Geoffrey Kirk reflects on the controversy surrounding the diocese of San Joaquin and the questions that it raises about ecclesiology

To adapt the words of Voltaire about God Almighty, if Katharine Jefferts Schori did not exist it would be impossible to invent her.

The implied comparison with Almighty Go d in this instance may well verge on the blasphemous; but it is not in excess of the observable facts. Katharine (Katharine the Arrogant, as she is beginning to be called) is adopting an increasingly absolutist view of her own office and of the authority of The Episcopal Church. It is one which sits uneasily with the polity of that Church (and of the nation in which it is set) as a democracy. The proud boast of the New Religion in The Episcopal Church is that it is ‘inclusive’. So inclusive, it now appears, that once you have opted into it, you cannot get out.

Schori has placed a temporary inhibition on the Bishop of San Joaquin (whose diocese opted by an overwhelming majority to withdraw from The Episcopal Church), pending a decision by the American House of Bishops that he has ‘abandoned communion’ with it. Since Bishop John-David no longer acknowledges the authority of the Presiding Bishop or the House (and instead asserts that he and his diocese are part of the Province of the Southern Cone), it is not easy to see what practical effect such an inhibition can have. But it certainly ups the stakes – and raises fundamental questions about the ecclesiology of The Episcopal Church and of the Anglican Communion.

Anglican ecclesiology, as shrewd observers have noted for the last three decades, is done on the hoof. It is a wholly pragmatic exercise, the purpose of which is to find a suitable form of words with which to baptize the status quo. Consider, for example, the legerdemain required by Stephen Sykes’ invention of ‘dispersed authority’. So what is done matters more – far more – than what is said.

The question, then, is whether Rowan Williams, consistent with his not inviting the AMiA and CANA bishops to Lambeth 2008, will dis-invite John-David (as a member of the House of Bishops of one province acting episcopally in another). Or whether he will, consistent with his recent letter to John Howe, Bishop of Central Florida [see ND, December 2007, p. 20], continue his invitation on the grounds that ‘the organ of union with the wider Church is the Bishop and the diocese rather than the Provincial structure as such’.

Is the movement of a diocese from one province to another analogous with the transference of a parish by mutual agreement to another diocese, or does it constitute an ‘invasion’ by a foreign ‘power’ into the territory of another? What degree of communion subsists between the provinces of the Communion: is it such that moving from one to another constitutes ‘abandoning the communion’ of the first? And if so, what model or definition of ‘communion’ is being used to uphold the assertion? And how can both parties simultaneously be ‘in communion with the See of Canterbury, especially where ‘communion with Canterbury’ is part of the self-definition and self-understanding of one or both of them?

The Anglican instinct is no doubt to condemn such questions as mischievous and Jesuitical, the sort of questions which cricket players naturally shun. But Rowan has to do something (or not do it, which is much the same thing). And what he does, willy-nilly, will answer some, if not all, of those questions; at least for the time being and possibly for the foreseeable future. That is how pragmatism works.

The transference of San Joaquin to the Southern Cone, of course, could not have come at a more interesting time. Responses to the Draft Anglican Covenant are coming in (the first, rather predictably, from revisionist provinces who have an interest in maintaining the maximum degree of autonomy and so toning the covenant down). But it now appears that whatever form of words is agreed upon is largely irrelevant. Anglican ecclesiology and coherence will depend, as ever, on what Harold Macmillan memorably categorized as ‘events, dear boy, events’. If provinces cannot be restrained (and they cannot) from ordaining bishops to work in other provinces, and if Mrs Schori cannot be restrained (and she cannot) from excommunicating those who disagree with her, those events will unfold at such rate that the ecclesiologists and ecclesiastical bureaucrats will be breathless to keep up.

The elephant in the sanctuary in all this, of course, is women’s ordination. San Joaquin is a diocese which does not ordain women. Its problem with Katharine is not primarily with the fact that she supports the LGBT agenda (though she does, and that is contrary to Scripture and to the enduring tradition of both East and West), but that she is not a bishop. It is women’s ordination which renders any traditionalist coalition in the United States fundamentally unstable. While Bob Duncan (Bishop of Pittsburgh) and Peter Beckwith (Bishop of Springfield) continue to be ordain-ers of women and major players in the Network and the Common Cause Partnership, there is bound to be tension. And this tension will inevitably end in separation or a change of mind on such ordinations. Orders – their apostolic origin and reciprocal acceptability – are not incidentals to ecclesial koinonia; they are integral and essential parts of it. A mixed economy in the matter, even if based on an oft-repeated principle of ‘open reception, cannot and will not endure.

Which brings us to the Lambeth Conference. There is, of course, no chance that women’s ordination will be discussed, or even alluded to at Lambeth 2008. As the Windsor Report gave notice [section A 12-21], the great and the good of the Communion believe that that issue has been settled (or at least swept so far under the carpet as no longer to signify). But it remains the greatest single obstacle to worldwide ecumenism, and the greatest single impediment to Anglican fellowship and reconciliation.

As Mrs Schori fires off her squibs of excommunication into a diocese no longer her own, the question to be asked is what happened to the gentler, more pastoral mode of priesthood and episcopacy which women’s ordination was scheduled to bring about. But you can be sure, in all the flurry of self-important activity, that Katharine has failed to notice that it is a question John-David is too much of a gentleman to ask.