Neither one thing nor the other

Nigel Atkinson, speaking to the Northern Sacred Synod, explains how the Church of England has sold its birthright as a Reformed Catholic Church.

I address you as a convinced Reformed Catholic this morning who is and has been for a number of years a member of Reform Council. But what I thought would be most helpful this morning would be briefly to outline for you why I am so opposed not only to the novelty of female presbyters but also to their potential consecration of bishops. In order to get to the heart of the problem and in order to highlight the seriousness of the situation we find ourselves in I would like to pose three questions. And the first question is simply; Is the proposed legislation in keeping with the Church of England’s Protestant heritage? The second question I would like to ask is: Is the proposed legislation in keeping with the Church of England’s Catholic heritage? And the third question is what can we do about it?

Is the proposed legislation Protestant?

I think it was Cardinal Kasper in an address given to the Church of England Bishops’ Meeting on the 5th June 2006 who seemed to suggest that should the Church of England move towards the consecration of women as Bishops then the Church of England would be moving a considerable distance closer towards Protestantism. I must say that when I first heard this I was mystified. I think I know what the Cardinal meant, in that many of the Reformed Churches of Europe have made radical moves towards a female presbyteral ministry. But although this is true on a sociological level, it is most certainly not true on a theological level. For to my mind it cannot lie within the genius of Protestantism to make a move that so blatantly flouts and disregards the plain teaching of Holy Scripture. And I say this because, at the heart of the Reformation, lay an unswerving dedication to authority of Scripture. Heiko Oberman writing in his book Luther: Man Between God and the Devil wrote ‘what is new in Lather is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils’.

This was so because, to the Protestant Reformers, the Bible, the Scriptures were the canon and the rule, the measuring stick and the plumb line by which all practices in the Church were to be evaluated and judged. Thus, a favourite term that Luther used of the Bible was that it was an ‘external word’. He used this expression to emphasise that the Bible is objective and fixed – outside ourselves and therefore unchanging. It is, after all, a book. Neither ecclesiastical hierarchy nor fanatical ecstasy can replace it or shape it. It is “external,” like God himself. You can take it or leave it. But you can’t make it other than it is. It is a book with fixed letters and words and sentences.

And of course this Protestant understanding of Scripture meant that the Reformers began to reject the unscriptural excesses of the late middle ages. They rejected for example the idea that the Pope could remit sins. What he could do of course was to pronounce God’s forgiveness, but the Reformers could not see in Scripture that he had this power in and of himself. And this concept that Scripture should rule the Church was an opinion that the Church of England began to embrace until it was eventually enshrined in Article 6 of the Thirty Nine Articles as well as elegantly phrased by Richard Hooker in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

Article 6 reads: ‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation’. And Richard Hooker writes: ‘If that Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first place both of credit and obedience is due’.

This I suggest is simply the classic entirely orthodox and catholic view of Scripture. That as Hooker says it is to scripture ‘that first place both of credit and obedience is due’. And the reason that it is to Scripture that the first place of both credit and obedience is due is because scripture is none other than the word of God. This of course is reflected in the Liturgy when after Scripture is read we say ‘This is the word of the Lord.’ It is in the light of this, therefore, that I find some Evangelical special pleading difficult to comprehend. For one sometimes hears the argument that the presbyteral ordination of women is a second order issue. But my argument is that if it is contrary to God’s word written it is still spiritually dangerous to be disobedient to the Word of God. Unless one cares to argue that being a little disobedient to the Word of God is normative Christian practice.

My argument, therefore, is simple. One can argue in favour of the presbyteral ordination and consecration of women if one wants to. What I cannot see is that this could possibly be construed as a Protestant move, when at the heart of Protestantism lay a desire to let Scripture rule the Church and for the Church to obediently submit to Scripture.

Is the proposed legislation Catholic?

Once again I think we can safely turn to the theological method hammered out by the magisterial reformers. Naturally, as they drew up their theological agenda they were condemned at the time by the late medieval Roman Catholic Church. The argument that Rome sought to apply was that the teachings of the Reformers were not catholic. In essence what they meant by this was that the Reformers were seeking to introduce into the Church novel and new doctrines that were alien to Christianity. What is surprising to me is that, for the Reformers, such an accusation was greeted with horror. I say it is surprising because it seems to me that today many evangelicals, who claim to be proud of their Reformed heritage, seem to think that by introducing new doctrines and new practices they are being especially led by the Holy Spirit – and that this should be regarded as a badge of honour.

