Geoffrey Kirk says that Hong Kong has a lot to answer for.

To-day’s church members are tomorrow’s ecumenical partners. That is the sombre message of Anglican experience.

Anglicans just don’t seem to be able to get it right. The vaunted Decade of Evangelism ended with accelerated decline. The ‘Century of Ecumenism’ – the twentieth – ended with unprecedented division within and between Anglican Churches. And now, as a group from FOAG (the Faith and Order Advisory Group) is preparing for dialogue with ‘Continuing Anglicans’ (as mandated by Lambeth 1998), dioceses are unilaterally proceeding to the blessing of same sex unions and the ordination of practising homosexuals – thus initiating further fragmentation on a separate, but related issue.

The Church of England, meanwhile, is moving inexorably to the consecration of women bishops under an Archbishop who warmly welcomes the ‘development’; and dioceses of the Church of England are voting for the rescinding of the Act of Synod (the very means by which schism was averted when women were made priests).

Chinese Puzzle

All this would be comic, if it were not so tragic. It might, therefore, be useful to look back on the sequence of events which has led to this unhappy state of affairs.

Without going back to Natal, Colenso and the founding of the Lambeth Conferences (which historians will probably cite as the real beginning of our story) we can start with the first ordinations of women priests.

The first licit ordinations took place under Bishop RO Hall in Hong Kong. His was then an ‘unattached diocese’ under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Hall and his Synod, however, sought not the authority of Canterbury but of the Anglican Consultative Council for the action they proposed to take. The ACC was a recent invention (it had not yet met for the first time when Hall approached it).

The Council (upon what pretext it is hard to say) presumed to give Bishop Hall some very curious advice. By 24 votes to 22 it decided: ‘this Council advises the Bishop of Hong Kong, acting with his Synod, that if he decides to ordain women to the priesthood, this action will be acceptable to this Council, and that this Council will use its good offices to encourage all provinces of the Anglican Communion to continue in communion with these dioceses’ (Resolution 28, ACC 1971). Bishop Hall, concluding that a nod is a good as a wink, went ahead.

Full Visible Disunity

Resolution 28 was a critical moment in the history of Anglican ecclesiology. Until

that moment Anglicans had maintained that mutually acceptable and interchangeable orders were a sine qua non of ‘full visible unity’. From that moment they could no longer do so: ecumenically, between provinces, or (as the Church of England was to discover when it came to draft its own legislation) internally within provinces.

Supporters of women priests decry the Act of Synod and call for its removal on the grounds that it is fundamentally uncatholic. They complain that it allows people to distance themselves sacramentally from their diocesan bishop. But they remain predictably blind to the greater offence against catholic order with which their own innovation was launched.

RO Hall it was who opened the box for Pandora. From the moment he laid his hands on Joyce Bennett, the proud claims to ‘catholicity’ of the Anglican Communion were effectively at an end. Anglicans could hardly continue waving their copies of Saepius Officio in the air and claiming recognition in Rome and Constantinople when they now had ‘priests’ whom even other Anglicans could not accept, and a Lambeth Conference attended by ‘bishops’ whom other bishops supposed not to be bishops!

Confusion confounded

The decision of ACC ’71, it would be fair to say was not taken by the best informed and brightest minds of the Communion, It lacked either theological rationale or logical coherence. But alas, when, with the inevitable advent of women bishops, an inter-Anglican Commission (the Eames Commission) was set up to supply these deficiencies, things went from bad to worse.

Eames proposed an adaptation of the ‘doctrine of reception’ (long familiar in ecumenical dialogue) to meet the new crisis. There was, said Eames. ‘a degree of provisionality’ to the orders of ordained women. This would remain the case until the innovation was ‘received’, not merely by the whole Communion, but by the Church Universal. This is the strange doctrine which undergirds the preamble to the Act of Synod and retrospectively justifies the suspension of Canon A4 entailed by Schedules A and B of the 1993 Measure.

‘Reception’ has been elaborated (by those in whose interests it is to do so) to a degree of remarkable mystification, but what it means in simple language is that the Anglican Communion and the Church of England have introduced orders the validity of which will only be certain when everybody agrees on them – and which in consequence will remain uncertain until everybody does.

