Geoffrey Kirk talks to Credo Cymru about the Free Province

PEOPLE, IT SEEMS, crave a clear, neat, clean-cut ecclesiology. I can today exclusively reveal to you that in Cardinal Ratzinger’s office there is a filing cabinet marked ‘Top Secret’; and in it a file which is, if anything, even more classified. Were you to have sight of this closely guarded document you would discover that it gives carefully thought-out instructions for what a faithful son of the Roman Church should do when landing on an alien planet.

Supposing the planet to be inhabited, he should approach one of the natives and ask: ‘Has there been a Fall?’ If the answer were positive he would go on to ask: ‘Has there been an Incarnation?’ In the event of a further positive response, he should ask: ‘Has there been a descent of the Holy Spirit?’ And if the alien replied that there had been, the visitor should politely ask directions to the nearest Catholic Church.

Would that it were so simple! But you are all Anglicans – so you know that shoe-box ecclesiology of that sort is not an option. You know that things are altogether more messy and more untidy. But what I want to suggest to you is that, for Anglicans, they have recently got a great deal untidier, and that one of the features of both sides in the women priests dispute has been an unwillingness to admit the fact.

To understand where we have reached in the process of ecclesial unravelling we need first of all to look back – back to the Anglo-Catholic theme-park fantasy-world which, I fear, we all used to inhabit.

At the heart of that elaborate fantasy was the Branch Theory; and undergirding that was the Doctrine of the Delimitation of Dogma.

The Branch Theory shamelessly suggested that there were three strands making up the totality of Catholic Christendom: the Roman, the Orthodox and the Anglican. Ignoring (or merely nodding to) the self-understanding of Nordic Lutherans – and completely forgetful of the fact that for most of its history Anglicanism (limited to the Church of England and the diminutive Scottish Episcopal Church) was a mere pimple on the body ecclesiastic – this notion gave credibility and coherence to an emergent communion which followed the flag and staked its claim.

The Doctrine of Dogmatic Delimitation – classically expressed in the famous formulation of Geoffrey Fisher – gave an additional dignity to this idea. Anglicanism, it was being claimed, was Catholicism with no additions; the faith of the first four centuries, miraculously revived and now extending across the globe.

The Anglican Communion, so expressed, was and is, a powerful idea. The builders of St Martin’s, Brighton, to give a spurious credibility to their colourful version of Anglo-Catholicism, emblazoned the roof of their vast basilica with the arms of the dioceses of the Anglican Communion at the time of its building. The Archbishop of Canterbury, when he wants to deflect attention from his role as the prime bishop of a declining minority church in an increasingly secular society, vaunts himself as ‘the spiritual leader of the world’s seventy million Anglicans’.

But all this is very much in excess of the actual facts. The Anglican Communion, on closer examination, proves to be a fragile and adventitious phenomenon. The first use of the word ‘Anglicanism’ is cited for the 1840s (and then it is attributed to Hurrell Froude!). The first Lambeth Conference (a response to the Colenso crisis by a group of Canadian bishops) took place in 1868 – on condition, of course, that it lacked the very authority its proposers sought for it. Every other ‘instrument of unity’ in the Communion has been developed in the aftermath of the contentious ordination of women to the priesthood – the Anglican Consultative Council in 1971, the Primates’ Meeting in 1979. Over two thirds of the 38 self-governing provinces were created after the Second World War, and nearly half since the first ordinations of women in 1970.

It is important for those of us who have lived so long in the Anglo-Catholic theme-park fantasy-world to be clear about how the liberal developments of the seventies and eighties have changed the nature and ecclesiology of the Communion irreversibly.

Until the crisis of the seventies Anglicans tended to see themselves, in broad terms, as united by three things: a common liturgy; a common ministry (orders, that is to say, which were regarded as theoretically if not canonically equivalent and interchangeable); and a common relationship to the Archbishop of Canterbury as primus inter pares in the college of bishops.

Change has overtaken all three of those criteria.

Though it might be argued that the liturgies currently in use in most of the Communion show a family resemblance (and may even have an identifiably Cranmerian ancestry) the now accepted view that major liturgical revision is required once every twenty years – at least- will ensure that those resemblances progressively diminish.

