Geoffrey Kirk disagrees with Bishop Buchanan’s assertion that provincial autonomy is no novelty for Anglicans

My good friend Colin Buchanan has criticized another good friend, John Shepley for claiming that provincial autonomy’ in the Anglican Communion is a novel concept [ND, November]. On the contrary says Buchanan, it is no novelty at all, but part of the very fabric of the communion itself. In the immortal words of Christine Keeler about John Profumo, ‘He would say that, wouldn’t he?’ But I am not sure that Bishop Buchanan really means what he actually said.

Of course, there is a degree of legitimate autonomy exercised by all Anglican provinces, deriving from the accidents of their inception. They have come into being, for the most part, as a result of secular political changes. The churchmen involved have regretted, resisted or welcomed those changes according to circumstances. The result has been a diversity of practice in the Communion and further divergence, in some important matters, from the former or current practice of the Roman Church.

These changes, however, have seldom if ever been outright innovations. At the Reformation the Church of England created its own liturgy (but all medieval liturgies had been grounded in local practice); it adopted the vernacular (but all liturgies were once in the vernacular); it embraced a married priesthood (which the Orthodox Church continues to this day).

The Scottish Episcopal Church adopted an orientalizing liturgy out of a desire to embrace aspects of the worship of the wider Church which were becoming more familiar as a result of seventeenth-century scholarship. The New Zealand Church, much later, admitted unconfirmed children to Holy Communion (as Rome and Constantinople have done immemorially).

There has been, it is true, aperiodic ambivalence about the status of non-episcopally ordained ministers.

But there has never been doubt that episcopal ordination was and is the norm, or that its inclusion in ecumenical schemes of corporate reunion is optional or negotiable. What is far from clear, however, is that this inbuilt autonomy (largely the result of political events over which churchmen had no direct control) extends as far as Bishop Buchanan claims. Nor is it clear that he really wants it to.

He cites as one example of the legitimate exercise of autonomy (‘he would say that, wouldn’t he?’) the Hong Kong ordinations of women. (He neatly glosses over, meanwhile, the fact that this was a diocesan, rather than provincial action.) But would Buchanan concede a similar autonomy to the diocese of Bradford, where he now assists? And does he suppose that changes in Holy Orders, which may render those of one province unacceptable in another, are of the same status as liturgical revision or eucharistic discipline?

Rites have always varied from place to place and eucharistic disciplines from time to time. But in its self-understanding and ecumenical posture the Anglican Communion has generally portrayed itself as upholding what, in shorthand terms, we may describe as the fifth-century consensus: the Canon of Scripture, the Catholic Creeds and the Apostolic Ministry, as they emerged together from the era of heresy and persecution.

None of these has previously been up for grabs – though the Apostolic Ministry has sometimes seemed in doubt. In the early Reformation the Church of England’s attitude to ministers from non-episcopal Continental churches was at least ambivalent; and it is not at all clear (had matters been left in the hands of William White) that the American Church would have remained both Protestant and Episcopal.

But is provincial autonomy really a charter allowing Anglicans in different parts of the world legitimately to reject or amend this fifth-century inheritance? That is the question which Cardinal Walter Kasper asked the fathers and (m)others of the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Is worldwide Anglicanism a Church of the first millennium or of the sixteenth century? Indeed, is it a Church at all?

By lumping women’s ordination with a whole range of lesser changes Bishop Buchanan seems to me to be dodging this crucial issue. He is avoiding the fact that provincial autonomy attacks, at its root, the very nature and purpose of orders (as set out, for example, in the Cameron Report of 1990). This, in itself, might be thought to render equally legitimate and plausible the dismemberment of the Canon and the revision of the Catholic Creeds.

That there are centrifugal and centripetal forces in global Anglicanism is obvious from the slow emergence of the so-called ‘instruments of unity? and the controversy over the recently proposed Covenant. But provincial autonomy is demonstrably not the structural inevitability Buchanan claims. Even those who have found it useful in gaining their short-term objectives have no real interest in its perpetuation. An ethical a priori position like that of the proponents of women priests and bishops is by its very nature imperialist rather than local.

John Shepley is quite right: provincial autonomy is a novelty, and an unstable novelty at that – as Bishop Buchanan will probably be the first to point out, when a province of the communion formally denies the Lord’s divinity or includes in the Canon of Scripture the Gospel of Thomas.