The problem, of course, is that this contradicts the very function and purpose of orders. Orders exist, not to propagate doubt, but to give assurance. They are, in the words of the English House of Bishops ‘a principal instrument given by God for the maintenance of true communion’. It is one thing to do what you sincerely believe to be right (and stick to it), quite another wilfully to do what you have reason to admit may be misguided or even wrong. It is one thing to rejoice in the communion which orders express and effect. It is quite another, as the ACC did, to exhort people to ‘the fullest possible degree of communion’ in spite of doubtful orders which have been wilfully introduced.

Just as the Schedules of the 1993 Measure were the political price of gaining the required majorities, so admitted dubiety was the price of unilateral action. Even if women’s ordination could be shown to be wholly consonant with Catholic doctrine, the manner in which it was undertaken in the Anglican Communion could never be.

The blindness to all this of the supporters of women priests and women bishops obviously leads one to question their catholicity in other areas – for example in their defence of the integrity of the geographical diocese. What price the role of the bishop as ‘focus of unity’ in his diocese when the unity of orders (of which he is the fount and guardian) has itself been fractured and denied? Diocesan integrity in such circumstances is no more than ecclesiology by post-code.

Ecumenical implications

This degree of ecclesial confusion and internal incoherence might be expected to have enormous ecumenical consequences. And so it has proved.

Anglicans have always been engaged in two quite distinct sets of ecumenical projects. Talks with the world-wide Communions – Rome and Orthodoxy – have been undertaken at the Anglican Communion level; talks with Protestant bodies have gone forward at local or provincial level. Co-ordination among and between these various projects has never been good and has now, naturally, deteriorated further. Two examples suffice.

The Porvoo Agreement between British Anglicans and Scandinavian Lutherans adopted a view of episcopacy (the so-called ‘bums-on-seats’ understanding of apostolic continuity) which depends on a strict notion of episcopal territoriality. The American agreement ‘Called to Common Mission’ with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America allows for the recognition of overlapping territorial jurisdictions. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the Church of England operates a system of extended episcopal care for those opposed to women’s ordination (and has an Archbishop who has declared himself willing to consider a ‘Third Province’), whilst the Americans have refused Extended Episcopal Care on the grounds that it threatens episcopal territoriality! Meanwhile the Church of England and ECUSA operate separate, overlapping episcopates in Continental Europe, both of which extend to the territory of Churches of the Porvoo Communion.

SCIFU (the Scottish Churches Initiative for Union) is a quite different case. Here proposals to unite most of the mainline Protestant groups in Scotland involve the abandonment of episcopacy in any recognizable form. (‘A ministry ordered in the historic episcopate is a condition for membership of the Anglican Communion and of the communion of Porvoo churches. The SCIFU proposals leave several questions unanswered with regard to the episcopate’, as a CCU spokesperson told me unofficially.) And whilst the Church of England’s FOAG is in discussion with American continuers, it has not been formally consulted by the Scottish Episcopal Church (its Anglican Communion and Porvoo Communion partner) about SCIFU! (‘The SEC has not asked for our views. Of course CCU/FOAG would be the right body to give them. SEC should also ask ASCER (which could be proactive if SCIFU gets a fair wind … later in the year,’ my source goes on).

Doctrinal frivolity

The lack of seriousness in all this amounts to sheer frivolity, and bodes ill for the future. Provincial and diocesan autonomy in matters of faith and order is now (since the ordination of women in Hong Kong in 1972) an established principle of Anglican ecclesiology. Once the doctrine of the unity and interchangeability of orders has been abandoned, everything else, ecclesiologically speaking, is up for grabs.

There operates, moreover, a ratchet mechanism for accelerating change. What happens in one province is for that very reason easier to import into another. No one who has lived through the last forty years of Anglican disintegration is unfamiliar with the argument: ‘But there are already women priests / women bishops / same sex partnerships / non-episcopally ordained ministers / lay celebrations elsewhere in the Communion, why not here?’

It is hard to see what could be done to introduce the necessary element of sobriety and coherence into this whirligig. Attempts to accord more authority to the Primates’ Meeting (an ‘instrument of unity’ even younger than the ACC) seem to have come to nothing. And the revisionist dominated secretariat of the Anglican Consultative Council is now attempting to swamp the primates by the creation of an Anglican Congress of lay and clerical delegates which would dilute their authority.

Ecumenical partners would be wise to conclude that negotiations with any part of the Communion are bound to be inconclusive and should be put on hold.

Geoffrey Kirk is National Secretary of Forward in Faith.