NOT TOO LONG AGO, I had some trouble with an adult confirmation candidate of mixed ecclesiastical origin. The problem was to do with Holy Order, and cantered on the question as to why we need an ordained minister to celebrate the Mass. I endeavoured to explain about the choice of the Twelve, the Apostolic Succession, the laying-on of hands with prayer as recorded in Acts, and the tradition of the church from then until now. He countered with this scenario: Two devout Christians were shipwrecked on a desert island. By some miracle, they had both bread and wine. Why couldn’t, or why shouldn’t they celebrate Mass, even though neither had been ordained?

I declined to reach an immediate conclusion, but from there the Desert Island Argument was born. Although it might be possible to permit a layman to celebrate on a desert island, the same does not apply on mainland UK at the moment, where there are enough priests for the purpose. We are not on a desert island, therefore the logical construct fails. Why shouldn’t a layman celebrate here? ‘Because we are not on a desert island?

It seems strange to think of Australia as likening itself to a very large desert island, and even stranger to suggest that the Diocese of Sydney is an inaccessible tract within it. We have been given the church, we have been given Holy Order, and there is freedom of religion in Australia, therefore the answer to the question as to why lay celebration should not be permitted there is ‘Because they are not on a desert island?

There are many other situations which could be moved into the same category. Why not women priests? Because there are ordained men — ‘because we are not on a desert island’. Why not same-sex marriages? ‘Because we are not on a desert island? What’s wrong with being a nonconformist? ‘We are not on a desert island?

The trouble is, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that there is now one more question which can be countered by the Desert Island Argument — why am I still a member of the Church of England? We are not on a desert island…

Stephen Cope