Ian McCormack offers a parish priest’s perspective on how The Society and the Five Guiding Principles are working


This diagram is something I prepared for a Lent course that I offered to Society parishes locally in order to present these Society documents to our laity. The bit at the bottom – The Mission Parishes of Christ the King – is not strictly relevant, as it’s the cluster of Society parishes within our deanery that have come together to work as closely as possible. The rest of it is a fairly standard ecclesiology, but one which has sadly been almost entirely forgotten within the Church of England. It helps to explain the position of the clergy and people of The Society, in particular with regard to our insistence that our clergy should be ordained by our bishops.

The bishop, by his orders and by his communion with other bishops, is the guarantee of apostolicity within the Church. He is the representative between the local church and the universal. The members of his college of presbyters celebrate the sacraments in his name and in his place. The laity – our congregations – receive the sacraments celebrated by their priests knowing that the orders of all the members of the presbyteral college are entirely interchangeable, because all of the priests represent their bishop when they stand at the altar or the font or administer the sacraments of healing and reconciliation.

It follows that if even one person whose orders are questionable is admitted into that presbyteral college, the whole thing collapses like a house of cards, because the interchangeability of orders on which sacramental assurance rests is compromised.  

I have offered these introductory thoughts as a way of showing how I have approached and taught the new settlement from our perspective at parish level. Specifically, I have offered you the diagram because it actually worked as a way of explaining to our lay people how and why the theology of these documents is important.

As I said in my previous paper, much of what we are discussing here is not unique to Anglicanism. Quite the opposite. We are insisting upon it because it is the theology of the whole Church, but has been largely forgotten or ignored by our brothers and sisters within our own Communion. So, whilst this ecclesiology is probably entirely unremarkable to you, it is something which we have to insist upon constantly, in order to remind the rest of the Church of England why we believe what we do – and to teach it to our own people.

With all of this in mind, what does the new settlement – and the vision outlined in Communion and Catholicity and A Catholic Life – mean in the context of parochial ministry? I would like to suggest it means three things:


(1) A cohesiveness we have not always enjoyed before


Previously our movement has been fragmented into large numbers of priestly and devotional societies, many of them with their roots in the ‘glory days’ of the catholic revival in the later parts of the nineteenth and earlier parts of the twentieth century. Quite rightly these all continue to exist and have their particular charisms, but now under the umbrella of The Society.

This makes establishing a common identity with other clergy easier – previously, clergy might belong to one or more of these groups and sit apart from the others. Then there were the ‘non-joiners’ who lived the catholic life but signed up to nothing. The Society, as a non-political, ecclesiological organization, helps to cut through this maze: either clergy are registered with The Society or they are not.

  This in turn makes invitations and living the common life easier – for example, the Chrism Masses that our bishops celebrate in Holy Week each year can now be explained and advertised as being celebrated by a Bishop of The Society, together with his clergy and his people.

It also brings clarity to our relationships with other bishops of The Society. The Bishops of Richborough, Ebbsfleet and Fulham are not ‘my’ bishop, but as bishops of The Society the full ecclesial relationship I have with them is clear.

  By extension, everything that I have said above applies to our laity as well. We can pray for (e.g.) ‘The bishops of The Society’ and (in theory, at least) everybody knows what we mean by that. Within the Mission Parishes of Christ the King (see diagram), our laity know that they can worship in any of our churches as the need arises, because we all enjoy full communion with each other.


(2) A clearer relationship with the rest of the Church of England


There is an analogy here with a Roman Catholic parish that happens to be run by Jesuits, or Benedictines, rather than by diocesan clergy. Clearly, the analogy is not exact, but it is useful nonetheless. My parish and its churches are there for the people of the parish in exactly the same way as any other parish in the Church of England. It just happens to be a parish of The Society, and therefore to have a priest of The Society as its parish priest, and to look to a bishop of The Society, rather than the diocesan bishop, for oversight.

The phrase ‘a church within a church’ is in some ways a problematic one, because it tends to frighten the horses. But that is in some ways what we are building. Nobody questions the loyalty of a Roman Catholic parish that happens to be run by Jesuits rather than diocesan clergy, and we are working to build a situation where nobody questions our loyalty either.

Where this analogy is at its weakest is in the fact that we can only enjoy impaired communion with our brothers and sisters who are not of The Society. However, in this context I would refer you back to what Bishop Jonathan described as ‘degrees of communion’. We continue to emphasise the shared bonds of history and patrimony, and of course our canonical integration, which we enjoy with our fellow Anglicans.

Finally, in this context, I would like to emphasise the fact that while these documents reflect the reality of impaired communion within the Church of England, and while we place the highest degree of importance on ecumenical relationships, we are not in any sense setting ourselves up as a ‘fifth column’ within the Church of England. We are, rather, working towards a model of ‘double belonging’, where our membership of the Church of England and The Society are inseparable one from the other. I have already mentioned that I teach in a seminary – it is not specifically of our anglo-catholic tradition, although it did used to be. I am also an Assistant Diocesan Director of Ordinands, working with potential candidates of all traditions and backgrounds and from across the diocese to discern whether they have a vocation to ordained ministry. Our clergy and people are represented at every level of church governance, up to and including the General Synod, the governing body to which members are elected by electors of all traditions across each diocese.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which we are looking to embrace this ‘double belonging’; and in so far as it is appropriate to speak of ‘borders’ at all, we do so in terms of keeping our borders as open and as porous as possible, not least so that whenever possible we can welcome new people (or those who change their minds on the issues in question) into the fold of The Society.


(3) A guarantee –without limit of time – that our position is valid and cherished within the Church of England


This gives us the confidence to recall the Church of England to her true nature, and to be the ‘ecumenical conscience’ of the Church of England.

More importantly in terms of my brief in this paper, this guarantee gives us the confidence to engage fully and enthusiastically in the mission of the Church: to plant roots and to grow; to work in our church schools; to bring new candidates to Baptism and Confirmation; to encourage vocations to the priesthood and religious life; to proclaim the Gospel; to set up foodbanks; to help the poor; to comfort the afflicted and to bury the dead. In short, it gives us the confidence and the structure to carry on doing all of the hundreds or even thousands of things – big and small – that a parish priest does as part of his every day life. These are some of the ways in which we are seeking to live out the documents we have presented today.


(Note from Jay – the article references a diagram so it might be unsuitable. I can provide the diagram if required.)