Robbie Low reflects on the recent response to ‘One Bread, One Body’
IT WAS the summer of 1979. I was on my ordination retreat. Like all the other candidates, I was summoned, in my turn, to have the statutory fifteen minutes with the Suffragan Bishop. At the conclusion of his personal charge he invited questions. In those days I had not reached any real conclusion about the possibility of the ordination of women and besides it was, in England, as they say, “a cloud no bigger than a person’s hand”. However I was intrigued that the bishop was going to use the same ordination service for male candidates as for women to be made deaconess.
“How,” I enquired innocently, “could this be?”
The bishop smiled and, leaning forward with conspiratorial glee, shared the good news. “I believe these women should be ordained and the great thing about this service is that I can use it to mean what I want it to mean! ”
The rest of our brief encounter is another whole article and it certainly wasn’t the last time that this heir of the Apostles used words to mean what he meant them to mean, though he was thereafter, with me at least, less open about his modus operandi.
A year later, at our priesting by the old Diocesan, the same Suffragan wheeled into the clergy vestry with the lawyer to take the oaths on the Bible, binding us to the faith, our bishop and our sovereign.
He began thus: “I know some of you have difficulties with parts of these oaths so I’m just going to hold up a Bible and providing I hear a continuous stream of words I’m going to assume everyone has said them.”
Twelve years later I was sat in the grand sitting-room of another Bishop’s Palace. By then I had finally come to recognise that the proposed ordination of women was merely the intriguing guise of a Trojan horse full of alien philosophies, moral deviations and old familiar heresies called out for another tour of duty.
There were three of us orthodox clergy at this meeting, of which I was far and away the most junior. Our task was to put the case to a diocesan who prided himself on his biblical scholarship and yet was rapidly turning his diocese into what was to become, an outstanding example of the liberal one party state.
The first thing we discovered was that, by his own admission, he wasn’t really an Anglican. He had come near to leaving for the Free Churches several times in his early ministry. Secondly, again a free confession, he didn’t hold at all with Catholic teaching on priesthood.
From what we could understand the parish priest was the equivalent of the manager of the local branch of a large franchise. Perhaps we should have guessed this when, celebrating and preaching at a Chrism Mass, he had said of the holy oils, “There’s nothing magical about the oils. It’s just a way of saying hallo from the Bishop”.
But we soldiered on with our case and our questioning.
Finally I asked him, expecting an attempt a biblical answer, “By what authority will you ordain women to the priesthood ?”
I have never forgotten his extraordinary reply.
“Well,” he said, “we have managed to dilute the priesthood to the point where we can fudge a lot of other ministries into it” .
When the legislation to ordain women went through we asked our Diocesan Bishop how, in view of the grave impairment of communion, we should approach celebration of the Holy Communion at, say, a Deanery Synod or Chapter. The Episcopal wisdom went thus:-
“If a woman is celebrating, the Rural Dean should let you know in advance and apologise. You should apologise to him for your absence from the Eucharist; but you could all have breakfast or lunch together instead”.
All very English and very civilised. The koinonia of the Catholic Church reduced to shallow courtesies, bacon and eggs.
ONE BREAD ONE BODY
These wretched remembrances and countless others besides, came flooding back into my mind towards the end of Lent when the Church of England’s sacramental embarrassments briefly made the national newspapers.
Responding to a Roman Catholic document, published three years ago, called One Bread One Body, the House of Anglican Bishops had published ‘a courteous yet robust response’ entitled The Eucharist: Sacrament of Unity.
The Catholics (the rascals!) apparently still have their doubts about the validity of Anglican orders, intentionality and Apostolic succession. They think Anglican services lack “the authentic, full reality of the Eucharistic mystery ” and believe full communion should be the crowning glory of reunion not a means of achieving it or, more likely, a sticking plaster over the gaping wound of further and deeper schism.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the chief architect and enabler of our present unhappy plight in England, described the Catholic report as “hurtful and unhelpful” and nailed his colours to the “Communion Now!” lobby.
Personally I like Dr. Carey, but his pained response is either disingenuous or he has had a reality bypass.
He presides over a Communion which is, by his own admission and largely by his own action and that of his fellow travellers, deeply impaired.
He appears powerless to discipline the uncatholic dysfunctional moral and theological teaching of the American hierarchy. At home, he has chaired the very committee which has so regularly denied appointment to the episcopate of catholic candidates and preferred instead a series of men whose track record and theology would make them eminently at home in that disobedient church.
Yet he is uncomfortable that this pattern of exclusion and marginalisation operates at every level in his Church. Indeed it is exercised systematically and deliberately by bishops who have personally promised him not to behave in this way.
