’: (England into York and Canterbury; Ireland into Armagh and Dublin).

These independent autonomous provinces came into existence in a curiously haphazard way. It cannot be pretended that they were the result of any reasoned ecclesiology. They were, in fact, the result of political forces and the action of the secular power. The Scottish Episcopal Church was a creation of Stuart autocracy which remarkably survived the Penal Laws under the Hanoverians – its whole history a frightening parable of the fate of religion at the hands of an all-powerful State. The other two were creations of the Westminster Parliament acting against the will of the authorities in those churches at the time of their creation. The ecclesiological implications of the Irish Temporalities Bill of 1833 were the subject of John Keble’s famous Assize Sermon, from which the beginning of the Oxford Movement is often dated. Bishops Edwards of St. Asaph and Owen of St. David’s vigorously opposed the Welsh Disestablishment Act of 1914.

Nevertheless, like other provinces of the Anglican Communion (and regardless of size, or of the fact that they coexist, for the most part, in one political unit, the United Kingdom) these Provinces have recently come to see themselves as autonomous in order and doctrine. They proceeded, for example, at different speeds along the road to women’s ordination, and it is perfectly conceivable that one or more of them should have decided against the innovation. Had one of the four British Anglican provinces decided not to ordain women (or, to take another case, had it decided not to proceed with the Porvoo Agreement) that fact would not have altered its status within the Anglican Communion. Nor would it have altered its relations to its own history, or called into question its Anglican-ness.

All this is supremely Anglican. It is part of the genius of Anglicanism to allow external pressures to do its ecclesiology for it and then to acclaim the result as the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Nor need we be wholly ashamed of this reliance on the Divine Providence.

When Forward in Faith speaks of wanting to become a Free Province of the Anglican Communion it is a status and constitution like that of the individual provinces already existing within the United Kingdom to which it aspires. It is hard to see how this desire to become a free province in a nation-wide and world-wide association of provinces (the majority of which still share Forward in Faith’s opposition to the priesting of women) could in any sense be described as ‘schism’ – though that is how many women priests and their supporters are describing it.

The Press, whose knowledge of the complexities of Anglican ecclesiastical polity could often be written on the back of a postage stamp, talk about ‘1,000 Vicars leaving the Church of England’. Whilst it is true that nearly nine hundred clergy of the Church of England minister in parishes which have taken one of the resolutions proposed under the 1993 Measure, and many more who are opposed continue to serve in parishes where none of those resolutions has been passed, it is not true that by entering a Free Province, were such to be created, any of them would have ‘left the Church of England’ in the sense which that phrase is intended to imply. They would still be Anglicans; they would still, like the Anglican folk of Wales, Scotland, Ireland or Central Africa, look to the Archbishop of Canterbury as the focus of the world-wide and nation-wide community to which they belonged.

Provincial Autonomy – the idea that separate provinces can vary their order or doctrine without constraint from other provinces and even without consultation – was the great gift to world-wide Anglicanism of the campaign to ordain women to the priesthood. The first women to be ordained legally in the Communion were ordained in a semi-independent diocese on the sole authority of its bishop and synod. Later, America, New Zealand and Canada went the same way, even though the ‘mother’ church – the Church of England – did not at that time admit women to the priesthood, and many thought it would resist the move more than ten years later. But no one accused the bishop of Hong Kong or the Archbishop of New Zealand, despite the fact that their orders derived directly form those of the Church of England, of ‘schism’. They were seen, even by those who disagreed with them – and still disagree with them – simply as being Anglican, if eccentrically so.

Now the American church is close to sanctioning the ordination of clergy in same sex relationships and to providing services for the celebration of same sex unions. There is much concern from other Provinces (witness the statements of the South to South meeting of Anglican bishops and the more recent Dallas Statement), but no one seriously thinks that the American Church will take much notice of such pressure. (Resolution C.002, on blessing same sex unions, failed by only one vote at the recent General Convention in Philadelphia.) More importantly, no-one is accusing the American Church of fomenting ‘schism’. Instead, rather confusingly, it is those in ECUSA who want to stay with the majority of the provinces of world-wide Anglicanism who are called ‘schismatics’.

The time has come to set aside this somewhat juvenile name-calling. It never helps subsequent relationships, as Dr. Carey has no doubt discovered, to call one’s fellow Christians heretics or schismatics. In a post-modern world such language seems embarrassingly medieval. When Christina Rees, the chairperson of WATCH, demands that those who won’t play her game should leave the playground, she does herself, her cause and the Church no good. We should instead be trying to find ways of creative coexistence. That a Church which only a generation ago, in the scheme for reunion with the Methodists, showed remarkable ecclesiological ingenuity in resolving long standing differences should now be reluctant to deal imaginatively with recent divisions of its own making, is tragic and shaming. It is doubly tragic that those who campaigned so long and courageously for women’s ordination now seem unable to grasp with joy the fact that, in the Divine Providence as Anglicans have come to understand it, they created both the problem and the solution.

It is true that there is a general unease with the fruits of the Act of Synod and the Bonds of Peace. No one (not even, I suspect, John Habgood, the well-meaning Frankenstein who brought it to being) expected, for example, that the Flying Bishops would have so extensive a role. And criticisms of the intellectual incoherence of the scheme are, for the most part well-founded. What we all now need to see is that the solution to these problems has already come into being. The notion of the Autonomous Anglican Province – which the women’s ordination issue nurtured and which in the disagreements about human sexuality is destined to come of age – has fewer ecclesiological and intellectual hassles than ‘flying bishops’, and the very real advantage that it does not need to be invented: for better or for worse, it already exists.

The only substantial intellectual problem which opponents of such a scheme seem able to raise is that of territoriality. It was the issue which the Bishop of Hereford raised with me on the Sunday Programme not long ago. But in this ecumenical age the claim that two ecclesial jurisdictions in one geographical area are unimaginable is hard to take seriously. On the contrary, I would have thought that the notion of Primates, like other less exalted mammals, going around marking and defending their territory in a proprietorial fashion, was no longer respectable. There are well-known examples of overlapping jurisdictions in the Roman Church (the Melkites in North America for example), in the Orthodox Churches (Russian, Greek and Antiochian hierarchies in France and Great Britain), and in the Anglican Communion (Aeotearoa in New Zealand, and the various complications of the diocese of Europe in the Church of England). Recent union proposals in the United States between ECUSA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America depended on the idea. Such things are only forgotten when amnesia is convenient.

Many people seem to have difficulty in wrapping their minds round what Forward in Faith is proposing; which is strange because it ought to be familiar. The creation of a tolerant, inclusive, federal Anglicanism in England would simply be to continue what the United Kingdom has always known, and bring the principles which govern the Communion at large, home to the mother Church.

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