John Thurmer revisits a familiar topic

WE KNOW at if the Church of England consecrates women bishops the present arrangement for the episcopal oversight of those opposed to women’s ordination will not serve. Provincial Episcopal Visitors (‘flying bishops’) are suffragans of the primates of Canterbury and York. But if we have women bishops the primates will lose the capacity to preside over the two integrities; necessarily, because they will be collegially united with women bishops, and may themselves be women.

The main response to this eventuality has been the idea of a separate province for our integrity. The original movement spoke of a third province (that is, in relation to Canterbury and York). Forward in Faith has formally adopted the idea, but now prefers the term free province, partly to relate to areas and churches outside England. This paper agrees with the basic idea, but doubts the wisdom both of the noun ‘province’ and the adjective ‘free’. Accordingly it proposes a different practical implementation of the idea.


Thinking in terms of a province implies that the structure of the Church of England is provincial. But it is not. Our division into two provinces is little more than a historical formality. Ever since St. Dunstan made himself the second man (after the King) in the ‘kingdom the tendency has been for ecclesia anglicana to act as a unity. In this long development the virtual demise of the convocations and the creation of a body called ‘The Archbishops’ Council’ are merely the latest twists. The Church in Wales and the Episcopal Church in Scotland have each, as ‘national’ churches, one primate or quasi-primate, and whatever the idiosyncrasies of the Church of Ireland, it is unlikely that the provincial survival of Dublin and Armagh is a dynamic factor in its life.

Province, moreover, has a grand and aggressive sound, and will raise opposition from some who might otherwise accept an accommodation. Our integrity is a minority and it behoves us to behave with modesty. We may indeed derive encouragement from the ordinations of the world-wide Christian majority in east and west. But that majority does not know or acknowledge us, however much we, like the complainant in Isaiah 63, protest that God is our Father.

As to the adjective, the lessons of church history do not encourage claims to be ‘free’. Even the famous clause in Magna Carts, ‘Anglicans Ecclesia libera sit, reflected the language of the Gregorian reform, where ‘free’ meant the freedom of the clergy to rule the laity (rather as for James I a free monarchy meant a monarch free to do what he likes). The conventional term Free Churches’ is paradoxical for bodies whose constitutions are schedules to Acts of Parliament and whose affairs are subject to charity law and the civil courts. North of the border the rump of the once mighty Free Church of Scotland evokes distaste or amusement as the Wee Frees – most of their fellows, after legal and parliamentary drama, having sensibly gone back into the Establishment in 1929. Indeed, some visions of a Free Province here have sounded rather like Wee Frees in a chasuble


As an alternative to the free province, a model suitable for our purposes already exists in the form of the exempt deanery. Historically these institutions where the diocesan bishop did not have jurisdiction were called Peculiars, and there were many of them. Most were abolished by the rational and reforming Victorians; but there are significant survivals. Cathedrals are peculiars, and Westminster Abbey, St. George’s Windsor and the Chapel Royal are royal peculiars, subject to no episcopal authority – though the Bishop of London is Dean of the Chapel Royal. To avoid the unending schoolboy joke we had better use the term ‘exempt’ rather than ‘peculiar

In our case an exempt Deanery would be created for the purpose of maintaining in the Church of England the practice and tradition of male ordination. It would, and could, be subject only to the Crown in its constitutional capacity. But the personal and constitutional cannot be wholly separated, and it remains of great significance that the Act of Settlement (1701) requires the monarch to join in communion with the Church of England’. In a church with a degree of division of ordination a focus of baptismal and lay unity would remain.

Though without episcopal territorial titles, the Deanery had better have a geographical name with historical resonance but not currently used by any prelate. Let us to make an explicit suggestion, call it Glastonbury.

The Dean (in episcopal orders of course) would (at least once the scheme was up and running) be appointed in the same way as a diocesan bishop. He would have a chapter of episcopal canons appointed as a diocesan bishop appoints suffragans. They would divide the country among them and function like the present flying bishops; but they would be responsible, not to the primates but to the Dean, with whom they would constitute a corporate body or chapter analogous to Westminster or Windsor. Where necessary the mandate to consecrate would be issued to the Dean, or in the case of a Dean needing consecration to the senior episcopal canon; and this necessary provision would indeed give the Deanery a quasi-provincial character. It should not be beyond the powers of devout negotiation to relate the bishops of the Deanery to members of our integrity in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, should that be desired.

Priests and parishes invoking the oversight of the Deanery would in other ways remain part of their geographical diocese and subject to its bishop (man or woman) in all but directly sacramental matters. The oath of canonical obedience includes the proviso ‘in all things lawful and honest’ – and the Deanery would be both lawful and honest. But since explicit provisos are common in such formulas (‘saving our episcopal rights and the dignity of our cathedral church’) consideration might be given to adding to the oath ‘saving the rights of the Deanery of Glastonbury.

In general the Deanery would be the successor of the present flying bishops, adapted to the new situation in which the ultimate authority would be not the primates but the Crown which ‘has supreme authority over all persons in all causes as well ecclesiastical as civil’ (Canon A7). The Deanery would not be a sect with defined standards of faith or worship differing from the rest of the church. That would be schism.


Exempt deaneries in the past existed in the interests of the Crown, or religious orders, or other powerful institutions or persons. They did not exist to protect the conscience of a minority. But the modem church has accepted this role, not only with the flying bishops but in other ways as well. When the Herbert Marriage Act of 1937 extended grounds for divorce it gave the parish priest the right to refuse his church for remarriage. The Convocations and the bishops sought to make this a general refusal of remarriage.

Whatever convoluted provisions the bishops now draw up for approving ‘worthy’ remarriages, the parish priest’s right of conscience will presumably remain. And although much interest centres on changing forms of worship, these are all no more than alternatives to the Book of Common Prayer, which remains the church’s standard of worship and doctrine, and whose services are usable by any priest or parish who so decide.

Uniformity, so beloved of the Tudors and Stuarts, is the casualty in all these cases. The Crown, through the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, got in bad odour with many nineteenth-century churchmen for trying (but failing) to enforce ceremonial uniformity. But, on other matters the Privy Council was already disposed to protect unpopular minorities -quirky evangelicals like Gorham, controversial liberals like Williams and Wilson; even a high sacramentalist like Denison. Whatever the failings of the Church of England, it has not had to endure an anti-modernist pogrom, like the Roman church in the first half of the twentieth century. The royal supremacy can continue to serve us in the delicate balance of conscience and unity.

Balancing conscience and unity was not prominent in the ecclesiology of 5t. Augustine, or Hildebrand, or Henry VIII; but St. Paul was no stranger to it. His sensitive discussion of conscientious provisions about food and festivals in Romans 14 is all the more impressive from one whose manifest quest was for unity in the truth of Christ. If the future of the church is indeed to be ecumenical, then the protection of conscientious positions like that of our integrity is no less important than dialogue and common action.

John Thurmer was formerly Chancellor of Exeter Cathedral and Exeter Diocesan chairman of Forward to Faith. A form of this paper was given to the Chapter of St. Peter at Exmouth on 14 February 2000.