There is no longer a common ministry, in the sense that orders are no longer even theoretically interchangeable or equivalent. The orders of women priests and bishops, and of men ordained by women bishops, are not acceptable in more than half the provinces of the communion. A doctrine of ‘reception’ has been adopted to accommodate this new situation, and applied also to dissentient groups within provinces. This notion has subsequently been deployed in ecumenical relations.

Those who remember the heart searching over the establishment of a common and interchangeable ministry which characterised the Methodist reunion scheme of the 1960s can now look with amazement on the Porvoo Agreement of the 1990s. Even granted its contentious view of episcopacy, that agreement freely acknowledges the practice of non-episcopal ordinations. By analogy with an Anglican Communion, where the orders of some are not recognised by others, the Porvoo Communion has come into being with a similar diversity, frankly if tactfully, expressed in its foundation document.

The role and position of the Archbishop of Canterbury has also changed. In an age when the Papacy has made itself accessible by world travel the Archbishop has raised his profile in the same way. It would be a mistake however to suppose that his authority has thereby been enhanced. The reverse is true, as the last Lambeth Conference showed. Press commentary majored on the issue of homosexuality and saw the overwhelming vote for a conservative position as an endorsement of the Archbishop and a result of his world-wide diplomacy. Such a view is nothing if not short sighted.

It is now clear that the Lambeth majority will not restrain (or even influence) the revisionist bishops of North America; and the consequent demonstration of the impotence of the Conference will certainly not help the authority of the Archbishop or the unity of the Communion.. The real significance of Lambeth ’98 rested not with the debates on human sexuality, but with the manoeuvrings of Jack Spong.

The Bishop of Newark preceded the Conference with a twin assault on the traditionalist position. He engaged the Archbishop in a public correspondence on the homosexuality issue, highlighting his own doctrinal intransigence and obliging the Archbishop to dignify his position by the promise of dialogue. He then issued a challenge, in his twelve theses, to the bishops of the whole Communion. The theses systematically attacked every known tenet of Christian believing. Spong did so in the certain knowledge, that he would not be disinvited from Lambeth, nor in any way censured or disciplined by it.

Spong had effortlessly demonstrated that it is possible to hold any opinion whatsoever, and remain a bishop in good standing with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He had thereby paved the way, despite the 1998 vote, for a warm welcome to be given in 2008 to the first practising gay bishop (probably Canon Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who has been slated for election twice, and looks destined to succeed somewhere). The victory (game, set and match) at Lambeth 1998 went not to the conservatives, as the press reported, but to the revisionists. The chief casualty, of course, was the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

It is important for us also to grasp how women’s ordination has played a key role in this unravelling; and that the process has been theological and ideological as well as ecclesiological and institutional.

To see how this process has undermined the doctrinal coherence of the Communion it is only necessary to examine the Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888 and revisit the classical formula of the Three-legged Stool. The Quadrilateral has now become a polygon with an indeterminate number of sides; and the stool has been rendered fundamentally unstable.

The four main essentials of the Quadrilateral were as follows:

1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as ‘containing all things necessary to salvation’, and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.

2. The Apostle’s Creed as the baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.

3. The two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself – Baptism and the Supper of the Lord ministered with the unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution, and of the elements ordained by him.

4. The Historic Episcopate.

The notion of the Stool proposed that Anglican doctrine stood on the triple foundations of Scripture, Tradition and Reason.

The fall of the Stool, I want to suggest, destroys the Quadrilateral; and the instability of the Stool closely relates to the principles underlying women’s ordination. Michael Adie made this clear when he proposed the ordination of women to the priesthood in the English General Synod. Referring explicitly to the elements of the Stool, he claimed that it was a development, ‘consonant with scripture and required by tradition’.

Many would agree with Alec Graham, then Chairman of the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England, speaking in the same debate, when he affirmed that scripture does not directly address the issue and that the answer to the question of whether or not this is a legitimate development must be either ‘not proven’ or a straight ‘no’. Nevertheless, even if both Adie’s propositions were granted, there would still be no mandate, on the principles of the Stool and the Quadrilateral, for any change in orders.

The reason is plain. A change to the fourth side of the Quadrilateral (the historic episcopate, in its role, function and competence) would necessarily affect the third side (the right ordering and reliability of the dominical sacraments) and could only be accepted if it could be shown to be required by the first side (those scriptures containing all things necessary to salvation). Moreover the idea that the tradition ‘required’ a change which it had hitherto consistently resisted would inevitably call into question the reliability of the second side of the Quadrilateral (the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) which rely on the same exegesis of scripture as the sacred ministry and derive from the same third/fourth century consensus.

