Geoffrey Kirk examines the internal dynamics
of a club without rules

IN ALL THE TALK about the creation of new and free provinces of the Anglican Communion on both sides of the Atlantic, one question remains conspicuously unasked: is the Anglican Communion, after all, worth joining?

‘I could never join a club which would have me as a member,’ said Groucho Marx, famously. Traditionalist Anglicans have gained a new insight into his zany wisdom. They have been forced by malign circumstances to wrestle with abstruse notions (‘periods of reception’, ‘two integrities’, ‘extended episcopal care’), foisted upon them willy-nilly, without prior consultation, by those with whom, on cardinal points of ecclesiology, they in any case fundamentally disagree.

It matters not that the people in question were benignly trying to ensure a future for us all in the one church. What matters is that the means provided proved almost as deadly as the predicament which rendered them necessary. The ecclesiological problems have not thereby been mitigated; they have been exacerbated.

For traditionalists, the primary ecclesiological problem with Anglicanism is its pathological inability to accept that there are – even that there might be – boundaries. Mother Church (in the modern Anglican understanding) has become ‘just a girl who can’t say no’. Consider, by way of example, the following question and answer at a recent session of the General Synod.

Question: To ask the General Secretary i) what organisational and doctrinal criteria are employed in determining whether an applicant church or province should be admitted to the Anglican Communion, ii) by what procedures a new church or province is admitted, and iii) what provisions, if any, exist for the expulsion of a province which no longer meets the criteria?

Answer: i) The Overseas Clergy (Ministry and Ordination) Measure (6(2)) makes clear that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York determine whether a church is in communion with the Church of England. ii) The most recent case where this has happened was in relation to the Porvoo Churches. The organisational and doctrinal criteria employed in this case are indicated in The Porvoo Common Statement itself, including the Porvoo Declaration. The Porvoo Common Statement registers agreement on the faith, including a shared understanding of the nature and purpose of the Church, the sacraments and the ministry, including the historic episcopate. The Declaration entails a commitment to lead a common life and mission and to share in collegial and conciliar gatherings. iii) There are no formal provisions existing in the Church of England for the expulsion of a province.

Note first that ‘The Anglican Communion’ (though the Archbishop of Canterbury is grandly described by the Turnbull commission’s report ‘Working as One Body’ as ‘spiritual leader of the seventy million strong Anglican Communion world-wide’) has, in the law of the Church of England, no place or status. A reading of the Overseas Clergy (Ministry and Ordination) Measure, 1967, and a trawl through its curious antecedents (the Ordinations for the Colonies Act, 1819; the Colonial Bishops Act, 1852; the Colonial Clergy Act, 1874; and the Clergy (Ordination and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1964) reveals the haphazard growth of what can hardly be described as a comprehensive Anglican ecclesiology. Liberals will no doubt protest that no ecclesiology, in a fallen world, can ever be comprehensive. Realists will necessarily conclude that, for mere coherence, it will have to be more comprehensive than this!

Then note that there is a discontinuity between the first part of the given answer and the second. They stand side by side but they are not obliged to hold hands. The discretion given to the archbishops in the Overseas Clergy Measure is essentially ad hominem: they give permission to officiate to Jane Smith or Bo Johannsson. The Porvoo Common Statement, like the decisions of the Convocations before it (for example, in the matter of the Church of South India) is general and ecclesial. It is intended to guide and undergird the actions of the archbishops. The truth is that the archbishops have never acted contrary to such admonition. But there is no reason at all to suppose that on some future occasion, for what they supposed to be good and holy reasons, they might not do so.

Note also that the Porvoo Common Statement and Declaration allow of curious reservations. The Church of England was already, before Porvoo was concluded, in ‘impaired communion’ with numbers of churches with whom it had previously had perfectly regular relations, as a result of the ordination of women to the episcopate. (English Law does not permit women to minister as bishops; nor can we recognise the orders of women or men ordained by women bishops.) This impairment, of course, extends to our relations with the Churches of Norway and Sweden, Porvoo notwithstanding.

But in the case of Norway a new ground of impairment has been introduced. From time to time in the Church of Norway – when a see is vacant, when a bishop is on holiday or on sabbatical – priests are ordained by the Dean of the Cathedral, who is not in episcopal orders. The Porvoo Declaration frankly expects the continuance of this practice – which in a church of eleven dioceses can hardly be justified on purely logistical grounds – and sets it down as a further and different impairment.

