Impaired communion

Throughout the ordination of women debate and again in recent months with regard to the consecration of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire there has been a great deal of talk about ‘impaired communion’. Bishops and dioceses have declared themselves to be in ‘impaired communion’ with each other; some bishops, wanting to make an even more emphatic statement, speak of communion as having been ‘broken’.

What is actually meant by this? Some readers will remember the far off days before the campaign for women priests when ‘impaired communion’ was one of the expressions used to describe the relationship between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians. It reflected the modern Church’s generosity of approach towards those ecclesial groups who seemed to lack ‘the fullness of the means’ of salvation, affirming (in the words of Vatican II) that ‘there is a real though imperfect communion’ among all the baptized, and that God’s grace is operative in the non-Catholic ecclesial communities. The Council singled out the Anglican Communion with its features of Catholic faith and practice as having a special relationship with the wider Catholic Church, yet the language of ‘impaired communion’ was used back then by ecumenists as a handy way of referring to the sacramental difficulties Roman Catholics had with Anglicans, particularly at the point of the mutual recognition and interchangeability of orders.

The point is that in its description of other ecclesial bodies Rome turned from the old confrontational language which affirmed very little, to expressions like ‘impaired communion’ which affirm a great deal, adopting, as it were, a minimalist way of describing our ecumenical difficulties.

Paradoxically, over the last thirty years, the expression ‘impaired communion’, born of renewed ecumenical awareness and hope, has become the common way of describing a situation of growing disunity and despair in the Anglican world, afflicted as it is with new and irreconcilable differences. While the ecumenical use of the expression emphasized the reality of the communion that was impaired, its subsequent Anglican use emphasizes the impairment that is taking place. (Bishop Robert Crawley of the Anglican Catholic Church in Canada can even speak of ‘official’ Anglicanism as ‘the Canterbury Impaired Communion’!)

In the lead-up to the Australian decision to ordain women in 1992, the Primate, Archbishop Keith Rayner, conceded that the theology of reception (popularly known as the ‘Gamaliel principle’), necessarily adopted in order to justify the innovation, would bring about ‘impaired communion’ at the most basic level of being church. Ordained ministers of one diocese would not necessarily be regarded as ordained when they visited other dioceses, nor would all members of their church be sure and certain of the efficacy of their sacraments.

As we know, this is the very situation that evolved. At best, many Australian Anglicans believe that such serious notes of provisionality and uncertainty have been injected into the sacramental arrangements of dioceses in which women have been ordained as to make their full liturgical involvement quite impossible. These Anglicans were grateful for the Forward in Faith Communion Statement of 1994 which systematically and theologically defined the new matrix of sacramental relationships. (FiF Australia adopted the Statement in 1999, altering only one phrase when it seemed that otherwise the Archbishop of Adelaide would take legal action to remove the licenses of priests who were FiF members!)

In 1993 Dr Edward Yarnold SJ summed up our dilemma: ‘The church historian will have no difficulty in finding situations when the church in one part of the world regarded itself as out of communion with the church in another area. What seems to be new in the present circumstances is that it is not a question of one church declaring itself to be out of communion with another because of some deviation on the part of the latter; what we have now is the Church of England with due legal form taking an action which as a direct consequence establishes a ministry and therefore a celebration of the Eucharist which one section cannot recognize. An impairment of communion is not declared in protest against the action; it is created by the action. Whether this is tolerable, Anglicans must judge. The Roman Catholic can only look on, not with Schadenfreude, but with empathy and prayer.’

‘A celebration of the Eucharist which one section cannot recognize’ is the classical context in which ‘impairment of communion’ exists. (Such impairment is, obviously, automatic.) And for Catholics, in terms of a real Eucharist, ‘woman priests’ and ‘lay presidency’ achieve the same impairment of communion for the same reason.

What is really surprising to us is the group of non-women-ordainers among the Anglican Primates who support ‘The Network’ in the USA, who speak as if ‘impaired communion’ has just come about – or is coming about – not as a result of the ordination of women, but because of ECUSA’s consecration of Gene Robinson.

In fact a number of our other friends made this mistake, too, and they have gone on, sometimes without realizing it, to trivialize the heroic and costly witness over the last 25 years of groups like the Continuing Churches and Forward in Faith to the Gospel and the Faith. The ‘ordination’ of women, they tell us, is a ‘second order’ issue.

Now, we do not for a moment underestimate the communion-impairing implications of the New Hampshire consecration. The protest of the orthodox – Catholics and Evangelicals in partnership – and the establishment of ‘The Network’ is a good thing, especially as it seems to be the new context in which our American FiF members will be permitted the kind of freedom that C parishes have in England and that we are still fighting for in Australia. But we do urge those who are in the forefront of that battle to sift through their theology again with regard to the ordination of women. For the principles behind the particular manipulation of the scriptural text and historical theology necessary to justify the consecration of Gene Robinson are precisely the principles that are used to justify the ordination of women to the priesthood. The thoroughgoing liberals themselves make no secret of that!

Of immense value in this regard is the document resulting from the two year study of the ordination of women, undertaken by the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA). It is a detailed, even magisterial, document, mainly from an Evangelical and scriptural perspective, but without ignoring ‘Catholic’ considerations. The openness with which the AMiA approached their work on the ordination of women, and the orthodox conclusions they reached, augur well for future relationships and alignments. We hope and pray that the AMiA study has a positive influence on the Evangelicals who predominate in ‘The Network’.

One last thing: We understand that nobody wants to speak of the Anglican ‘Federation’ rather than ‘Communion.’ Perhaps a prize should be offered to whoever comes up with an elegant title that expresses honestly the impairment of communion with which we live in this haphazard association of churches.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane