George Austin discerns the early undermining of episcopacy back in the Fifties

Everything, especially within the Church, has the potential to move towards self-destruction. When the matter of episcopal appointments was delegated by Churchill to his patronage secretary, it was not the only hint in the Fifties of future problems for the Church of England.

Worldwide Anglicanism then was defined by the Lambeth/Chicago Quadrilateral. Surprisingly today, given the growing apostasy of ECUSA, its four articles were first agreed upon by its General Convention in Chicago in 1886, and accepted in a slightly revised form by the 1888 Lambeth Conference, as stating the essentials for a reunited Christian Church – Scriptures, Creeds, Sacraments and the historic Episcopate.

The four essentials

The Old and New Testaments were declared to contain ‘all things necessary to salvation’; the Apostles’ Creed was the ‘baptismal symbol’ and the Nicene Creed ‘the sufficient statement of Christian faith’; the two Sacraments ‘ordained by Christ himself’ – baptism and the supper of the Lord – ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of institution and of the elements ordained by him’; and fourthly, the historic episcopate.

It would be hard to be unaware of the growing departure in recent years of adherence to Scripture and creeds amongst Anglican leaders and theologians. But already in the Fifties the fourth ‘essential’ had been compromised. One of the great controversies of the late Forties, spilling over well into the Fifties, was the matter of the Church of South India.

The Church had been inaugurated in 1947 and combined four Anglican dioceses together with an amalgam of Protestant churches. It claimed to accept the Lambeth Quadrilateral, but in reality it would be thirty years before the fourth element, an episcopate that could claim an historic succession from the apostles themselves, could be achieved.

One Anglican district in India, Nyandal, refused to be included and in 1955, the Lambeth Conference approved only a state of ‘limited inter-communion’ with the Church of South India.

It was only with the Porvoo agreement in the Nineties that the concept of an historic succession was effectively abandoned by the Church of England – though many would consider that this ‘agreement’ was not ultimately about relations with the Nordic Churches but a preparation for upcoming unity discussions between the Anglican and Methodists churches in England.

Preserving the faith

But in the Fifties it was seen as a crucial safeguard in the succession of an orthodox faith, proclaimed by bishops in an unbroken succession from the earliest days of the Church of God. Whether or not the Anglican Church possessed it was (and still is of course) questioned by the Roman Catholic Church, even if the so-called Nag’s Head Fable had been largely discredited. This had suggested that Archbishop Matthew Parker had in reality been ‘consecrated’ as a bishop in 1559 in a highly dubious and certainly unlawful ceremony in the Nag’s Head tavern in Cheapside, though clear proof to the contrary is preserved in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Anglicans had their own doubts about the validity of some Lutheran episcopacies. The Swedish church was kosher and probably also the Church of Finland, but neither the Church of Norway nor the Church of Denmark could claim that their bishops were in the historic succession. And it was something they did not particularly want, if it were to suddenly be acquired, and thus call into question bishops consecrated before that time.

At the same time it has to be considered whether the Lutheran understanding of apostolic succession as an unbroken historic continuance of faith rather than of bishops has not sometimes been a greater preserver of an orthodox faith.

Alternative understanding

Already, however, the seeds were being sown for a more convenient reinterpretation within the Church of England. A prestigious volume of essays was published around this time, called appropriately The Historic Episcopate, in which one of the contributors argued for a new Anglican understanding of apostolic succession.

The traditional view, that to have bishops in an historic, unbroken succession was of the very being, the esse, of the Church had been challenged by certain theologians who suggested that while it may not have been of the esse, it was rather of the bene esse – not absolutely necessary but quite a good thing to have.

Now an alternative was put forward: that it was more than of the bene esse, but rather of the plene esse – more than a good thing but something to be achieved by non-episcopal churches to enjoy the fullness of what the church was meant to be.

One critic dismissed it simply: ‘Bene, plene, tekel upharsin. You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.’ It did however represent a methodology for ecumenical discussion that was to lay the foundation for a future drift from catholicity.

Provisions for dissenters

However, with the close links between the Church of England and the Church of Sweden (particularly because of the validity of their episcopal orders), a new development entered the arena which was a precursor of a much greater and more significant occurrence in the Anglican Communion.

For in 1956, the Swedish Government instructed the Church Assembly to bring in a measure authorizing the ordination of women to the priesthood. The Assembly refused and was consequently dissolved by the state. The electors for the Assembly included everyone who had not declared themselves out of communion with the Swedish Church, the election was fought on that one issue, and so in such a secular society the new Assembly quickly brought in the necessary legislation.

The first women were ordained, and dissidents could only comfort themselves in the conscientious provisions provided for them. It need hardly be said that these were immediately ignored and then rescinded within three years. Few dioceses had bishops unprepared to be dismissive or even persecutory of opponents of women’s ordination, and in a few short years there remained only the Diocese of Göteborg in the old tradition.

It took the Church of England thirty years to catch up, and if the intolerance of the feminist fundamentalists prevails conscientious provisions may finally disappear here too. The clue may come at the July Synod.