‘We commit ourselves’, the Declaration reads, ‘to welcome persons episcopally ordained in any of our churches to the office of bishop, priest or deacon…without re-ordination’. Let the reader understand, then, that there are two quite distinct categories of priests whose orders are fully accepted in the Church of Norway, but inadmissible in the Church of England: those ordained by women (who are not bishops, in the current opinion of the Church of England) and those ordained by deans, acting on behalf of men (who, in the current opinion, are bishops).

By any standards this is odd. Whilst it is clearly the case that the discretion exercised by the archbishops under the Measure must be personal and not ecclesial, it seems equally obvious that, to be any use to them in the ad hominem decisions which they must take, the undergirding principles provided by Synod or Convocation, should be ecclesial not personal. What sense, then, is one to make of a solemn recognition of part of the orders of another church – and what ecclesial creature (The Porvoo Further Impairment of Communion?) is thereby confected? It is, after all, one thing to strive to remain in ‘impaired communion’ with those with whom one has been in communion unimpaired, and quite another to establish ‘impaired communion’ as a stand-alone ecclesial category.

‘Acceptance of anomaly is not the compromise of truth’, said the Eames Commission in one of its hortatory, grandmotherly moments. In terms of ecclesiology this may or may not be true. What is certain is that acceptance of one anomaly leads logically to the acceptance of others.

Robert Runcie once remarked of the impairment of communion between Anglican Churches on opposite sides of the Atlantic that it was tolerable only because the ocean intervened. The North Sea is a narrower channel. And, as the exasperation which women priests feel towards the attitudes of Forward in Faith eloquently demonstrates, there are no principles (which do not violate those of common sense) which would allow one to recognise some orders of a church and not others. The nature of orders demands mutual recognition and general interchangeability. That is what is generally meant by ‘visible unity’ between churches (a phrase beloved of the Council for Christian Unity); anything less can only be characterised as disguised (but not invisible) disunity.

Which brings us to the third clause of the Synodical answer, which is the crux of the whole matter. ‘There are no formal provisions existing in the Church of England for the expulsion of a province.’ Nor is there, considering the exorbitant tolerance of contemporary Anglicanism, the slightest chance that one might be expelled. What we have developed, and what the Synodical answer neatly describes, is a ratchet mechanism for the introduction of ecclesiological novelties. Thus the intellectual contortions which have produced the notions of ‘a period of reception’ and ‘impaired communion’, in relation to women’s ordination have rendered the turning of a blind eye to presbyteral ordinations in Norway a similar, if temporary, possibility.

It should be noted that in both cases there operates no theological principle, only a calculated gamble on future possibilities. The Eames Report is intelligible only if one accepts its unspoken assumption, that women’s ordination will inevitably sweep the board. And the acceptance of present Norwegian practice is intelligible only if one agrees with those who negotiated the Porvoo Declaration, that it will gradually but inevitably be abandoned. The unspoken assumption is that the minority opinion will be relinquished or extinguished, thus allowing a return to the notion of Holy Orders as unimpaired and fully interchangeable.

Whilst this speculation in Anglican futures is trendily post-modern, it is also dangerous. However favourable may be the odds, it is still a gamble. It is perfectly possible that some provinces of the Communion and some groupings within provinces may continue to reject women’s ordination; and it is equally possible that the Church of Norway will continue its present practice indefinitely. Yet to lose in such a gamble, it needs to be remembered, would be to sacrifice something God-given and precious (Holy Orders as a visible bond of koinonia), for something which nobody wants (the de facto recognition that orders are now a matter of private judgement).

Consider the next two propositions on the ecclesiological ratchet: homosexual equality and lay celebration. They are often thought to concern the particular susceptibilities of evangelical and catholic Anglicans respectively. But a moment’s reflection indicates that the implications of both affect all.

If the American church were to sanction the ordination of clergy in same sex partnerships and/or authorise same sex marriages; or if the Australian Church were to allow lay celebration, the effect would be the same. Because there are ‘no formal provisions existing in the Church of England for the expulsion of a province’ – because the Anglican Communion is, in fact, a club with minimum rules and no sanctions – the actions of those provinces would not only further ‘impair’ communion, but would effectively encourage the adoption of those opinions in other provinces. The most the Communion could do, in such circumstances would be to declare the opinions in question to be ‘in process of reception’; which would be to say that they had been relegated, along with Holy Orders, to the area of private judgement.

