Christopher Smith attempts to clean off some of the mud that gets thrown at Anglo-Catholics.

I was intrigued recently to read an article by Jeremy Paxman in The Financial Times colour supplement. It came in the wake of the release of a survey suggesting that the number of those identifying as Anglican in this country has fallen by about a third in the last decade. I’m not sure we’re terribly surprised by that, are we? The days when people were asked ‘What religion are you?’ and (if they were nothing else) automatically responded ‘C of E’ are surely over. The hand-wringing this time seems to be within the commentariat rather than the Church. I’ve formed the impression over the years that Paxo is something of an occasional churchgoer, and generally well-disposed towards Anglicans, although he lost a Brownie-point by referring to ‘the simple-minded certainties of bigotry’ in a drive-by reference to ‘the debate over the ordination of women.’

Still, at least he didn’t call me a Donatist, which was an insult bandied around in the nineties and which seems to have put in a reappearance recently. I heard it used to describe the arrangements made when Philip North was ordained to the episcopate, and somebody casually threw it at me recently in relation to the arrangements made for parishes to petition for the oversight of a ‘Society’ bishop.

To understand Donatism—and to understand why we are not Donatists – we have to go back to the most bitter of the persecutions of the Church in Roman times, under the emperor Diocletian. Diocletian was emperor for over twenty years around the turn of the 4th century, and almost succeeded in wiping out Christianity altogether. Many good and faithful Christians were martyred, and Diocletian rightly presumed that if he targeted the bishops, he would destroy the thing that bound Christians so tightly: their worship of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Bishops, remember, were the oldest and wisest men drawn from the presbyterate. They were not emperors of their churches, they were the most learned teachers, the guardians of the deposit of faith, and the usual celebrant of the Mass; and as they were picked off, men with less wisdom and less courage were left to preside over the churches. And they were inclined to cave in when the pressure was on. To show that they were willing to give up the Faith, they would give up the scriptures and the liturgical books, and the vessels for the celebration of the Eucharist. They became known as the traditores, the ones who ‘handed over’ the books. It’s the word that gives us ‘traitor.’

Once Christianity became tolerated under the rule of Constantine, the question of the status of these traditores became an important one. They had been ordained as bishops, they had ordained others to the priesthood, they had baptised the faithful. They may have been sorry for what they had done, but could they be said still to be able to celebrate the sacraments validly? Or had their betrayal of the Lord caused their authority, in every sense, to be forfeit?

The decision came in the end that, although these men would certainly need to pay a suitable penance, they were capable of celebrating valid sacraments, so people baptised by them were validly baptised. But Donatus, who was Bishop of Carthage, carried a great deal of influence in north Africa, and Donatism itself clung on in that part of the world for centuries, struggling to maintain absolute purity within the line. And that is what we stand accused of: believing that the act of ordaining women causes the validity of those bishops’ orders to drain away.

But, of course, the decision of the Church catholic was that Donatus was wrong. And, as catholic Christians, our enduring anxiety about the ordination of women is that it is not catholic. Jeremy Paxman may write about the Church of England as though it were an ever-decreasing sect, but we are always trying to call it back to the bigger picture, the catholic picture. That doesn’t make us Donatists, it makes us catholics, and that is the reason for our anxiety over validity. We want to be sure that the people of God are receiving valid sacraments. It is also the reason for our anxiety over communion and collegiality, hence our need for bishops who share our theological conviction. It’s not just about having a bishop who’s a bloke ordained by a bloke. It’s about being in the college of someone who shares our understanding of the theology of order, so that we can confidently enjoy a common sacramental life. That’s why we sometimes talk about bishops with whom we can be ‘in full communion.’ They define the group with whom we can have full sacramental interchangeability. That’s not Donatist: it’s catholic.

And all this brings with it something that is for many of us a pleasing by-product. Because almost none of ‘our’ bishops are diocesan bishops, they are not burdened with the government that has become part of the bishop’s role since the time of Constantine. They are our teachers, pastors, and guardians of the deposit, and it is also easier to understand them as the normative celebrants of the eucharist, because we know that there is no gulf between their understanding of the sacraments and ours.

It’s all about the desire for control, of course, but it would pay any bishop to seek out a series of articles by Dom Gregory Dix, written in 1938, and published later as Jurisdiction in the Early Church. The governing was once done by the presbyterium, and the bishop was drawn out from among the presbyters to feed the flock, to be the high-priest ‘liturgising by night and day,’ and to forgive sins. Simple, isn’t it?