So what had Adie done? By argumentative leger de main he had redefined Reason (the third leg of the Stool) and then exalted his new understanding of ‘Reason’ far above the other two legs. Hence the manifest instability!

By ‘reason’, the classical Anglican formulas meant the application of inductive and deductive processes to the exegesis of scripture and the understanding of the dynamic relationship between scripture and the tradition. The classical position asserted, as an axiom, that ‘reason’ and scripture would always be in agreement; but gave precedence to scripture.

It became clear in the debate about women’s ordination that what the proponents meant by ‘reason’ was something altogether different. It involved the adoption of what Daphne Hampson has called an ‘ethical a priori position’; one by which, and under which, scripture and tradition must be judged. ‘Reason’, in this new sense, and ‘experience’ – another prop used to jack up this side of the Stool – are said to issue in the perception of ‘self-evident truths’, of which Christianity must take note, or be condemned to irrelevance and immorality.

Hampson herself sees that this runs counter to the Christian claim to be an historical and Incarnational religion, and so she has abandoned any claim to be a Christian at all. Most of the proponents of the ordination of women have not yet seen their predicament with such clarity.

The ecclesial unravelling which I have, described – and I hope I have described it accurately, even though time does not permit me to indicate its full extent – presents serious problems for those of us who find ourselves, as a result of it, a merely tolerated minority in the Church. We have a residual loyalty to the Church of our birth, baptism or conversion – otherwise we would not be here, and would not be content to allow it to patronise us as it does – but where will this ongoing process leave us: where are we going, what is our future?

Religious commentators and correspondents, like everyone else, prefer a shoe box ecclesiology. In consequence they like to talk about changes in the life and structure of the Church as ‘splits’ or schisms.

As an undergraduate I once wrote a specimen tabloid headline which I supposed contained every essential element in the sale of popular newspapers. It read: ‘Teenage doctor-priest in sex-change mercy dash to palace corgi’. I am now an older and a wiser man, and I know that such a headline might well also have to include the words ‘woman priest’, ‘rebel’ and ‘split’.

Let us be clear that the proposals for a Free Province of the Church of England – which are the response that Forward in Faith is making to the ecclesial unravelling which we see around us, are not proposals for a ‘split’, whatever the press or our opponents may say about them. You cannot rend what is not united. Instead they are proposals for an orderly ecclesial evolution or devolution; suggestions for regulating a process which we did not begin, which is already in train across the Communion, and which may otherwise get out of hand.

In assessing their worth and usefulness we need first of all to remind ourselves how eventful the recent Anglican past of these Islands has been. The independent autonomous provinces of Ireland and Wales, for example, are relatively new creations – carved out by the secular power against the majority wishes of churchmen. It is true that the members of those churches now seem proudly tenacious of an independence that in the first place they never wanted. I am sure, as Welshmen, you would claim that this is further proof (if it were needed) that God moves even more mysteriously on your side of Offa’s Dyke than on ours.

The Scottish Episcopal Church, though also once united to the Church of England, has had an altogether different history. Sadly the tenacity with which it once resisted state persecution is no longer much evident in a church in severe, perhaps terminal, numerical decline.

To rehearse these facts is to be reminded that the organisational structures and even the self-perceived identities and deeply felt loyalties of British Anglicanism are not things given and unchangeable, but, like all things else, are subject to development and change. Our history together – yours in Wales and ours in England – is a sufficient rebuke to those who find the idea of a Free Province either inconceivable or fraught with insuperable practical difficulties.

That there are problems in establishing such a province, no one will deny; that they have already been overcome more than once is apparent to everyone.

The notion of a Free Province is an attempt to apply the hard won awareness that Anglican identity, even here in the Mother Churches, is not a fixed but an evolving reality (and to apply the emerging ecclesiology of world-wide Anglicanism) to the defence of the orthodox minority.

The free, independent and autonomous province is a creation of the campaign to see women ordained – you might even say, since all the best inter-provincial efforts of Anglicans since 1868 have been devoted to avoiding just such an eventuality, that it is the campaign’s single most conspicuous achievement. Women’s ordination in one province or another, we are told, may be reversed through the Synodical process; but the fact is that provincial autonomy in the matter, across the wider communion, will certainly remain.

