Sunday, 29 June 2008

Archbishop Thinks Bishops

This lecture, below given in full (it is not on the Canterbury website, not sure why not), could give a clue as to how Rowan Williams will approach the problem of 'better bishops' and Anglicanism at the forthcoming Lambeth Conference. This view is considered here at the Covenant-Communion site. The Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius was hosted by St. Vladimir's Seminary for its conference entitled, Rome, Constantinople and Canterbury. Mother Churches?

The audio file can be heard here and there are pages of discussion here. Leander Harding also discusses this.

The content can be read below my comment here. Indeed the subject matter is timely for the Archbishop. He says, in his main criticism for Anglicans:

Anglicans have failed to think through primacy with any theological seriousness and have become habituated to a not very coherent or effective international structure that lacks canonical seriousness and produces insupportable pluralism in more than one area of the Church's practice.

The issue is whether he can do anything about that, and whether legally the Church of England could let him, nor if others want it. The bishops, in so far as they work together, do so informally. His argument also runs:

Not ignoring or making light of local pressures or needs, but reminding any local assembly and its chief pastor that is must not lose its recognisability or receivability to other Christian communities across the globe and throughout history.

In other words, he is arguing against any innovation anywhere. One wonders how any Church has been able to ordain women priests and what the Church of England would be doing, as others, in ordaining women bishops. There needs to be a theology of faithful innovation as well as conservation and conservatism. It is always going to be an argument: there will always be an innovator that is acting in concert with the gift of the Gospel and it may take time before others can accept such in another local context.

Here is the whole lecture delivered by Canon Jonathan Goodall from the office of the Archbishop.

...Its [the conference, as named] subject matter could hardly be more timely and I hope your discussions will be creative in a way that can help take forward the whole Church's understanding of this many-layered issue.

At the most basic level, every local Church has a mother Church - except for Jersusalem, where the risen Jesus first directly establishes the company of witnesses to his Resurrection and pours out upon them the promise of the Father, the promised Holy Spirit. From this point on, the Church's mission moves outwards and, as we see in St Paul's Epistles, local congregations are equipped by the Apostles with the essentials of belief and practice that allow them, in turn, to become, in their own context, to become communities of witness to the risen Christ.

And one consequence of this is something to which St Paul more than once makes appeal: the life of the local congregation is founded on something received: not discovered, not invented. The assembly of Christ's people, Christ's body, in this or that place, is the result of the active communication of tradition in its widest or fullest sense. For a local Church to come into being is for a community to arise that is part of a continuous stream of something being shared. This may serve us as a corrective to the idea that somehow each and every local Church is complete and self-sufficient in a narrow and exclusive way.

Understandably, the ecclesiology of recent decades, especially among those influenced by the brilliant work of Orthodox thinkers, like Nicholas Afanasiev and John Zizioulas, has positioned itself in strong reaction against centralised models of ecclesial life and authority: against a picture of ecclesial unity that is ultimately somewhat secular (that is, the unified organisation controlled from one focal point).

But the pendulum has swung too far if this means that we lose sight of the interdependence of local Churches and their bishops. The life of the local Churches is constituted not only by internal Communion but by the giving and receiving of the gift of the Gospel between them and by the grateful recognition of each other as gifted by Christ in the Holy Spirit to minister his reality to each other (as St Paul insists in the Second Letter to Corinth).

And the fundamental acknowledgement of having received the Gospel from elsewhere is a reminder to each and every local Church of this dimension of its life, this gratitude for having heard and received, and for being still involved in the economy of giving and receiving in Catholic fellowship. Hence the relation of local Churches to a mother Church or a primatial Church is not an purely antiquarian matter.

From very early in the Church's history certain local Churches have been recognised as having a distinctive generative importance. In the ancient Welsh and Irish Churches the great monastic houses, from which missions went out, were the mother Churches for the family of the saint who had founded the monastery. In the centuries before the continental diocesan structures had arrived in Britain and Ireland, this was the usual form of Church life. But this is only a specific and more vivid example of something just as true right across the Christian world. A local Church is, indeed, at one level, a community to which is given all the gifts necessary for being Christ's body in a particular place. But among those gifts is the gift of having received the Gospel from others and being still called to receive it. Relation with the history of mission is part of the Church's identity.

