Edwin Barnes proposes new patterns of Ecumenism

CHRISTMAS DAY, 1841. John Henry Newman, Vicar of the University Church in Oxford, had been dreaming all night of Moberly1 – for Moberly had been asking him what would he do IF the Church of England made doctrinal changes to the faith of the universal Church. “There are things which I neither contemplate, nor wish to contemplate; but, when I am asked about them ten times, at length I begin to contemplate them. [Moberly] surely does not mean to say, that nothing could separate a man from the English Church?…”

Newman speaks of difficulties faced by churchmen in earlier centuries; Thomas Ken, for example, the non-juror. But with Ken it had been a matter simply of church discipline. Now, with the Jerusalem Archbishopric being set up, it was a matter of doctrine, for the Jerusalem Archbishopric was being founded expressly to include Lutherans, Calvinists and others of heretical belief. We have moved a long way since Newman’s day. It is terribly bad form now to label any other Christian a heretic; indeed since the Porvoo declaration we are in league with Scandinavian Lutherans who have not moved a whit from the beliefs their forefathers held in the 19th Century – beliefs which the Anglican Newman called, quite bluntly, heretical.

Newman went on to consider the options. If the English church were to support heresy, then perhaps there would be some other communion which would stand firm. So he looks at the alternatives.

“What communion could we join? Could the Scotch or American sanction the presence of its bishops and congregations in England, without incurring the imputation of schism, unless indeed (and is that likely?) they denounced the English as heretical?”

These are just the questions which some of our American friends have been considering recently. They have turned to SE Asia and Africa to consecrate bishops who would uphold orthodoxy. But how secure is that route? What is there to guarantee the continuing faithfulness of any part of the Anglican Communion (as we now call it)? And with bishops from one part of the Communion denouncing most of the American church as heretical, is the communion not already schismatic?

There is, of course, great irony in Newman even contemplating help from the Scottish or American churches. Had anyone looked for help from Scotland or America in the 1840s, where would their followers be now, relying on churches which are among the most heterodox in all Christendom?

It was not long, of course, before Newman took what was then the only logical conclusion to his worries; he became a Roman Catholic. Many of our friends have followed the same route in the years since the ordination of women. But circumstances are not the same as they were in the nineteenth century, and in particular there have been developments in relations between churches which might provide a different solution for us.

This summer, with a great flourish, the diocese of Winchester entered into a twinning arrangement with the diocese of Florence. The Bishop of Winchester had been very touched by a visit he had paid to Rome representing the Archbishop of Canterbury, when he found himself seated at table with Pope John Paul.

Things are certainly moving in Hampshire. Now intercommunion might not be on the diocese’s agenda at present, though twinning has often led to this in other places. Would it be conceivable that one diocese of the Church of England could be in communion with the Church of Rome while others were not?

In catholic theology, there is no space for the notion of a “National Church”. The Church is universal, and it is local. The Universal Church subsists in the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world; but each diocese is properly called a “particular church”. The question for Winchester would be whether it, at present a Particular Church within the Church of England, could commit all the churches in the diocese, and how it would continue to relate to the rest of the Church of England if it were in communion with the Church of Rome.

In America, where the theory of “diocesan autonomy” has gone far further than in England, there are already huge disparities from one diocese to another, so it is not unthinkable that one day Winchester might be in Communion with the See of Peter via Florence, while a neighbouring diocese was happier with the Scandinavian Lutherans.

Now this apparently silly scenario is already a reality in certain parts of the Church of England. Local Ecumenical Partnerships have sprung up and many have gone much further than the canons permit. In Milton Keynes, for instance, the shared church is thought of as a pro-cathedral, and its clergy and ministers seem to be inter-changeable. That group of parishes is already semi-detached from the rest of the diocese of Oxford. Although Canon Law tries to hold a line, making it clear when a celebration of Holy Communion is an Anglican one and when it is that of another denomination, in practice the distinctions are becoming increasingly blurred.

If this can happen where Baptists or Methodists or similar sects are concerned, is it unthinkable that what Winchester has begun might be a way forward for the Church of England in relation to the Church of Rome? And if not for the Church of England as a whole, then for Particular Churches within the Church of England?

The difficulty for a diocese would be whether it could commit all who belong to it to such a course. This is the root problem in all attempts at re-union projects involving the Church of England or the Anglican Communion. International Commissions may report great agreement, as ARCIC2 has done concerning Ministry, and the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. It is entirely different when national churches of the Anglican Communion have to agree to these common statements. What is more, even if they do (through such bodies as the General Synod) they do not carry local congregations with them.

This is especially clear over the Ordination of Women to the priesthood. The General Synod changed the church’s law to allow it to happen; but it could not resolve the basic theological question. It might have said there were not ‘fundamental objections’ to women’s ordination, but the question would not go away.

“The process of discernment (concerning whether the Ordination of women is or is not according to God’s will for his Church) is not just internal to the Church of England or even the Anglican Communion; it is about our relation to the wider Church”.

So said John Habgood, then Archbishop of York, in the General Synod in November 1993. The Eames Commission goes further. In the report from its first and second meetings, chapter III para 46 it clearly admits:

“It is particularly important that the process of reception should not be foreclosed. The lack of an agreement on this matter with some of our ecumenical partners should alert us to the provisionality of the decision making process in Anglican Provinces and even in inter Anglican organs of consultation”

Which is to say that in matters of doctrine, neither the Church of England nor the Anglican Communion can settle anything. This is just what Newman was asserting over the Jerusalem Archbishopric.

The Church of England was proposing to rush ahead with accepting people from any Protestant body as if they were orthodox believers – just as latterly the Church of England has chosen to ordain women to the priesthood without being able to solve the question of whether this is a permissible development, a legitimate change to the previously unaltered practice of the Church.

But maybe what Winchester yearns after, and in its different way Milton Keynes achieves, might be a route open for the successors to Newman.

I have written elsewhere about whether churches in our constituency, who have voted for extended episcopal care, might not be seen as something akin to a “Particular Church”. Certainly when we gather in York or Peterborough or the London Arena we seem to be a pretty coherent body – a great deal more coherent and more a church than many an Anglican diocese.

The Roman Catholic Church has space in its theology for what it calls “Personal Prelatures”. Is it possible that our Prelature might seek the sort of relationship with the Holy See – or with Roman Catholic Dioceses in England – which Winchester is tentatively exploring with Florence? There might be others in the Church of England who would be unhappy about our being in Communion with the church of Rome, and in impaired communion (the phrase of the Eames Commission) with most of the Church of England; but the situation would be little different from that of many Local Ecumenical Partnerships. We would still be, what we most determinedly are at present, part of the Church of England. If the General Synod wanted rid of us, for instance in order to consecrate women as Bishops, then it has the means to remove us – provided it pays properly for our dismissal.

But I hope the Synod would actually want to continue the experiment of allowing us our own bishops, gradually giving us greater autonomy, so giving a jump-start to the stalled ARCIC process, and furthering all our ecumenical endeavours.


1. George Moberly, one-time fellow of Balliol, in 1841 Headmaster of Winchester, and later to become bishop of Salisbury – and father of the better remembered R.C. Moberly.

2. The Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission.

Edwin Barnes is Bishop of Richborough