Geoffrey Kirk looks at the conflicting ecclesiologies underlying
some recent statements

IF MY MEMORY serves me, Robert Runcie once remarked, apropos disagreements over the ordination of women, that differences which were tolerable between parties whom the ocean divides might not be so easy to deal with closer to home. It struck me at the time as the sort of cavalier attitude to catholicity which you might expect from an Anglican archbishop. And, of course, it was said before ready access to the Internet had overwhelmed the tyranny of distance.

Two documents which I downloaded from websites in America and Australia the other day demonstrate (ease of communication notwithstanding) that Anglicanism is still up to its old tricks of dispersed authority and wilful self-contradiction, which Runcie was describing.

The two documents were the Concordat between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church of the United States (ECUSA), and the Consultation Document on Women in the Episcopate of the Anglican Church of Australia (ACA). Neither, as you will readily imagine, is couched in deathless prose, but together they are of considerable interest.

The Archbishop of Perth, the Most Revd Dr Peter Carnley, contributes to the Australian document a paper clearly intended to knock on the head any suggestion of parallel jurisdictions or Alternative Episcopal Oversight in the event of women’s consecration. I have never read so uncompromising a statement of episcopal territoriality.

‘The diocese,’ says Carnley, ‘is … the fundamental unit of the Church in the sense that it is the local manifestation of the Body of Christ, inclusive of every baptised Christian in that particular locality, regardless of differences of race, or gender, or social status. It is the eucharistic community under the presidency of the bishop, its minister of order and its visible sign of unity’.

‘This is the theological reality,’ continues this Australian Ignatius, ‘whose inclusivity and unity grounds the view that the local church of the diocese is the fundamental unit of the Anglican Church of Australia and the see of a bishop…The integrity, unity and inclusivity of the communion of the local church or diocese as the local manifestation of the body of Christ is what is to be safeguarded in any abnormal arrangements that may need to be made in order to accommodate the possible new development of the consecration of a woman to the episcopate.’

Carnley admits that there have been (and are) parallel jurisdictions in Anglicanism – like the American and British jurisdictions in Europe – but they were never desirable, and they are now being tidied up. The suggestion that Australians should follow the Church of England’s pattern and appoint a bishop for the Forces, he describes, in picturesquely seventeenth century diction, as ‘a pox of polka dots across the map of the national church’.

But it is not only the diction of the Archbishop of Perth which is seventeenth century; so is his world view. Not since the days of Stuart autocracy has anyone seriously suggested that all the Christians in one locality should be compelled to acknowledge the same bishop. Were it not for the fact that his ulterior motives are so obviously showing, it would be a cause for blank astonishment that one so modish in his other opinions, should have failed to notice that the world is not like that any more.

As a matter of fact, the majority of baptised Christians in the Archdiocese of Perth does not owe allegiance to Dr Carnley; nor do they find their ‘focus of unity’ in him. Any realistic ecclesiology has to take account of that fact. It has to acknowledge that there are – and will be – matters of truth and principle which will oblige Christians to fracture or impair communion among themselves.

These facts of life (inconvenient to his present argument though they are) Peter Carnley knows well. He knows them existentially and experientially. In a fit of exasperation at what he thought of as the tardiness or obstinacy of the Australian General Synod he unilaterally ordained ten women to the priesthood (on March 7, 1992, nearly nine months before the definitive vote); and this despite the known consequences in terms of impairment of communion in the national church.

It was blackmail of those most flagrant kind, a fact tacitly acknowledged by Keith Rayner, the Primate of Australia, when he commented: ‘If General Synod cannot find a way through the impasse, then I cannot guarantee that the Church can be contained within the existing constitutional framework’.

It is a rich irony that a man whose illegal action risked permanently wrecking the delicate compromises of the constitution of the Australian church should now (for purposes of further intimidation) be posturing as an advocate of ‘inclusivity’.

It was, after all the same Archbishop who, in another irascible moment, when asked in this own Synod what he proposed that opponents of women’s ordination should do, told them that ‘they should shake the dust off their feet and go’.

He is, then, no stranger to the notion that truth is sometimes to be preferred to unity. And you can be sure that were it not for his burning conviction that the present flow (be it of the Zeitgeist or of the Heiligegeist) will carry him on to total victory, he would not be for unity now.

In Dr Carnley’s paper this key (and novel) concept of ‘inclusivity’, shamelessly masquerades as ancient and Ignatian.

He claims to have identified, in the life and practice of the Christians of the first five centuries an imperative principle ‘to include those who dissent in the continuing life and worship of the church’. Whereas, of course, almost exactly the opposite is the case with the early church. There communio in sacris involved a degree of doctrinal agreement which few modern day Anglican provinces or dioceses could hope to achieve.

Nor is the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia as theologically principled as Carnley would have us believe.

‘The Constitution…makes it clear’, he begins, “that a diocese is the ‘unit of organisation of this Church and shall be the see of a bishop”. This is not a merely juridical statement; nor is it simply based on pragamatic and utilitarian considerations of organisational appropriateness and usefulness. [It]…is theologically grounded.’

