Geoffrey Kirk muses on all that can go wrong when Anglicans seek to devise their own doctrines

Anglicans, it used to be said, have no doctrines of their own – only those of the wider Catholic Church. But it was never entirely true. Indeed, one doctrine which is peculiarly ‘Anglican is the root of the present disease in the Communion. Provincial Autonomy, of course, in that characteristically Anglican way, was not so much arrived at as stumbled across. It is determinative for the life of the Communion nonetheless. All present tensions spring from it or are exacerbated by it; and the two recent Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commissions (Eames and Windsor) have been convened to mitigate its effects.

Provincial Autonomy derives from the practice of basing an ecclesiology on the rationale and institutions of secular politics. So the General Convention of the Episcopal Church closely resembles, in ethos and management, the Congress of the United States (though sometimes more raucously informal in its conduct); the General Synod of the Church of England is parliamentary right down to the fellows in wigs (though shorn of the rancour and banter which make the other a more interesting spectacle).

From these assumptions two things follow: that democracy is thought to be a conclusive means of determining doctrine; and that national churches, like nation states, are sovereign within their own boundaries. Doctrine, then, has become a matter of geography and local majorities (which themselves may differ from place to place). It has become possible, therefore, to conceive of a Communion (and so of communion) which exists independently of doctrine. Hence the liberal myth (historically unsustainable, consider only the Non-jurors and the Methodists) that Anglicanism has always been doctrinally and morally ‘inclusive’. Die Kirche ohne Dogmatik, as one might say, in Das Land ohne Musik.

But this combination of geography and the democratic determination of doctrine (using ‘doctrine’ to include moral teaching, in the spirit of John Damascene’s Orthodox Faith and Peter Lombard’s Sentences) inevitably raises the question of how small the geographic unit can be. If a province, then why not a diocese, or even a parish? There are, as a matter of fact, recent ‘Anglican precedents for both. The Church of England, in 1992, required its parishes to decide the acceptability or otherwise of women priests; in The Episcopal Church it was widely argued that the diocese of New Hampshire had a ‘right’ to call as its bishop one whose lifestyle would incur inhibition or even deposition in other provinces and dioceses.

So three cheers (who would have thought it?) for the Archbishop of Canterbury s Panel of Reference in the matter of the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas. The Panel’s judgement (in response to an appeal by the bishop, Jack Leo Iker, and his Standing Committee against recent Canons of The Episcopal Church which appeared to make women’s ordination mandatory and there is an Anglican ecclesiological exception which might come to the rescue the election of a bishop opposed consequently impossible) is remarkable.

Among its clauses note only the following: ‘…no diocese or parish should be compelled to accept the ministry of word or sacrament from an ordained woman [§17a] and ‘non-acceptance of the ordination of women is a recognized theological position [§13]; and similarly, ‘provision has to be made to meet the conscientious objection to ministry by women [§17a].

None of those statements is novel in Anglican parlance; but in the present circumstances of The Episcopal Church, they are dynamite. Whilst the greater part of the Communion is disputing the degree to which TEC and its constituent dioceses are ‘Windsor Compliant’, the Panel of Reference has roundly declared them to be ‘Eames Non-compliant’. And more than that.

For how can a Province whose primate is a woman (extravagantly inaugurated and enthroned in its soi-disant National Cathedral) accede to such propositions, or alter its canons to accommodate them? And in what sense are dioceses or parishes which may legitimately refuse the ministry of word and sacrament of the Primate of a church truly members of it?

These are questions which the good people of Fort Worth will be asking themselves in the days ahead. They have already petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury for Alternative Primatial Oversight. It will seem to them, from the decision of the Panel of Reference, that some such provision is consequential on that advice, and that the provision had better somehow embrace and include those parishes not in the diocese of Fort Worth which share the same ‘recognized theological opinion.

Some parishes of The Episcopal Church have already fled to overseas provinces which have offered them shelter. Fort Worth has remained loyally, and with as much integrity as possible, a part of the American Church, and fought its position from within it. Its bishop has generously made arrangements (the so-called Dallas plan) for women in the diocese to further their vocations to the priesthood despite canonical inhibitions in Fort Worth itself.

As the clouds darken and the climate becomes increasingly inclement, Bishop Iker himself may well be tempted to an ‘off-shore’ solution (just as Bishop Pope, his predecessor, famously sought a relationship with the Province of Papua New Guinea). In a Communion infected with Provincial Autonomy, such a realignment, even with the most traditionalist province would, he is bound to conclude, be a risky business.

But there is (as always!) an Anglican ecclesiological exception which might come to the rescue. It is the notion of an ‘extra-provincial diocese’ – nominally under the care of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Hong Kong was once such; Bermuda remains so. These dioceses are not part of the Province of Canterbury, nor are they bound by its canons and the decisions of its General Synod (which is what allowed Hong Kong to pioneer the ordination of women); but they are nevertheless clearly a part of the world-wide Communion.

One would hope, hearing the advice of the Panel of Reference, that the Presiding Bishop would have the graciousness to assist such an arrangement. Grace, openness to new ideas and generosity in dealings with those of differing opinions (and especially minorities) are the proclaimed strong suit of The Episcopal Church. The Panel of Reference has given Dr Schori an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate that it is so. All eyes are now on her. Let grace abound! Shalom, chaverim, shalom, my friends, shalom.