He is well aware, from his own background at successive evangelical theological colleges, that, for every catholic Anglican who believes in the Real Presence, there is a protestant who is happy to pour the wine back into the bottle and throw the “spare bread” out to the birds, in an unconscious gesture of advanced Franciscan solidarity.
He will remember that, in 1992, when Catholic and Orthodox hierarchy alike, begged their Anglican brothers to show restraint and not exercise an authority they did not have, he was foremost in overruling the teaching and wisdom of the great communions.
In so doing he was at those “professional” Anglicans who haunt the dismal circuits of Deanery and Diocesan meetings, undetained by greater works of charity. Those of us who debated around the dioceses a decade ago were often alarmed to discover that the “ecumenical” or “unity” argument was treated by them with contempt. The one thing that seemed still to unite this curious and infinitely diverse body was a deep seated and irrational hatred of Roman Catholicism.
And so we plod on.
While calling for “Communion Now!” and an end to Roman Catholic hurtfulness, the House of Bishops has set up a committee to prepare the way for women bishops!
The “chair person” is to be Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, whose most recent gesture to Anglican Catholics was to threaten those priests who dare to use the Roman rite in their parishes. As a major employer of the Prayer Book myself I shall not be getting out the sandbags just yet, but it is all so ridiculous. Indeed it would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. When a church which is haemorrhaging priests, people, cash and morale, calls for further disorder and intensified persecution of faithful Catholics whilst pretending to a deep desire for unity with Catholics, it is time to wheel in the men in white coats.
If the Roman Catholics are wise they will not alter their position. And they will not do so for a variety of reasons.
First, as any professional ecumenist will tell you, you do not know who you are negotiating with when you negotiate with Anglicans. There are as many positions as people. There is no common sacramental theology, there is no theology of priesthood. There are Bishops and priests who don’t believe in either and Bishops who do not think they are doing what the universal church thinks it is doing when it celebrates or consecrates. There is no teaching authority in the church and such as was can be overturned by the fashion and passion of well organised lobby groups and bishops who sit light to their sworn duties as heirs of the Apostles.
Professional Anglican ecumenists are often obliged to indulge in creative fantasy about their church to produce any constructive dialogue. Because of this the subsequent agreed statements almost inevitably meet with fulsome and disappointing response.
Second, the Roman Catholic church would be rightly hesitant about embracing, in full communion, a church which was in substantially impaired communion with itself. The importation of a ready made schism, in which some priests do not recognise the orders of others, into the largest world-wide communion would be an act of gross folly. There are enough challenges to the faith in our time without promoting sacramental doubt at the heart of our worship and ministry.
Third, the final glimmerings of dialogue with Eastern Orthodoxy would be snuffed out.
Fourth…. Well, just imagine if the Roman Catholic church did accede to the Anglican demand for full communion now: to the Anglican mind such unity as was desirable would have been achieved! Not for the diversity of Anglicanism the burden of a common mind and heart and ministry!
DIVERSITY IS UNITY
Those who favoured the pan-protestant experiments could continue apace reinventing and diluting sacramental theology. Those who are enthusiastic for moral ambiguity or downright disobedience could nonetheless claim full solidarity with the Holy Father at a far deeper level. The Church Catholic would be represented as much in George Carey or Frank Tracey Griswold or John Spong or Peter Selby as in John Paul II. Whom you believed would be a matter of personal choice and libertarian conscience. Communion would cease to be an expression of vital solidarity in Christ, but rather a specious imprimatur of that reckless individualism, secularism and careless personal autonomy that has characterised an impenitent post-war West and its declining church.
Roman Catholics would have to be seriously disturbed to invite that scenario on board.
We have, of course, once again heard the language of “hurt” and “pain” from the protagonists of error. Those who have caused the most pain to Christ’s church by dividing her always claim to be in it (pain that is). Those of us who have watched this process, find it difficult to believe them. They use words to mean what they want them to mean’ and they have almost evacuated the word “pain” of any meaning at all.
Seventeen years ago I was on the staff of the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Albans. The Dean, Peter Moore, an Anglican to his finger tips, had made history by inviting the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, the Lutherans and the Free Churchmen to come into the Abbey, bring their congregations and celebrate their rites week by week, year on year. And they did. It was a high water mark of ecumenism.
Last month the new Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop came to the Abbey to preach. His subject was “Unity”. He was as warmly welcomed and afterwards congratulated. I wonder if he was aware of the irony of the occasion. Seventeen years on not a single seat of authority in that Cathedral, on that staff, on the bishop’s staff or indeed in that deanery or diocese is occupied by a priest whose commitment to catholic unity proved more powerful than the liberal agenda or the simple pragmatism of the clerical career structure.
In this St. Albans is not unique, but simply typical of the modern CoE. You will find no sign of penitence amongst those who have done this, and little evidence of the “justice” they claimed was the engine of their cause.
We could do with hearing a little less about their “pain”.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s