Andrew Burnham finds that flying bishops have won approval in
exalted places, and considers some possible ways forward

THE POLITICAL WING of the Anglo-Catholic movement in England has so far excited the envy of traditionalist rebels throughout the world by managing to broker deals that enable it to survive within the mainstream. Forward in Faith – or rather its single parent, Cost of Conscience – invented the concept of ‘Alternative Episcopal Oversight’ which, after negotiation, became ‘Extended Episcopal Care’. Through lobbying Parliament it ensured that a consequence of the measure for the ordination of women as priests would be the provision that is contained in Bonds of Peace. It is now actively campaigning for a ‘Free Province’, which would ensure its coherent survival beyond the consecration of English women bishops. More than that, it would put the Anglo-Catholic ecclesiola thus created – a form of continuing Anglicanism – back into serious unity discussions with Rome and the East.

Yet one of the brickbats thrown at Anglo-Catholics is the ‘uncatholic’ one. How can ‘flying bishops’ be catholic? Surely Rome would have no truck with such dubious ecclesiology! An answer to that, I suppose, is provided by Cardinal Ratzinger. What he says is worth quoting at length. The emphases are mine:

Much of Catholicism remained in Anglicanism, as a matter of fact. In this respect, England and Anglicanism have always maintained an unusual intermediate existence. On the one hand, England separated itself from Rome, distanced itself very resolutely from Rome. One need only recall Hobbes, who said that a state must have religion, and there are especially two kinds of citizens that a state can’t afford to have: first, atheists; and second, papists, who are subjects of a foreign Potentate. So, on the one hand, there is an abrupt dissociation, but, on the other hand, there is a firm adherence to Catholic tradition. In Anglicanism there have always been vital currents that have strengthened the Catholic inheritance. It has always been split in a curious way between a more Protestant and a more Catholic interpretation. The present crisis also shows this. A new situation has been brought about by two circumstances: the extending of the majority principle to questions of doctrine and the entrusting of doctrinal decisions to the national Churches. Both of these are in themselves nonsensical, because doctrine is either true or not true, which means that it’s not a matter to be decided by majorities or by national Churches. The resistance to women’s ordination and the conversions to Catholicism can be understood in the light of these two points. But it remains true that the state Church itself is not eager to lose the Catholic element and therefore consciously admits bishops who are not for women’s ordination and who provide a sort of refuge for the Catholic part of Anglicanism. A strong Catholic potency has always remained in Anglicanism, and it is becoming very visible again in the present crisis.

[Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, An interview with Peter Seewald, Salt of the Earth, Ignatius Press, 1997, p145]

If this view is anything like the official Roman one it seems to be, then English Anglicanism, in its ecumenical policy, is faced with a choice. One possibility (and this has been the intent of those bishops who have sat light to the commitments of Bonds of Peace) is to work for the defeat of the Forward in Faith rebellion. It has to be proved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that ‘the Catholic part of Anglicanism’ is not that part for which special bishops have to be provided, indeed that the PEV constituency is deeply uncatholic in its ecclesiology and schismatic in its practice of the Christian life. The other possibility (and this has been the intention of successive Archbishops of York, of successive Bishops of London and the present Bishop of Blackburn) is to provide within the diocesan framework an ordered arrangement whereby all can continue to look to the diocesan bishop as a focus of unity. That way, whether or not the innovation of women priests proves to be lasting and true, the apostolic succession, within which the diocesan bishop takes his place, remains unaffected.

The ‘Free Province’ idea – which the English Anglican episcopate will find deeply abhorrent – is, I imagine, a Forward in Faith strategy to deal with the former policy: the apparent intent of most bishops to work for the defeat of the Forward in Faith rebellion. As Forward in Faith would see it (though I must say, I am not privy to the workings of its Council), most bishops have worked against Forward in Faith by making provincial, rather than diocesan or regional, provision for ‘Extended Episcopal Care’.

When this has resulted not in attenuation but radicalisation and strengthening of the ‘rebels’, the decision was taken to replace provincial with diocesan (e.g. Bishop Paul Richardson in Newcastle) or regional (egg Bishop John Richards in the South West) provision. This perception, of course, may be paranoid.