It seems logical then – and only fair under the circumstances – that the mechanism which has been created to allow the ordination and consecration of women (and has turned the Anglican Communion into what can only be described as a Pan-Anglican Impairment of Communion, with all that that implies for future development) should be used to shelter traditionalists from the winds which are blowing, and will blow.

If, as seems to be the case, Anglicans can now accept with equanimity, that priestly and episcopal orders are no longer necessarily equivalent and interchangeable between provinces, but have a residual difficulty in accepting that they are not so within provinces, dioceses and parishes, the solution is simple. Unite the parishes and dioceses together, constitute them into a province, and within the emerging ecclesiology of the Communion, the problem has simply disappeared!

The idea is so pellucidly simple that you will accuse me, no doubt of prestidigitation, and suppose that I have some dark difficulty concealed up my sleeve. To the best of my knowledge, I am concealing nothing; what you see, with this proposal, is what you get.

The chief difficulty, of course, is that provincial autonomy in the matter of orders is itself uncatholic, divisive and schismatical; but you can hardly accuse me of hiding what is now the very condition of being an Anglican. By the very fact that you are still here, and still in the free, independent and autonomous province of Wales, I take it that you have already weighed up the options and decided to go with the flow. And I am not, you will be obliged to grant, arguing for the establishment of any new and revolutionary principle (that has already been established by our opponents); I am merely suggesting a modest re-arrangement of the existing furniture.

So what might be the advantages of such a re-arrangement of the ecclesial furniture; and what objections are raised to it?

Objections first.

We have already encountered the first and most serious objection: that such a step would be schismatic. It is argued that the integrity of the diocese as a geographical unit is of paramount importance and that to seek any sort of ecclesial independence of one’s present diocesan bishop is to subvert catholic order.

This is an objection, coming as it does from those who knew that their own actions in ordaining women would themselves be divisive, which deserves a robust response.

If the objection implies that blame for the impairment of communion which is now apparent throughout the Anglican world rests with those who cannot in conscience receive the priestly orders of women, then it is an argument wholly innocent of reason or causality.

If it implies, as is sometimes said, that there is something necessarily sectarian in the establishment of groups of Christians on doctrinal rather than geographical principles, then it must surely be pointed out that such a notion owes more to the Act of Supremacy of 1559 than to the Christian practice of the first four centuries; and that, in any case. it is inherently nonsensical.

What else is there which does and ought to unite Christians, other than a common faith? Catholic Christians belong, in the words of the Western baptismal symbol, to a ‘communio sanctorum’, a fellowship in the holy things. Among those ‘holy things’ is the apostolic ministry, common, equivalent and interchangeable – as the objectors themselves quite recently maintained (until, indeed, it suited them to do otherwise).

But more importantly, it needs also to be pointed out that what is being proposed is not unilateral action, but agreed devolution. We are proposing something which we have called, with careful precision, ‘a free province of the Church of England’. It will be a matter for the authorities of the Church of England, and ultimately the Westminster Parliament, to decide whether such a course of action is appropriate; or rather whether, in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, post-modern society, the liberal credentials of either body could survive the refusal of so modest a programme of self- determination.

What is envisaged would be an extension of the present provisions, made under the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure and the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod, to allow the open process of reception (upon which both parts of the Church of England have willingly embarked together) to continue despite the increased impairment of communion which will result from the consecration of women as bishops. It is a proposal for mitigating disunity, rather than for fostering it.

A related objection is that a Free Province would be non-geographical, and that parallel episcopal jurisdictions (such as Anglicans have had in Europe, but are now abandoning) are uncatholic and to be avoided.

This is an objection which springs from a simple misunderstanding of what is being proposed.

Forward in Faith is not proposing any geographical overlap or theological novelty. The parishes of a free province would not necessarily be contiguous, but they would be distinct and discrete. No Anglican bishop but their own could claim authority over them; nor would any priest other than their own incumbent have responsibility for them or the cure of souls within them. The parishes and dioceses of the Free Province would relate to other parishes and dioceses as the parishes and dioceses of the Church in Wales relate to English dioceses and parishes with which they have common boundaries.

