Arthur Middleton on Athanasius, Cyprian and George

Stresses and Strains

Accokeek, the consecration of four new bishops in Denver, Bishop Spong banned by Archbishop Hollingworth in Australia, and the Diocese of Sydney’s pledge to promote lay celebration of the Eucharist, are recent news stories that signal a time of severe crisis, in which the character, and indeed the very existence of Anglicanism is radically in question. Many of us are only too painfully aware of certain aspects of this crisis from our own experiences of the stresses and strains in our own dioceses and provinces, despite the appearance of Episcopal collegiality and synodical solidarity, whatever these terms mean. Too often the crisis has been reduced to a political or jurisdictional matter that is the business of structures and quasi-authoritative bodies focussed in the Lambeth Conference or the ACC and Primates summit meetings. Yet, as Gareth Bennett’s Crockford’s Preface stated, ‘no-one should underestimate the capacity of a Lambeth Conference to take its real decisions by doing nothing.’ What seems to happen is that what Bennett claimed was Spong’s understanding of Anglican comprehensiveness, ‘that everyone should do what seems right to him in conscience and that everyone should accept it’, is what prevails; and Primates are found nailing their colours to the fence.

Not so with Archbishops Yong, Kolini and Sinclair. Their concern is with combating the heterodox doctrine and morality that is being embraced and promoted by ECUSA in the liberal interpretation of Scripture and most recently its pledge last summer, contrary to the resolution of the Lambeth Conference, to provide ‘support, encouragement and pastoral care to homosexual relationships’ and same sex blessings. There was even more concern about ECUSA’s willingness to tolerate wide-ranging viewpoints on the truth of the Gospels and the divinity of Christ. The fact that Richard Holloway claimed he no longer believed that Jesus was the Son of God (which we have known for a long time), as well as his anti-Lambeth views on homosexuality, and others like him, can go unchallenged and unrebuked, is to such Primates a scandal. The same goes for the unrebuked Bishop Spong and his anti-faith twelve theses. Along with Presiding Bishop Griswold and his predecessors these people have not been called to repent of their heterodoxy in worship, doctrine and morality and the fact that it is their denial of historic orthodoxy that has led to the exodus of many fine priests and people from ECUSA and the establishment of Continuing Anglican Churches.

Not Characteristic

This is what makes the Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter to the orthodox primates, Yong, Kolini and Sinclair so surprising. Not only is it is out of character in that there has been no public rebuke of those expressing unorthodox views, but the tone of it is stern and severe in accusing these archbishops of creating schismatic bishops and breaking the unity of the Church. In the light of what the Sunday Telegraph (24th June) reported about the growing understanding in Archbishop Carey of those opponents of women priests and bishops and his sympathy towards the possibility of a Free Province, one wonders if the letter may have been written by another Primate or an ACC member, or maybe a speech writer. To accuse these archbishops, who are fully aware of what is happening in ECUSA, of acting without proper consultation and serious consideration of the effects is just not true. In the book To Mend the Net, they set out proposals for the disciplining of erring Provinces but were given insufficient encouragement and after Kanuga the Primates again nailed their colours to the fence.

To require Bishops Rodgers and Murphy to be reconciled to the Presiding Bishop of ECUSA before Canterbury can be in communion with them is impossible. Episcopacy is not only about communion in jurisdictional structures because apostolic succession is not just about a line of succession in persons. There must also be continuity and succession in matters of faith and order, in the truth of the Gospel and in the apostolic ministry of Word and Sacraments. Where this truth of the Gospel is compromised there can be no communion and unity in truth and holiness. The fundamental problem is doctrinal before it is political and jurisdictional and so as bishops they stand under the authority of ‘the faith for all once delivered to the saints’ and in which they have pledged themselves to drive away all false and erroneous doctrine. Anglicanism has always claimed that in faith and order the Anglican Communion is continuous in identity with the Primitive Church. In fact, in the Book of Common Prayer, in Canons and Formularies it claims the Primitive Church as its model and that the interpretation Holy Scripture is to be in accordance with the Primitive Church. The taking of Scripture and antiquity together is a foundation principle of Anglicanism. So while the Archbishop of Canterbury may claim that he gave no authority to the Province of South East Asia in 1996, to consecrate bishops for service elsewhere in the world and that the province of Rwanda has no such authority, there is authoritative precedent in the Primitive Church for their actions that derives from the nature of what a bishop is.

