This week, the Church of England’s General Synod will debate something controversial other than sexuality (hurrah!): whether we should take a formal step towards closer union with the Methodist Church by means of mutual recognition of our respective presbyteral (local church leader) ministries. The proposals are set out in the report Ministry and Mission in Covenant from the Faith and Order Commission (FAOC) in the C of E and its counterpart in the Methodist Church—and I confess to being pleasantly surprised by the clarity, coherence and persuasiveness of the case that it sets out, exploring in turn the historical context of the debate, the question of episcopal ministry, the meaning of ministry recognition, and the legislative requirements. For me, the nub of the issue (which has been the focus of much subsequent debate) is expressed in chapter two, in the paragraphs expressing the theological significance of Episcopal ministry. These paragraphs set out a number of important observations about the nature and understanding of episcopal ministry in the Church of England.
The comments firstly recognise the importance of episcopacy in the Church of England, and its nature:
It is worth noting three characteristics of the historic episcopate as understood by Anglicans. First, it is personal: ‘The historic episcopate is a particular expression of personal episkope. There is no substitute for person-to-person pastoral ministry – with all its risks and vulnerability’.11 Second, it is historic: ‘It is an expression of the visible historical continuity of the Church today with the Church of the apostles’, even though ‘it is not dependent on a hypothetical unbroken chain of hands on heads’.12 Third, it is received. The historic episcopate cannot be created de novo; a church cannot simply bring it into existence by and for itself, although it may have different expressions in different contexts. All our churches are debtors to the wider Church, the Church catholic, and our highest aspiration is simply ‘to do what the Church does’, not ‘our own thing’.13 (para 23)
But the report then goes on to note what might be called the provisionality of this vision—it does not (in contrast to Roman Catholic understandings) claim to be unique or defining of Christian ecclesiology:
Anglican ecumenical documents have repeatedly emphasised that the historic episcopate is not essential to being a true church.14 So why, then, is it necessary for the Methodist Church to receive it as an integral part of the framework that enables the interchangeability of presbyteral ministries with the Church of England? The answer is to be found in the ecumenical strategy of the Anglican Communion as this was articulated in the Lambeth Quadrilateral in 1888. Ever since, Anglicans have consistently maintained that establishing a relationship of communion with other churches rests on the presence of four elements: the Scriptures, the historic creeds, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the historic episcopate ‘locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church’.15 (para 24)
There then comes a rather important observation, which is made from the Methodist side of the discussion, but actually sheds further light on historic Anglican convictions:
The Methodist Church, in its formal statement on the nature of the Church, Called to Love and Praise (1999), accepts the ecumenical consensus in the landmark Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (WCC, 1982) that the historic episcopate is ‘a sign, though not a guarantee, of the continuity and unity of the Church’.20 At the same time, the Methodist Church does not accept that the historic episcopate is essential for the faithful exercise of ministry.21 (para 27)
I think this is absolutely crucial. Episcopacy points to the centrality of apostolic faith in the Church. But as an administrative structure, it cannot guarantee this—and it would not be hard to find examples to demonstrate this. We do not have an instrumentalist understanding of the sacraments, nor of ministry; both are signs of spiritual reality, but neither guarantee it unconditionally (and in the Church of England ordination is not a dominical sacrament). What matters is the thing that it points to—it is but a means (even if an important one) to this end of being part of ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic‘ church, and the report cites the ecumenical report Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry in its understanding of apostolicity:
Continuity in the permanent characteristics of the Church of the apostles: witness to the apostolic faith, proclamation and fresh interpretation of the gospel, celebration of baptism and the eucharist, the transmission of ministerial responsibility, communion in prayer, love, joy, and suffering, service to the sick and needy, unity among the local churches and sharing the gifts which the Lord has given to each.