All this, of course, has many implications for our understanding of the bishops' ministry. If it is true, that as Tertullian said, "One Christian is no Christian," then by the same token we should be able to say "One bishop is no bishop," and so "One local Church alone is no Church." A bishop is not an individual who represents the local Church as if he is somehow empowered to speak for its local identity like a politician for his constituency. The bishop is, above all, the person who sustains and nourishes within his local Church an awareness of its dependency on the apostolic mission: on the gift from beyond its boundaries, of the Church established by the Risen Lord. And he does this, of course, primarily and irreducibly as the celebrant of the Catholic oblation.

Hence, and again from the earliest days, the clustering of local Churches and their bishops around Metropolitan sees which represented the channels through which the Gospel came to be shared. And hence the insistence, that might almost be called fierce in some circumstances, that bishops received ordination from their neighbours in their metropolia under the leadership of the local primates; and hence too the seriousness of communicating episcopal election by letter to the region and the severity of the sanction of removing a bishop's name from the formal list of intercession. All of this gives some background for thinking about the character and exercise of primacy today.

As this brief sketch suggests, the identification of primacy with a charism of a different order from that from the episopate at large does not sit easily with the emphasis on the grateful receiving of the Gospel. And the idea that primacy, in this sense, conferred strictly individual powers on a metropolitan or even a patriarch, independent of his role as convenor of the Episcopal Fellowship, or independent of his own relation to his own local Church is bound to be questionable.

But this model gives little comfort to those who understand the theological equality of all local Churches as dictating a structure of monadic communities, co-existing without acting upon one another.

Primacy needs to be seen as a sign of the continuing reality of active tradition, that is the sharing of the gift of Christ as the foundation of each local Church. So primacy should be exercised in the service of the further sharing of the gifts. This is why it is problematic if a local Church so interprets the gift it has received that it cannot fully share it beyond its own cultural home territory - which is an issue for both left and right in our Churches, I suspect. And the primatial initiative in challenging or seeking to limit local development on these grounds becomes intelligible as part of the service of the mother Church - to those to which it is the mother. Not ignoring or making light of local pressures or needs, but reminding any local assembly and its chief pastor that is must not lose its recognisability or receivability to other Christian communities across the globe and throughout history.

The problem that in different ways face the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Communions at present show how very difficult it is to frame this issue constructively. Roman Catholics are still labouring to discover how to disentangle the missionary, apostolic charism of the See of Peter from juridical anomalies and bureaucratic distortion. Orthodox have often frozen the concept of primacy in an antiquarian defence of the pentarchy as the structure of the Church thus allowing non-theological power struggles rooted in nationalism and ethnocentrism to flourish with damaging results. Anglicans have failed to think through primacy with any theological seriousness and have become habituated to a not very coherent or effective international structure that lacks canonical seriousness and produces insupportable pluralism in more than one area of the Church's practice.

All of us need to rethink the meaning of primacy in relation to mission - and in relation to what episcopal fellowship really means. In this connection, the discussion of the recent Anglican - Orthodox Agreed Statement, The Church of the Triune God, especially paragraphs 19 to 23 of the chapter 'Episcope, Episcopos and Primacy', is a helpful orientation in tracing the complementary connections between primacy and conciliarity and reception, and merits development in the light of the 34th of the Apostolic Canons, a text increasingly significant in ecumenical dialogue.

Your comments, reflecting on the meaning of 'the mother Church' should clarify something of the dynamic centrality of tradition and the life-giving strangeness of the Good News of Jesus as it judges and transfigures our local realities.

[Transcribed by Pluralist]


Anonymous said...

There is an official text at

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Thanks. It would have saved me some effort, but on he other hand it meant I listened closely. Now, how did the punctuation differ?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Interesting. His written text is not the same precisely as the audio text. I know this, because I have the scars to prove it. So either the reader misread the lecture, or it's been edited since. Interesting.