Geoffrey Kirk on the Anglican model of the Church and its self-contradiction

One of the sadder moments of recent synodical history was the presentation by Archbishop John Zizioulas (at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury) of the very important report of the Anglican–Orthodox ecumenical conversations The Church” of the Triune Go·. It was sad not because of Zizioulas – he came up, as always, to the highest expectation – but because of the reaction of the Synod.

But the real tragedy, as it turns out, was Rowan’s. The Archbishop has long been an admirer of Zizioulas’ work, and especially of the ecclesiology which emerged from such books as Bishop, Eucharist, Church. This ecclesiology was no doubt the background of his recent Roman speech at the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

The speech has had a mixed reception. But its underlying assumptions are clear enough. The diocese – faithful priests and people gathered in eucharistic communion around their bishop – is the primary expression of the Church Catholic. In a real sense, the diocese is the Catholic Church. The World Church is a ‘communion of communions’, a co-inherence of those primary units in ‘filial holiness and Trinitarian mutuality’. This essentially third century pattern Williams proposes as a model for contemporary ecumenical endeavour. This spiritual, trinitarian ecclesiology is seen in stark contrast to the juridical views which have become dominant in the West.

All this, if hopelessly aspirational, is unexceptionable in its way. The problems arise when the claim is made that the Anglican Communion, in its present toils, is moving towards this primitive ideal, and that, in consequence, it can offer itself as a model to the whole ecumenical community.

Just as Henry VIII’s Reformation was predicated on the notion that the Kingdom of England is an ‘empire’ (that is to say, fully autonomous in all matters temporal and spiritual),so the individual provinces of the Communion are robustly tenacious of their own proper autonomy – as Canada and the United States have demonstrated in one way and Nigeria in quite another.

And things are no better within the provinces. It is true that in England (though nowhere else) there has been an attempt to respect consciences by quasi-ecclesial provision. But if the invention of flying bishops’ demonstrated generosity of heart, it illuminated dramatically the determination of diocesans to cling to every shred of jurisdiction. So much

for a non-juridical, less ‘Western’, approach to ecclesiology!

In America the situation, of course, is even worse. Where whole dioceses (faithful people and priests in eucharistic communion with their bishop) have freely chosen to withdraw from The Episcopal Church, the Presiding Bishop (‘Our Lady of Perpetual Litigation’) has deposed those bishops and, on a doubtful canonical basis, set up Potemkin dioceses of her own. In the context of the most litigious society known to history, the Presiding Bishop and the General Convention have arrogated to themselves powers arguably in excess of those of the Pope of Rome.

In his Roman allocution Rowan made much of the proposed Anglican Covenant. But will it happen and will it work? To base any wider hopes upon it at this stage is surely an act of blind faith. The runes, as any Druid could tell you, do not read well.

The Covenant may well be an attempt to express on paper that ‘Trinitarian mutuality’ which makespossible a ‘communion of communions’. But it is nearly certain that large, rich and powerful Anglican Churches will exclude themselves from it, and that an ecclesiology which encourages dioceses within them to be ‘Covenant compliant’ on their own account will simply exacerbate internal tensions. The attempt to uphold unity by a non-juridical approach will more than likely result in deeper fractures and more legal wrangling.

The reason for all this is not far to seek. It is simply that developments arise for a purpose and that some of them are permanent and indelible. The juridical forms which mark the Western Church, and are wreaking havoc in the Anglican Communion, are not merely an inheritance from the pre-Christian Empire. They have served their turn, found a purpose and become indispensable. Even the Papal authority (which, as earlier writings show, Rowan finds wholly uncongenial) has proved its worth. Whilst much of European Protestantism has genuflected to the ambient culture, the Roman Magisterium has survived the Enlightenment and continues to resist the pressures of the secular culture which is its fruit.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that a ‘bearded leftie will finally see that such is the case. But he will surely see, in God’s good time, that the Anglican Communion, as presently constituted, is no model for a brighter ecumenical future. Rowan’s dream (which many share) of a Papacy which is a primacy of honour and respect for all Christians, is a dangerous pipe-dream, robbing Christianity in the West of its staunchest bulwark.

‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ sang Professor Higgins. Discarding all false modesty, the Archbishop takes up the theme: ‘Why can’t a Pope be more like me?’ Who can blame Benedict if, looking out across the Anglican Lack-of-Communion, he responds, ‘Thank-you, but no thank-you’? ND