Other objections are raised which are of a different and less theoretical nature. It is said that the province could not hope to be self-financing, that the existence of two Anglican bodies in England would raise problems about the Establishment of the Church, and that there would be problems about the extent and nature of the authority of the General Synod. To you in Wales, who went through all this in the early part of the century (when Anglican ecclesiology was no where near so inventive as it has become) such objections will seem small beer.

But what of the positive side; what of the advantages?

It has to be said that we regard a Free Province not as a desirable but as a necessary development. The consecration of women as bishops (though it may be as long as ten years away) will require further radical provision for dissentient parishes and bishops if the process of reception is to be continued.

There are those who argue that women bishops are not inevitable, and that we can look to a considerable period (even a lifetime or more) under present arrangements. It has to be said that the vast majority of members of Forward in Faith, consulted in our meetings around the country and present at the National Assembly, is convinced otherwise.

Presently there are three pressure points: pressure to rescind the Act of Synod; pressure to ordain women to the episcopate; and the pressure of conversations with the Methodist Church, which are being used to advance both the other agendas. Though women bishops may not be theologically inevitable, they are perceived as pragmatically unavoidable. And without further, and preferably Parliamentary, legislation the Act of Synod is seen to be fragile and vulnerable. Any rearrangement of the furniture, if it is to avoid the accusations of hurried and ill-considered bungling which have been made against the 1993 Act, had better start to be discussed now.

That said, it cannot be denied, in the rapidly deteriorating climate of the Anglican Communion, that there would be distinct advantages for traditionalists in gaining a degree of independence from the majority; not least the freedom to pursue our own ecumenical agenda.

The recently published ARCIC report has exposed the absurdity of our predicament. ARCIC in general shows the Anglican Communion in the worst of all possible lights (a truth which would have been apparent to us long before now, had we not been blinded by our own enthusiasm).

The fact is that, time and again, Anglicans promise what they can never hope to deliver. The ARCIC agreement on the Eucharist remains, after all these years, a merely interesting historical document. It is not the eucharistic doctrine taught at Oak Hill or Moore College Sydney, or believed and practised in S. Mary’s Islington or Holy Trinity Brompton or S. Mark’s, Gabalfa; nor does it necessarily inform the liturgical debates on the floor of the General Synod. (Of the liturgical competence of the majority in the present Synod, I might add in passing, that it has been justly remarked that it would be easier to teach a rugby team to crotchet).

The most recent statement on Authority is merely the reductio ad absurdum of this inability to deliver. The paradox is that the only ones who could in any sense deliver on the Roman primacy and respect for the Petrine office of unity and discernment are those of us who have been driven to the very periphery of the Church which is now making such empty proposals. And the absurdity is that those who made the proposals simply cannot see that.

A free, independent and autonomous province would allow us to talk to others in our own persona, and so to build up that atmosphere of trust which alone can result in wholehearted agreement.

A second advantage would be the ability to distance ourselves from the unfolding agenda within the Church of England.

The claims so glibly made, not so long ago, that ‘there is no liberal agenda’; that every issue is a stand-alone; and that the relaxation of marriage discipline, women’s ordination, inclusive language, and homosexual equality are wholly unconnected, are now frankly laughable. The agenda exists, and it still has a way to run before its time is up.

It is true that not all the excesses of North American Anglicanism are easily exportable; but most will have their enthusiasts on this side of the Atlantic, and it would be a bold actuary who could assess the man hours (better devoted to the preaching and teaching of the truths of the Gospel) which will have to be spent combating them. To be semi-detached from much that lies ahead is a laudable aim – not because those who preach the gospel can ever afford to loose contact with the zeitgeist in which it must be preached; but because worldliness in the Church confuses that essential dialogue.

I commend the Forward in Faith document ‘A Free Province of the Church of England’ to you, for study and reflection. I would, you might say, because, despite the lengthy and vigorous revision process, I think I can still claim that I wrote it.

Your recent piece in New Directions tells us all in England that Credo Cymru is devoted to promoting the unity of the Church in Wales. I can only end by hoping that the Church in Wales shows its gratitude to you in some tangible form. But I somehow doubt that it will.

Geoffrey Kirk is National Secretary of Forward in Faith. This is the text of a speech delivered to the Council of Credo Cymru at a recent meeting in Shrewsbury.