It is this continuity which is the essence of the Church; the particular expression of personal episcopacy in the Church of England can function as an important means to this end, but is not in itself theological essential (though we might argue that it is its historic distinctive in comparison with some other denominations). It seems to me that this understanding coheres with the emphasis in the New Testament on the (corporate) ministry of the apostles (note the emphasis on continuity of witness in Acts 1.22 and elsewhere) to hand on the paradosis, the witnessing tradition of Jesus’ teaching, death and resurrection in 1 Cor 15.3 (‘what I received I passed on to you…’). The whole approach accords with the way the Book of Common Prayer introduces the Ordinal (on p 553), as a historical reality, but without any reference to theological necessity of this particular pattern. Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of Church History in Oxford, makes exactly these points:
First, ‘the historic episcopate’ throughout the Christian world is a pragmatic, gradual creation of the second century CE, which links with the first apostles, but does not do so exclusively. There was no single bishop of Rome, for instance, until the 2nd century, and earlier lines of single succession there are benevolent fictions.
Second, the Church of England is a Church of the Reformation which just happened to keep bishops. It is actually a ‘Reformed’ Protestant Church, that is not Lutheran, but part of a family of European Churches, some of which kept bishops in their government, some not. So national Reformed Churches in England, Ireland, Hungary, Romania and Poland have bishops. Up to 1662, clergy from other Reformed Churches served regardless in the CofE when they came here: often they were placed in English cathedrals or universities, not to quarantine them in some way but simply because they didn’t speak much English, and there they could exercise a ministry in the learned language of Latin.
Steven Croft’s advocacy of the proposals in last week’s Church Times focussed on the pragmatic, rather than the theological. He notes both the historical connexion and the current question about ‘fresh expressions of church’. By contrast, Andrew Davison’s response is robustly theological in focus:
Our Church upholds ancient Catholic order: bishops in the historic episcopate are the ministers of ordination; the eucharist is celebrated by them, and by the priests they ordain. This is central to what makes the Church of England Catholic as well as reformed: not vestments, nor genuflection, but order.
I very much respect Andrew, both personally and as a theologian, but I think he is seriously mistaken here. The Church of England is not ‘Catholic as well as reformed’, as if these are two strands in its identity; it is Reformed Catholic, expressing the faith that has been agreed in all places, but at every point scrutinised through the lens of the apostolic faith as set out in the Scriptures. And the Church is not ‘made’ by its ‘order’: it is constituted as the community of witness to the resurrection, faithful to the apostolic teaching about Jesus and breathed in to life by the Spirit of God. A particular ordering of the Church might enable this, and be historically common, but as MacCulloch points out, this has not been universal practice in other reformed Catholic Churches.
Richard Peers offers a critique of Davison’s approach from a more Catholic perspective on his blog. He brings to bear (without completely agreeing with) my earlier critique of some of the language of ‘priest’ as used in the Church of England, but locates his main argument in a properly theological understanding of sacraments and ministry.
It seems to me that discussion of ‘validity’ and ‘sacramental assurance’ are extremely unhelpful. We must be careful to avoid magical thinking about the sacraments. Such thinking leads to episcopi vagantes with apparently valid orders. Just no Church. Just as there is, for Christians, only one priest, Jesus, so there is only one sacrament, his sacrifice on the Cross. Baptism is the ‘Ur’-sacrament by which we participate in that sacrifice, Eucharist is the making present of that sacrifice and our participation in it through time and space. The other sacraments, likewise, are extensions of that sacrament.
The church (and the sacraments, therefore) are to some extent present in every baptised person. The sacrament of order is present in every Christian community as it orders its life for leadership and mission, and for Eucharist. The fullness, the Catholicity, of the Church is undivided, it is every baptised person in every time and place.
Andrew Davison responded to Richard Peers’ critique, but largely to reiterate the points he has made previously; I don’t think I saw an engagement with the theological question of why ‘order’ in itself should be given this constitutive importance, not least in the language of the BCP and subsequent Anglican statements. The strength of Richard’s arguments is shown by the weakness of some of the responses; also on Richard’s blog comes a piece by Dr Philip Murray, an ordinand at Westcott House.
While I’m grateful that Fr Richard does dive deeper into the theological issues raised by the report, I’m afraid I cannot agree with some of his conclusions. Surely Catholic Anglicans do believe that a priest, a presbyteros, in the Church of England is of the same type of priesthood that Roman Catholics (and Orthodox) profess — one that is quite distinct from more Protestant understandings of presbyteral ministry argued for by Ian Paul (cautiously cited by Fr Richard) and which, arguably, have greater similarities with Methodist understandings of that ministry.
