Thursday, 17 July 2008

Bishops and Innovation - Lambeth 2008

Anthony Hanson was Professor of Theology at the University of Hull and Bishop Richard Hanson was Professor of Historical and Contemporary Theology at the University of Manchester when, in 1980, they had published Reasonable Belief: A Survey of the Christian Faith, by Oxford University Press. It is a statement of argued, reasoned, middle of the road Anglicanism and in part ecumenical Christianity, just as On Being a Christian was a combined ecumenical and Roman Catholic statement of Christianity from Hans Kung published in English by Collins in 1977.

From page 249 the Hansons tackle the issue of ministry, and they show how fluid and indeterminate it was in the early Churches. They clearly state:

Ministry in our modern sense of it, then, is a development. There were no ministers, as we rate ministers, in the beginning. The first appearance of successors to the twelve is not in Acts (which shows no interest in the subject) but in the late Pastoral Epistles, which are an invaluable witness for what was happening about AD 100 or later but notfor the primitive Church. The evidence of Paul is decisive. A permanent ministry, a 'clergy', is a development, as the creed and the Canon of the New Testament is a development. (1980, 252)

It was an imperatively necessary development, they say, and:

...within a little more than a century after the resurrection a uniform permanent ministry of inspectors, older men, and assistants had developed. (1980, 252)

These were functional, hardly of theological importance and not connected to the Old Testament.

Such an account has a big effect. It:

...demands the sacrifice of two ideas that are dear to the hearts of many. The first is that of apostolic succession. The second is that of a scriptural ministry. (1980, 252)

These are described by the professors as combined obsessions and illusions seen in the wrecked 1972 Anglican-Methodist Reunion Scheme. (1980, 252-253)

The Apostles did not appoint successors. In Acts the organ of continuity in the Church is the Holy Spirit, not any official. Any appeal to the succession of ministers going back to Jesus or his apostles is built on sand. (1980, 253)

The absence of a coming parousia led to history entering into ministry, and yet the first understanding of apostolic succession (second century) was equivalent to officials teaching in the same place from the same tradition, not linked by ordination - which was a much later understanding.

It is equally clear that the concept of 'scriptural ministry' has very little content. If it means a ministry whose form is authorised, exclusively or not, as uniform and originally designed for the Church in Scripture, there is no such thing. (1980, 253)


In the New Testament there are no Christian priests, except Christ himself. (1980, 253)

In the West, Tertullian and Hippolytus use priest or high priest for the bishop and occasionally the presbyter, in the sense of someone who forgives sins, and not as a celebrant of the Eucharist. It put the Christian bishop alongside the Pagan priest in terms of status, and made the bishop representative of Christ the high priest. (1980, 254)

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, 249-258, linked the Chritian bishop to the sacrificing priest of the Old Testament. As Christ at the Last Supper [supposedly] offered himself as a sacrifice to God, so the bishop offers Christ. The presbyter only operates in delegation from the bishop. (1980, 254)

Hanson and Hanson ask:

The question is, is this a proper and healthy development. We need not hesitate long in deciding this question in the negative. The gradual turning of the ministry into a sacerdotal caste controlling exclusively the means of grace, marked off from the laity by the possession of supernatural powers, and the pracice (or at least the formal practice) of celibacy, occured very largely because of the Cyprianic doctrine of Christian priesthood. Its chief defect is that it defines the priest in terms of the cult, thereby apparently tending to reintroduce a Jewish form of priesthood... (1980, 255)

It dangerously impairs Christ the final and perfect sacrifice, contradicts the priesthood of all believers, and relies on the "illusory assumption" that Christ instituted a priesthood independent of the priesthoodof all believers. The Church of England and connected repudiated this doctrine at the Reformation, the definition of the priest removed from celebrating the Eucharist while still functioning in this in the same relationship between God and humankind in the forgiving of sins to which the Ordinal had returned the central understanding of clergy. The Hansons approve of this definition where the priesthood facilitates and depends upon the priesthood of all believers - thus can be male or female, the make-up of the people, and extends to non-episcopal communions that are "at least a potentially a priestly ministry". (1980, 255-6)

All this leads on to authority. The Catholic way has been lineal authentication and the Protestant way is by the pure doctrinal. The Catholic view breaks down between the apostles and the Church of of the second century, and of course there might be unbroken lineal descent but deviation from Christianity. As for knowing what is pure doctrine, that needs the Church to say what is doctrine. The whole Church is like a broken plate, and ministry comes from the whole Church. (1980, 256-8)

