Fr Peter on the annual conference of orthodox religious

The ninth annual conference of Root took place at Mirfield at the beginning of June. The theme of the Conference aimed at seeking a practical perspective for Anglican Religious in the present crisis of the Church of England. How might we best affirm and articulate, how ought we as religious to live and pray a reconciling role in the reality of the ‘two integrities’ present in our church?

‘Boundless Trust in Christ – the ecumenical vision of Paul Couturier’

We began with a meditation on this theme led by Jane Gore-Booth, a lay member of General Synod. Father Paul Couturier was a pioneer for Christian unity in the early part of the twentieth century. Substantial quotations from the writings of Couturier were interspersed with appropriate commentary, relating to our present circumstances, ‘when it seems likely that women will be ordained as bishops in the Church of England.’ Boundless Trust in Christ, Couturier’s own words, is called for because on the way there will be obstacles to unity, which need to be viewed in a positive light. This took on a new force, thinking of what may lay ahead for our Communion.

For Abbé Couturier, the life of prayer was the key to unity: ‘Union will be the work of those who pray.’ This ‘interior task’ requires us to be ‘in Christ’ rather than ‘in the conflict’, where we can so easily be pulled apart and divided. We are helped in this endeavour by prayer for the sanctification of others: Christians, non-Christians, the whole of humanity. However, in this endeavour for unity, we note that for Couturier ‘there is no question of a sentimental unity realized in equivocation’, but one always arrived at ‘in candour, loyalty and truth’.

Jane Gore-Booth then raised some challenging questions: ‘Perhaps members of RooT are called to be pioneers today in the quest for unity. Can religious be pioneers in reconciliation, leaving the “how” in God’s hands – staying together in love and in the greatest degree of communion possible, especially when the two integrities are found side by side?’ It is easy ‘for the two integrities to have very little to do with each other. Can religious in divided communities lead us in that too?’ There came then a plea for religious to show the way.

The meditation left us pondering seriously how his aspirations and principles might realistically be applied to the present crisis and disunity of our church.

‘The Catholic Movement in the Church of England, Ecumenism and the Religious Life’

Bishop John Broadhurst led the afternoon session under this heading. He opened with a historical oversight from the time of the Commonwealth. We were reminded how ruthless in terms of iconoclasm the Reformation had been in England compared, say, with the Scandinavian countries.

Moving on to more recent times, Bishop John then reflected on Anglican–Methodist unity, the plans of which seemed workable to him, and the reason for its failure: one, for him, of failing ‘to leave it all to God’. He recalled his early experience in the World Council of Churches and the shock felt at the onset of ‘liberalizing reductionism in the form of neo-Christian paganism.’

Turning to the recovery of the religious life, he observed how this had been a conscious attempt at ‘westernizing’ the whole Church of England. All these attempts in the revival of Catholic Tradition had been ‘free-market enterprises to change the Church’.

Returning to ecumenism, he pointed out that Couturier’s vision of unity and the ecumenical dream it prompted were ‘concerned with the nature of Christ and his people.’ This disposition had now been replaced by concern for ‘the pragmatic’, making ecumenism ‘simply a question of survivalism.’ Unity ‘makes economic sense’ (in other words, saves money). This is seen as a denial of what unity is meant to be, because ‘what we want’ is put in place of ‘what is given.’

Bishop John closed with some searching questions: ‘Can we live in integrity with our brothers and sisters (other Anglicans who see and do things differently)?’ ‘How can we live our Christian vision of charity and love (as proposed by Couturier) when our valued things are being taken away by the very people we have to live with?’ ‘Truth says: speak; love says: forbear.’ However, the silence (of forbearance) is sometimes taken as acquiescence.

‘A Third or Free Province’

Bishop John’s address the following morning aired this delicate issue for those communities with both ‘integrities’ represented among their numbers. He mentioned the relevance of the Old Testament Exodus theme, leading on to concepts of the ‘remnant,’ those through whom redemption will be wrought – if they are faithful.

A Third or Free Province had always been at the back of our minds since 1992. Pastoral care had been offered, but not jurisdiction. This had enabled a New Testament understanding of episcope to be recovered, where the bishop was primarily a pastor and teacher. Jurisdiction, he said, came later with Constantine.

Most of our constituency had decided to work with the Act of Synod. There was frustration in view of the fact that we were growing older, and our ordinands younger, than the average age. He wasn’t interested in fighting our fellow-Christians: ‘it is not our task.’ Left alone we would grow, for there is no problem in finding priests or paying for them.

On the question of parallel jurisdictions, it was observed that they already exist, for example, in Portugal, where three such jurisdictions operate side by side. Geographical jurisdiction in the Church of England is fairly recent. There have always been ‘peculiars,’ royal or other.

At the request of Archbishop Carey, a ‘shadow’ working party to the Rochester Commission is researching the theological and legal aspects of a Third Province. The theological document by Jonathan Baker is to be published in October by Canterbury Press.

The Bishop concluded by asking, ‘Why are we here?’ His answer was: ‘Because we believe in the Gospel and hope for better days.’ We have been led out like Moses who led the people of Israel into the wilderness. It is not a schismatic or pessimistic act because with a Third Province ‘each side can have what they want.’ For we ‘cannot have a church that can accept, or reject its own priests.’ Current measures allow women to be rejected – it is the law of the land. This not liveable with and so … (a Third Province?) On this note Bishop John ended, leaving this unspoken question pressing for its answer!

We were grateful once again to the Community at Mirfield for their generous and warm hospitality. Next year there will not be a conference, but a one-day celebration of ten years of RooT and extended episcopal care.

Father Peter is a member of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God.