Ironically, what would defeat the ‘Free Province’ idea would be the national spread of the so-called ‘London Plan’ and, I imagine, Forward in Faith, far from excited by the prospect, would rather dread it. According to this plan, the diocesan bishop ordains only uncontroversially. That is, he ordains deacons. Under his aegis, and licensed by him, his assistant bishops ordain either men only or both women and men. There is no room in this for flying bishops, except in the sense that each and every diocese has within it its own ‘orthodox’ bishop who, importantly, does not merely confirm and ordain but exercises genuine episcope: appointing clergy and caring for them, sponsoring ordinands and placing them. The price is high for the diocesan and, not surprisingly, with the splendid exception of Archbishop Habgood, only ‘orthodox’ diocesans – and not all of them! – have been prepared to countenance the plan.

In one sense the ‘Free Province’ idea can easily be squashed. The English Anglican episcopate may simply make no concessions to it. Without some concessions, however, a ‘Free Province’ will quickly become a ‘Free Church’ and we shall see the birth of yet another denomination, dangerously weak and under-funded, perhaps, but here and there dangerously undermining the claim of the Church of England that it provides for inner cities as well as suburbs, the poor as well as the rich. Such a ‘Free Church’ might quickly be looking to an overseas aunt for support (though it remains to be seen whether the aunt in the end would have anything to do with such a rebellious and sanctimoniously self-important niece).

One wonders how the ‘Free Province’ notion and the ‘London Plan’ would fare under two of the expected developments early next century. The first of these is Anglican-Methodist (and presumably thereafter Anglican-Methodist-United Reformed) unity.

The second is the consecration of women bishops, if that is made possible by the next round of General Synod elections. One price of Anglican-Methodist unity may well be the sorting out of coherent, and adjacent, ecclesiological arrangements for those (Anglican and Methodist) who find themselves out of sorts with the agreement made. A friendly federation which links ‘Free Province’ Anglo-Catholics and dissident Methodist congregations with the united Church might be one way of doing this.

A group under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Blackburn are about to conduct a review of the working of the Act of Synod. The group has terms of reference which preclude recommending the repeal of the Act, though it would be strange if the group were not to consider the consequences of developments which would make the Act unequal to the task for which it was designed. The consecration of women bishops is one such development. Whereas at present more or less all English Anglicans accept that more or less all male English Anglican priests are indeed priests, and are in some sense therefore interchangeable, that would cease when women bishops began to ordain male priests. Nor is anyone seriously going to suggest that women bishops ordain only women priests.

If women bishops are an ecclesiological dies irae for Anglo-Catholics, they are not going to say so, indeed the rhetoric of Forward in Faith seems to be to encourage the Church of England to have the courage of its convictions and complete the work it has begun. This has dismayed many conservative liberals – evangelical bishops, for instance – who thought that they could rely on Anglo-Catholics to help defeat the admission of women to the episcopate. Yet it is already clear that Anglo-Catholics have either lost entirely – or are unprepared to exercise – their synodical power to defeat ‘uncatholic’ developments. Admitting women to the episcopate radicalises the agenda and makes a ‘Free Province’ – de facto if not de jure – unavoidable, unless…

Unless, that is, the ‘London Plan’ can be fitted out for the task of ecclesiological containment. It would have to work like this: for ‘bishop’ read ‘archbishop’, for ‘suffragan bishop’ read ‘diocesan bishop’. The two archbishops – neither of whom would ordain bishops or priests – would each have responsibility for bishops, some of whom would ordain men and women, others of whom would ordain men only. Each bishop would have a diocese, and there would be some overlapping of dioceses.

Diocesan administration to a large extent would become regional administration. The gains from this would be immeasurable. Firstly, and rather importantly, peace would break out. Secondly, the Eames Commission would have a very good working model to commend to the whole of the Anglican Communion. Thirdly, diocesan bishops, presently crippled and turned into remote figures by administrative expectations, would have streamlined tasks. Fourthly, the flying bishops would leave on one side their provincial responsibilities and the Vauxhall Vectras they are presently using as helicopter-substitutes, and take their place as diocesan bishops. Their dioceses? To a considerable extent these are already formed.

What I have just suggested is unlikely to happen – even though advance intelligence from America and Scandinavia should be warning us that tomorrow’s clergy will be more conservative than today’s, many of whom themselves are more conservative than those trained thirty years ago. If it does not happen, then, sad to say, we shall see at best a ‘Free Province’, at worst yet another Christian denomination, though I myself have no intention of ever joining a communion smaller than the one to which I presently belong.

Andrew Burnham is Vice-Principal of St. Stephen’s House, Oxford.