All this is clear enough from the manner in which both homosexual equality and lay celebration have been advanced in America and Australia respectively. The Righter judgement purported to establish that the ordination of people in active same sex relationships is not contrary to the Canons of ECUSA. The Appellate Tribunal in Australia determined that ‘it is consistent with the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia to permit or authorise, or otherwise make provision for a) deacons to administer or celebrate Holy Communion and b) lay persons to preside at, administer or celebrate Holy Communion’. Both bodies have declared that the canons or constitution do not forbid the practices in question – with the (unspoken) assumption that what is not expressly forbidden is permitted.

Both have addressed to the canons or the constitution of their respective churches questions which should properly be addressed to scripture and to the church’s unfolding tradition, in dialogue with the whole Christian community. Two explanations of this course of action spring to mind.

It might simply be that they acted on a naive error: the belief that the canons and basic laws of a local church are like the written Constitution of a post-Enlightenment secular republic. (The nature of the Appellate Tribunal in Australia, as a sort of ecclesiastical ‘supreme court’, would seem to reinforce this analogy.) Or it might be that they acted out of ideological conviction rather than simple naivete. Believing, as they do that, their respective programmes are required by basic fairness and natural justice, proponents may have felt no compunction at all in achieving their end by any method (however flawed they knew it to be) which would yield a positive result.

In any case, we can be clear that they acted in the certain knowledge that any permissions given in this way would not and could not, like the doctrines which they replaced, be seen as binding on all fellow Anglicans, or even on all the bishops and members of the individual churches in question. In the certain knowledge that they could not carry the whole church (or even the whole of their own small part of it) with them, they self-consciously opted for open division rather than for apostolic precept.

The resulting paradox, of course, is that the Anglican Communion, through its structures and agencies, is pulling simultaneously in opposite directions. From the time of the first Lambeth Conference there has been a desire on the part of some (poignantly expressed at the beginning of the Constitution of the Province of Southern Africa [Article II]) for a General Synod of the whole Communion, or at least for bodies which could express its common mind with authority. On the other hand the development of the notion of Provincial Autonomy (pioneered in the campaign to see women priested, but now being applied to other areas) is rendering such a development improbable if not impossible.

Again two possible motives present themselves. It might be that proponents of these innovations have simply pursued their aim by whatever means, regardless of (or even in ignorance of) the wider ecclesiological implications. Or it might be that they have all along been aware that the course they were pursuing objectified their own general rejection of scriptural and patristic authority in actions which were, in practice, irreversible. In a Communion which has no generally agreed forum for the regulation of doctrine, the alteration of common order is the nearest approach to the promulgation of new dogma. And every province already has in place the equivalent of the Church of England’s Canon A4, which effectively renders such changes immediately enforceable.

In any case it is clear that the institutions already in existence to further the unity and coherence of the Communion are now being cynically deployed in a public demonstration of their own powerlessness. Provincial autonomy begets diocesan autonomy (see the recent [rejected] proposals for women’s ordination in the Province of Central Africa); and both introduce into the order and doctrine of the Church an element of private judgement which is, in theory, infinitely extendible. So Jack Spong, for example, may well lend his weight, at Lambeth ’98, to the establishment of an ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Human Sexuality’. But he will do so only because the existence of an openly gay man on the slate for election as his successor, gives clear notice that the conclusions of any such Commission have already been pre-empted.

A discernible pattern is emerging. The Righter Trial in the United States made a distinction between core doctrines (for example, the Nicene Creed; the Chalcedonian Definition) and doctrines which were not held to be part of the doctrinal deposit by which the faith community is constituted. Such a distinction – between doctrines which have an undeniable cash value (e.g. that women may not be ordained to the priesthood; that sexual relations between people of the same sex are forbidden) and doctrines which do not (e.g. that the Son is consubstantial with the Father) – is one ideally suited to the post-modern mind. The core values of the institution are being redefined in terms of the very beliefs which most liberal Christians have already categorized as historical curiosities. The result is that the Church increasingly becomes merely a liturgical and aesthetic aid in affirming the life-style choices of its individual members (or conforming those, wherever necessary or possible, to the prevailing consensus of secular society).

Is it possible to be (or to create) a province of this dysfunctional association which is still discernibly continuous with the Apostolic Church of the first three centuries? That is the question which those of us who are considering the establishment of a free province, whether in the United Kingdom or the United States, must be asking with due seriousness. And even if, peradventure, it were possible, what purpose (since the Roman and Orthodox Churches demonstrate that continuity with greater elegance and economy), would such a free province, or provinces, serve?

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