I think that statement is extraordinary, and can only be made by ignoring both the theology and the historical context of the Prayer Book, the ongoing debates in the Church of England, both in ecumenical discussion and in the revision of Communion liturgy. It comes under the kind of ecclesial ‘wishful thinking’ that is given short shrift by another church historian, Alec Ryrie, as Peter Webster notes:
Might that unity be found by means to a recourse to a shared history? The editors rightly place a fine essay by Alec Ryrie at the very beginning, in which many of the misreadings of the sixteenth century history of the Church of England are neatly dissected. The formation of ‘Anglicanism’, as a distinctive set of attitudes and theological methods, dates from a hundred years after the foundation of the Church of England, in which process figures such as Richard Hooker – marginal in his day – were moved to the centre, and figures such as William Perkins or Thomas Cartwright were marginalised despite being highly influential at the time. (That some readers may need to look these two figures up is an indication of how occluded they have become; neither appears anywhere else in this volume, and Perkins is re-christened Thomas in the index). Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics have disagreed profoundly over the early years of the Church of England, which makes the appeal to a normative past a problematic one to make.
Take for instance the issue of episcopacy. Ryrie again shows that although the Church of England was founded as an episcopal church, views differed widely as to the precise importance of the fact. Was episcopacy of the essence of the church, without which it could not exist (the position which several Anglo-Catholics have taken)? It was this principle that derailed the single most significant ecumenical scheme of the twentieth century in England, to reunify Anglicans and Methodists. Or, was episcopacy merely a convenient model of organisation, symbolically useful even, but something without which under different circumstances the Church might live? Chapters from Mark Chapman on missionary bishops, Kevin Ward on mission and Robert Bruce Mullin on the church in colonial America all show that, as a matter of historical fact, Anglicans have at times managed quite well without a fully fledged episcopal system. But other chapters make what is a common rhetorical slide from the historical to the normative, in this as in other matters. To paraphrase: ‘many Anglicans in the past have done some particular thing, and I (for reasons of theology) think that was right; these others who now do not do this are therefore not fully Anglican.’
The difference in perspective here (between Anglo-Catholic theological construction and historical reality) is expressed rather nicely in comments on Facebook in the last week, in response to people posting Diarmaid MacCulloch’s assessment. Adrian Furse, an Anglo-Catholic, responds:
I don’t object to reconciliation, but I do demand that each and every Methodist minister is episcopally ordained before serving in an Anglican Church.
whilst John Barton, another Oxford professor, observes:
Hear, hear [to MacCulloch]. I remember the 1960s Anglican-Methodist scheme, which failed because of the same unhistorical fantasy about Anglican orders. I expect the same to happen again, alas.
For all these reasons, I will be voting in favour of the proposals set out in Ministry and Mission in Covenant. But I would want to add a couple of caveats. Steven Croft opens his piece with the assertion:
Any opportunity to take a significant step towards visible Christian unity needs to be grasped with both hands and explored fully.
I simply want to ask the question: ‘Why’? In these discussions, ‘visible’ has become a slippery term, and is usually taken to mean ‘institutional’. I am not clear that institutional, administrative and authoritative union is all that important. After all, the ekklesiai in the various cities in the early church operated much more as a loose confederation—but gathered around the apostolic witness. It is also worth noting that they had no kind of monarchical episcopacy—so that, ironically, the Methodist understanding of collective oversight actually takes us more closely to the apostolic era. And is not practical partnership in ministry and mission on the ground not ‘visible’? More importantly, what is the relation between unity and truth? As I have previously argued, it is a mistake to read Jesus’ so-called ‘high priestly prayer’ in John 17 as a eulogy to unity; Jesus is quite clear that unity is found by means of our agreeing on the apostolic message that he has entrusted to his followers and which we find in the gospels and letters of the New Testament.
I am also curious as to why this particular question has come back to us at a time when the Church of England still has not stemmed its decline, and when (arguably) Methodism is, tragically, in its dying days. If unity is so important, why are we not putting similar efforts into attaining ‘visible unity’ with the many ‘new churches’ which are growing, and from whom we are borrowing many of our strategies of church planting and growth?
(I have borrowed the picture from the Church Times, but I hope they will permit this as I am encouraging people to read their articles…)
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