IT SEEMED for one dreadful moment last month that the American principle of Diocesan Autonomy had arrived in our own beloved CofE. On 6th March, the following news item appeared on the front page of The Daily Telegraph:
The ban on divorced people marrying in church has been lifted for the first time in a Church of England diocese. The Bishop of Chester, the Rt Rev Peter Foster, announced the reform yesterday
Initially confirmed on the Today programme, at the time of writing all is silence. Did he lift the ban or didn’t he? When you read this, it will have been made clear. For the present, we must presume, as matter of logic, that he could not possibly have done so.
The Scott-Joplin report – Remarriage in church after divorce – has many faults. But the least that can be acknowledged is that it was an attempt to produce an ordered consensus of practice within the CofE as a whole. The price to be paid may be unacceptably high, but that is another issue; it did at least attempt to use synodical government to have us walk the road together.
As the product of a Working Party commissioned by the House of Bishops, it expressed an agreed process, which was to debated in every diocese before being presented to General Synod for final approval. Its explicit intention was to deny, prevent and forestall any instance of diocesan autonomy in this matter.
If, in their hatred of the Act of Synod, some liberals have turned the single, ordinary and authoritative power of the diocesan bishop into one of the most important ‘doctrines’ of the modern Church, they must respect its limitations. The authority of a bishop is not self-invented, but derives from the apostolic tradition. Any unilateral act against that tradition would only undermine such a bishop’s own authority. The Telegraph quoted the Bishop of Chester as saying, lie would tell his clergy to be properly cautious and avoid scandal. He must have followed his own advice.
If the Act of Synod was established to cope with a problem created by Provincial Autonomy, how much stronger must be its standing, as a necessary control and safeguard, in cases of Diocesan Autonomy. If any Ordinary were to flout tote discipline of the Scott-Joplin report, would he not be increasing the moral and theological authority of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors?