Over the past 40 years the Church of England has invested an enormous amount of time and energy debating who may or may not be ordained, and therefore who may or may not duly administer the sacraments. Some catholic Anglicans have passed resolutions under the House of Bishops’ Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests because they cannot accept the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Many catholic Anglicans have remained happily within the inherited structures of the Church of England: this is the place in which we have received, been nurtured in, and minister the catholic faith. With the publication of the report Mission and Ministry in Covenant, we are left wondering what all that debate was about, and quite what the future looks like for those of us for whom orders and sacraments are naturally a central part of what it means to hold to the catholic faith as the Church of England has received it.
Fundamental to the Church of England’s understanding of its catholicity is the historic episcopate. This, like the other aspects of the Lambeth Quadrilateral (the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist) we recognise as gifts from God for the unity of the Church, through which the Church is maintained in the faith once delivered to the saints. Through the Act of Uniformity, the Prayer Book, the Ordinal, and the Canons of the Church of England, English Anglicans recognise that a bishop focuses the unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the whole Church, as well as calling the Church into ever closer fidelity to those marks. Astonishingly, it is proposed that these historic formularies, so long the repository of the Church of England’s self-understanding and a framework for her unity, be open to suspension or amendment simply because the principles they uphold – both Anglican and ancient – are taken to be inconvenient.
The bishop is the primary president of the Eucharist in his or her diocese, and the one primarily invested with authority to bless, absolve and anoint. Alongside this sacramental authority, the bishop is chief pastor in his or her diocese, as well as the one charged to teach and guard the faith and to lead the church in mission. The bishop shares this authority with his or her priests, through ordination and licensing, and, through them, with the whole people of God, as they live out their vocation to be God’s people, that the world may believe. The priest thus shares in the bishop’s ministry through the gift of the Spirit conferred in ordination, and represents him or her in particular places or contexts (through receiving the cure of souls ‘which is both yours and mine’). It is this relationship, received as a sign of the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God and a means through which Christ builds up his Church, that enables the sacramental life of the Church of England. It also prevents the gift of the historic episcopate and the exercise of episcope in it from being understood either magically or mechanistically.
For Anglicans, the ordering of the Church’s ministry is not simply some incidental matter of governance, but the means through which the sacramental life of the Church and its unity are guarded and expressed. Because we recognise the historic episcopate as a gift of God to the Church, and a means of growing in the unity for which Christ prayed, we long for the day when Christians can be united in acceptance of this sign. Mission and Ministry in Covenant proposes a way by which the Methodist Church can receive the historic episcopate and the interchangeability of Church of England priests and Methodist presbyters can be effected.
Too much, however, gets elided in the report. It is by no means clear that Anglicans should think that ordination by a bishop is the same as ordination without a bishop (and, indeed, our faith and practice teach us that it is not), nor that Anglican and Methodist understandings of episcopacy have sufficient commonality. Simply having people called bishops exercising a ministry of oversight does not mean that we understand the same thing by that term. It is hard to see from the report how the collegial and personal dimensions of the historic episcopate would be exercised in the Methodist Church. Likewise, for Anglicans, who understand the relationship with the bishop in the historic succession to be the means through which the sacramental life is assured, it is not enough to assert that Methodist presbyters and Anglican priests are the same. Our practice to date indicates that we do not believe this: currently Methodist ministers who wish to exercise a priestly ministry in the Church of England must be ordained by a bishop. Similarly, until we had determined that women could be bishops, Anglican priests who had been ordained by a woman in other provinces were not able to minister as priests in our church. The report mentions, in an almost incidental aside, that lay presidency at the Eucharist is a matter for further discussion. That so fundamental a departure from Anglican order remains a point of division is a clear sign that our understanding of both sacraments and orders is not the same.
We recognise that the Church of England contains a diversity of views on the subject of ordination and the sacraments. Its fundamental position, however, is clear. We recognise too a paucity of teaching and understanding on these matters. One of the means by which this diversity is held together is through the exercise of the historic episcopate, by which good order is maintained and unity preserved.
We have already witnessed the painful impairment of communion over the ordination of women. Anglican Catholic Future welcomes the opening of the threefold order of ministry to women, although we recognise that for some of our catholic brothers and sisters this represents a departure from catholic order. We stand united with them in our concern at the proposals contained in the report, which (as they are currently described) threaten the fundamentals of what it means for our Church to be catholic as well as reformed. In light of this, a unified and public catholic witness is called for.
In its commitment to mutual flourishing, the Church of England has instituted provisions for those opposed to the ordination of women, whom it recognises as loyal Anglicans. This affords those who cannot accept the ordained ministry of women a guarantee that priestly ministry will be offered by a male priest ordained by a male bishop. We presume that petitioning parishes will be able to continue to insist that their priests should have been ordained by bishops. There is no mention in the report of the equal and corresponding provision, were its proposals to be enacted as they stand, that would be needed for catholic Anglicans who have welcomed the ordination of women.
Should the report’s proposals be accepted unamended, some provision would clearly be needed to allow space for those of us whose convictions about ordination and priestly ministry remain those the Church of England has inherited and upheld. However, we hope instead that there will be revision on those points that envisage departure from Anglican principles: we hope that the church will not put itself in the position of needing to enact further protective provision, necessary though it would be, since that would further tear the fabric of Anglican unity, and compound the fragmentation of the Church.
The issue comes down to the need for those who wish to exercise priestly ministry in the Church of England to receive ordination from a bishop in the historic succession. We have registered our unease about the lack of clarity about the way in which the historic episcopate may be embodied in the Methodist Church, and trust that further work will be done to respond to such concerns. If Methodists were to take on the historic episcopate, an important step will have been taken. In time, those ordained subsequently by a Methodist bishop would have orders which would allow them to minister sacramentally in the Church of England.
In the interim, the way remains open for those ordained in the Methodist Church before the envisaged reception of the historic episcopate to minister as priests in the Church of England, by receiving episcopal ordination. It may be appropriate for this to be at the hands of a new Methodist bishop, and it may be conditional, but it must remain necessary for priestly ministry in the Church of England: it is foundational to our Anglican identity, understanding, and practice. All new Methodist ordinations would be within the historic episcopate while, over a period of transition, existing Methodist presbyters would receive episcopal ordination if they wished to serve in the Church of England. In this way, the aims of the report would be realised, without sacrificing the catholic order of the Church of England.
Anglican Catholic Future
30 January 2018