But if we turn back to the Reformation what we discover is that there is not only an appeal to the Scriptures, but also to the teaching and practice of the universal, in other words, Catholic Church. Thus on reading Calvin we not only find numerous references to Scripture, but an almost equal appeal to the consensus of the primitive Church. Thus Calvin insisted not only that they teach nothing that cannot be deduced from Scripture but at the same time they assert nothing that could not be drawn from the dawn of the Christian Church. Note that parallel, dual appeal. They taught nothing not in Scripture and they assert nothing not in the Primitive Church.

So Calvin writes: ‘we teach not an iota that we have not learned from the divine Oracles; and we assert nothing for which we cannot cite, as guarantors, the first teachers of the Church – prophets, apostles, bishops, evangelists, Bible expositors’.

Now it is important that we recognise the spiritual strength and appeal of this theological method. I want to stress it today not only so that those of us in Forward in Faith and those of us in Reform can understand each other better at a critical stage of our Church’s life, but also because properly understood it needs to be understood that a rank and total appeal by an individual exegete to the Bible and its authority cannot be powerful enough on its own to overthrow the deposit and weight of the Church’s teaching.

Hooker puts it well. He writes: ‘if against those things which have been received with great reason, or against that which the ancient practice of the Church hath continued time out of mind…if against all this it should be free for men to reprove, to disgrace, to reject at their own liberty what they see done and practised according to order set down, if in so great variety of ways as the wit of man is easily able to find out towards any purpose, and in so great liking as all men especially have unto those inventions whereby some one shall seem to have been more enlightened from above than many thousands, the Church did give every man license to follow what himself imagined that God’s Spirit doth reveal unto him, or what he supposed that God is likely to have revealed to some special person whose virtues deserve to be highly esteemed, what other effect could here upon ensue, but the utter confusion of his Church, under pretence of being taught, led and guided by his spirit’.

It is of course at this point that Hooker has placed his finger on the problem. The problem, of course, settles on the perennial question of how Scripture is to be interpreted. And of course the magisterial Reformers recognised this problem. For they well understood the danger of individual exegetes or disparate groups (or indeed of General Synods drawn from only two provinces of the world wide Church) seeking to make a change in the ancient practise of the Church that has continued time out of mind.

Hooker articulates the danger as follows: ‘when they and their Bibles were alone together whatever strange opinion entered their heads, their use was to think that the Holy Spirit taught it them’. With this understanding of Scripture and the way it should be interpreted, it is indeed very difficult to see how the proposed legislation could ever enhance the Church of England’s proud claim to be part of the One Holy and Catholic and Apostolic Church. She cannot be One for she has become divided. She cannot be Catholic for she has overthrown the universal consensus of the Church. And she cannot be Apostolic for she has forsaken Apostolic teaching.

What shall we do?

I hope that you can see from the above that for me the Ordinariate is not an attractive option. I say that out of no disrespect to those of you who think it may offer you and your people a solution, or out of any personal disrespect for Pope Benedict, whom I greatly admire. But, strange though it may seem, I cannot go over to the Roman Catholic Church. I say Roman Catholic and not Catholic for the simple reason that it seems to this Protestant member of the Church of England that the Church of Rome holds certain doctrines that are not Catholic.

So I increasingly find myself at odds with my own Church and soon to be made an outlaw within her. The evangelical reaction I think will be mixed. And that will be the problem. Some, as I have already suggested, will try to argue that it is a second order issue. Some will resign. Others will hang on and then leave for some kind of Independency. Still others will seek Episcopal Oversight and Ordination from other Bishops in Africa – most probably from the Church of England in South Africa. None of these seems attractive either. I shall wait and see and hope that out of the confusion and chaos some sort of modus vivendi will emerge. But one thing is certain. It will be very difficult for me to encourage my PCC to pay their quota. I do not in conscience think that I can do this. It would be quite wrong to give money to a “church” that is no longer either Protestant or Catholic. Let alone give money to an institution that no longer cares for or needs my ministry. For, as they used to say in the United States, there can not be taxation without representation. ND