Antiquities of the Christian Church

Between 1708–22, Joseph Bingham (1668–1723), an Anglican priest and notable patristic scholar, produced his ten volume work, Antiquities of the Christian Church. It is not a mere catalogue of information but a compendium of critically- evaluated evidence for the living tradition of patristic church life. In the two volume edition, Book II, ch V (Antiquities of the Christian Church (Chatto and Windus, London, 1875), he discusses ‘Of the Office of Bishops in relation to the whole Catholic Church’.

… there is yet a more eminent branch of their pastoral office and care behind, which is, their superintendency over the whole catholic church; in which every bishop was supposed to have an equal share, not as to what concerned external polity and government, but the prime, essential part of religion, the preservation of the Christian faith. Whenever the faith was in danger of being subverted by heresy, or destroyed by persecution, then every bishop thought it part of his duty and office to put to his helping hand, and labour as much for any other diocese as his own. Dioceses were but limits of convenience, for the preservation of order in times of peace; but the faith was a more universal thing, and when war was made upon that, then the whole world was but one diocese, and the whole church but one flock, and every pastor thought himself obliged to feed his great Master’s sheep according to his power, whatever part of the world they were scattered in. In this sense, every bishop was a universal pastor and bishop of the whole world, as having a common care and concern for the whole church of Christ. This is what St. Austin told Boniface, Bishop of Rome, that the pastoral care was common to all those who had the office of bishop; and though he was a little higher advanced toward the top of Christ’s watch-tower, yet all others had an equal concern in it.

Cyprian of Carthage (Epistle 67, 68), testifies that the bishops in his own time were so united that if anyone of the body preached heresy or persecuted the flock of Christ, all the bishops came to its rescue. Gregory of Nazianzen regarded Cyprian as a universal bishop in Carthage and Africa and he speaks similarly of Athanasius. From this came the notion of one bishopric in the Church in which every bishop had a share in the sense that he had an equal concern for the whole. However, in things that did not appertain to the faith they were not to meddle with other men’s dioceses, but only be concerned with the business of their own. When the faith or welfare of the Church was at stake, then by this rule of there being one episcopacy, every other bishopric was as much their diocese as their own. ‘… and no human laws or canons could tie up their hands from performing such acts of their episcopal office in any part of the world, as they thought necessary for the preservation of religion.’

The rule in the primitive Church was that no bishop should ordain in another’s diocese without his permission and for order’s sake this was generally observed. There were exceptions to this rule when a situation demanded that it was necessary to do otherwise. Such situations would be when a bishop became a heretic and would only ordain heretical clergy while persecuting the orthodox. Any catholic bishop, being a bishop of the universal Church would then be authorised to ordain orthodox men in such a diocese. This was contrary to the common rule, which was waived in such exceptional circumstances for the preservation of the faith. The preservation of the faith is seen to be the supreme rule of all and so the lesser rule had to give way to this superior obligation.

Examples of such exceptions arose when the Church was in danger of being overrun by Arianism, distortions of the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’. In Socrates History, Bk II ch 24 (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol II, pp52–53), we read of Athanasius having no scruples about ordaining men in cities outside his own diocese. Eusebius of Samosata (Theodoret’s History, Bk IV. Ch. 13 (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol III, o. 116), followed suit. Dressed as a soldier he travelled in Syria, Cilicia, and other places, ordaining men deacons, priests and bishops and putting right whatever he found wanting in the churches. Theodoret, in Bk V, ch 4, names them (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol III, p133).

While this was contrary to the common rule it was necessary for the life of the Church and this is what gave them authority to act as bishops of the whole catholic Church and exert their power. It is recorded of Epiphanius that he ordained Paulinianus, St Jerome’s brother, in a monastery outside his own diocese in Palestine. When challenged that he was acting contrary to canon he vindicated himself on this principle, ‘ that in cases of necessity such as this was, where the interest of God was to be served, any bishop had power to act in any part of the Church … Yet the love of Christ was a rule above all : and therefore men were not barely to consider the thing that was done, but the circumstances of the action, the time, the manner, the persons for whose sake, and the end for which it was done.’

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon, Hon Canon of Durham and a Tutor at St Chad’s College. His latest book Fathers and Anglicans – the limits of orthodoxy with a forward by the Bishop of London has been recently published by Gracewing.