Quite so; there were a number of considerations other than administrative expediency. But they were none of them high-mindedly theological. If truth be told, the Constitution’s curious requirement for canons of the national church to be locally ratified (or not, as the case may be), arose less from an ecclesiology which stressed the individual diocese as a full actualisation of the Universal Church and the ‘prolepsis of the kingdom’, and more from a shared anxiety about differences of churchmanship. In particular the smaller catholic dioceses feared the imposition of the Calvinist theology of an over-mighty Sydney; and the Sydneysiders, conversely, feared swamping by an alliance of country-based catholic dioceses.

John Davis’s magisterial little book on the birth of the Australian church’s constitution makes the situation crystal clear. Davis writes: ‘Owing to the endless safeguards which have been written into the Constitution to satisfy the scruples of some Australians; and to the fact that this is so obviously a compromise – a concordat – it fails completely to provide those very benefits which it sets out to provide’.

In short, the Archbishop’s vision of the unitary territorial diocese, embracing all sorts and conditions of men and every shade of theological opinion, is just what at first sight it appears – the high-flown fantasy of a desk-bound liberal. Such dioceses have seldom existed in the history of Christianity and subsist nowhere now. The attribution of the idea to poor Ignatius of Antioch, moreover, (who ever exercised a conscientious bigotry which would guarantee him the cold shoulder at any Lambeth Conference) is a fantasy too far.

What Carnley is actually doing by portraying this phantasmagorical episcope of his own invention as normative (essential even) to the life of the Church, is to give himself ample opportunity for denouncing as schismatics those who cannot accept the consecration of women. And the S-word, of course, is the biggest gun in the whole ecclesiastical armoury of abuse.

Yet like the H-word (which so embarrassed Dr Carey at the beginning of his archiepiscopate) the S-word is hard to deploy with impunity in the post-modern world. One man’s schismatic is another man’s ecumenical partner. Australian Anglicans have cordial relations with Roman Catholics, whose official opposition to women’s ordination is fierce and clearly stated; and with the Anglican province of Papua New Guinea, which is similarly uncompromising.

It is hard to maintain convincingly that fellow Australian Anglicans should be treated any differently from them. They surely deserve – and equity demands that they get – an exactly similar generosity, including provision for the kind of episcopal oversight which their conscience requires.

It is irascible and dictatorial temperaments (like Dr Carnley’s) which cause schisms. Gentler and more amiable souls prefer amicable devolution

Which brings me to the second of my documents from the ether, the Concordat between ECUSA and ELCA.

In the supermarket of competing denominations which is Religion ‘made in the USA’, territorial absolutism is simply unthinkable. Overlapping jurisdictions among the once ethnically distinct Orthodox, and the alphabet soup of virtually indistinguishable Baptist churches (between which ministers and worshippers transfer with relative ease), have set the tone. So when the Episcopal Church entered into full communion with the Polish National Catholic Church (as part of the Bonn agreement with Old Catholics in 1931) no one pressed the necessity of amalgamating dioceses or arranging territorially distinct bishoprics. They simply continued as two separate (though sacramentally linked) churches.

Present proposals for full communion between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and ECUSA allow for a similar pattern of parallel jurisdictions. Paragraph 21 of the recently produced document ‘Called to Common Mission’ (a Lutheran proposal for a revision of the Concordat of Agreement) carefully explains what is intended:

‘In thus moving to establish, in geographically overlapping episcopates in collegial consultation, one ordained ministry…both churches agree that the historic catholic episcopate can be locally adapted and reformed in the service of the gospel.’

Called to Common Mission nowhere assumes that there will be a shake-out of these overlapping episcopates at some future time. Indeed rather the opposite:

‘While our two churches will come to share in the historic episcopate, each remains free to explore and further develop its own understanding of the nature and function of the ministry of bishops in historic succession. The Episcopal Church remains free to maintain its conviction that sharing in the historic episcopate while not necessary to the being of a church is essential to full communion; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America remains free to maintain that the historic episcopate is not necessary for full communion.’ [Called to Common Mission, para 11]

There are some who will wonder, in the case of this American Concordat, as well as in the case of the Porvoo Agreement between British Anglicans and Nordic Lutherans, precisely what kind of ecclesial entity is being confected. And there will be those who will wonder if the ‘historic episcopate’ can survive the strains which are being placed upon it. Not only does the American Concordat explicitly abandon episcopal territoriality, but Porvoo embraces non-episcopal ordinations and lay celebration. Both concessions, for different reasons, are currently big news in Australia – or ought to be.

Two things are clear. First, that in order to achieve a degree of unity with non-Anglican bodies, both agreements show an openness and ecclesiological flexibility which Archbishop Carnley refuses to accord to fellow Australian Anglicans who cannot endorse his own innovations.

Second that there is urgent need for an inter-Anglican doctrinal commission to examine the whole ecclesial mess into which we have drifted, both between provinces of the communion internally, and between Anglican provinces and other local churches.

If such a commission cannot decide some fairly basic ecclesiological issues – and decide them authoritatively and soon – then conflicting ecclesiologies will be added to the list of blunt instruments (women’s ordination and consecration; issues in human sexuality; limits of credal orthodoxy) with which Anglicans habitually bludgeon one another.

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