Thus the Hansons look at validity, this notion that only a valid episcopally ordained priest can properly celebrate the eucharist, whereas it is a show when performed by a different minister. They reject even a moderate view of this, that Christ is somehow less present in a Protestant eucharist. Better to abandon the notion of validity altogether, they say though doctrinal aberration and deviation affects the authority of a Church, whilst not seeking to unchurch Christians in different Churches. (1980, 258-9) [This suggests questioned outcomes for those Liberal Catholics who venture outside the general New Testament and Church tradition boundaries]

So is Episcopacy just one of a number of methods? it is, they say, the oldest. One bishop and a group of presbyers goes back early to the second century - older than any creed, any liturgy and the New Testament canon. However, the bishop looked more like a local vicar in function. Secondly a personal ministry of episcopacy, they identify, relates to the preaching of a personal God uniquely revealed in the person of Christ. The bishop represents the diocese to the Church and the rest of the Church to the diocese. It is very personal, representative work. It is easily corrupted too (1980, 260)

Now it is no doubt this personal representation that is stressed by Rowan Williams in his approach to "better bishops" at the Lambeth Conference, but he pushes this too far down the Catholic road. His view expressed often and recently would be seen as too absolute for the Hansons. If he is fully Anglican, and accepts the relativity and contingency of much that seems absolute to others, then these bishops as much depend on the whole Church for authority as they do in some sort of gift exchange each to the other in a personal basis of being the Church. It is through this overstated representation one to each other that he wants to clamp down on innovation, and sees an enhanced role for the identified mother Church (thus him, successors and instruments). Clamping down on innovation in one local Church when unrecognised by another local Church is a representational restraint, all guided by mother Church, and for good measure he can add the Protestant principle, as he did in the 2007 Advent Letter and even in his response to GAFCON.

What is called for is not a theology that easily deals with restraint - that is easy - but innovation. Innovation always starts somewhere, and the New Testament is full of rapid theological development (that carries on beyond its timeframe). Innovation would seem to need justifying on a basis that looking forward with change is based on some principle developed when looking back. If the Lambeth Conference over-stresses this Catholic representational angle as a means of closing down the realisation of change demanded by the nature of Western (at least) Church communities - the gathered faithful - then Lambeth will be doing a disservice to the faithful and their multiple identities.

In the recent past I have had a correspondence with bishops who are validly ordained on the lineal principle for sure, but the Liberal Catholic Church of which they are metropolitans has connections into Buddhism and Druidism (one is so orientated) and has a chosen historical link with Free Catholicism that was once itself dissenting out of the Unitarian stable (as well as its Liberal Catholic foundations). I have to say I am attracted to this; the principles of breadth and background relate to us as pluralistic people and the broadest view of transcendence. Discussion can go anywhere, practice can be broad. For many, though, this would be innovation too far - even well beyond too far, and towards the chaotic - and lacks the restraint the Protestant principle applies (which may not exactly worry Liberal Catholics). It would not concern me; my own history crosses these boundaries and even within Anglicanism does not reject any of them: Western Buddhist or Unitarian or, for that matter, the postmodern Pagan.

Anglicanism is flexible, and we have seen in recent weeks how it can shift. The effect of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (out of GAFCON) is to operate the Protestant principle to itself via centralisation; it very much frustrates the Williams approach towards one organic unity of these bishops in the mother Church direction, but on the other hand it has created itself as an opposition which has suddenly become more liberating to the liberals, as loyalists, who have found their identity and started to act. The vote for women bishops in the English General Synod had something of this about it, and the traditionalist Catholics seem intent on removing themselves to a fantasy form of Catholic validity (according to the Hansons). So it may well be that bishops at Lambeth, in places where they are collegiate together - that is within their Churches and under their Canon Laws - can show a willingness to innovate and identify with their faithful people served as a whole.


Doorman-Priest said...

"So it may well be that bishops at Lambeth, in places where they are collegiate together - that is within their Churches and under their Canon Laws - can show a willingness to innovate and identify with their faithful people served as a whole."

You'd like to think so wouldn't you? Even so I wouldn't hold my breath on that one.

Erika Baker said...

I agree with Doorman-Priest.
Only today someone commented to me on Thinking Anglicans that I am building up a wall if I say that acknowleding each other as faithful Christians is the minimum requirement for a genuine side by side, never mind a conversation.

There are many out there would not not believe in a faithful people outside their own narrow frame of reference.