Sunday, 6 July 2008

Local and Beyond

In the end, what happens is local. I do cross a parish boundary for reasons of experiencing different Anglican culture and belief presentations. So my local is not local. Still, that locality is still a local. A retired priest was master of ceremonies in part because he was celebrating 25 years in his priesthood, allowing the incumbent to cover for a local church that seems to have become a responsibility. The choir leader is 64 tomorrow, leading to the appropriate end-song and the superb organist demonstrating a fairground organ music style behind the Beatles' song (the Beatles imported all kinds of styles and mixes into popular music). Also, there were 64 communicants, with the highlight of the service for me how the organist can turn a filler hymn during the communion into something like a symphony after the choir has sat down. A local ordinand gave the reasonable sermon.

This is local life. However, all these presiders at the Eucharist are supposed to stand in for the bishop, who is the Chief Minister, and that makes the link with all else that goes on - why it is important if some churches seek international oversight instead of their bishops, why it matters if suddenly some Anglican bishops and priests benefit from a papal opinion and run off to an Anglican Unitate Church, should the Pope literally do them a favour (Motu Proprio) and set up a structure overriding England Roman Catholic bishops. As Rowan Williams has lectured by proxy, the Pope has this lack of collegiality in the way he can do things.

In a conversation afterwards, I was saying to a friend - and perhaps the nearest to me theologically in the congregation - why the liberal and marginalised now might be marginalised in the tighter ship that follows many difficult decisions that Anglicanism needs to face: dealing with the Primates' Council of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (foca) but also the consecration of women as bishops without creating a structure that hands to foca what they want. He said that twenty years ago if you were orthodox you were liberal. I was saying that under attack the liberals have stayed together, but in a tighter slimmed-down Church the more centrist liberals would pressurise the rest towards standards of performance, especially when no longer under the attack as of now.

Meanwhile I do wonder about this theory that somehow there is one person who is the centre of Church life in any place, and all else is done in his (or will be his or her) name. It strikes me as very feudal. Clearly the Pope overrides this when he wants, so it is qualified there. Presbyterians have just two orders, so that Presbyters are the overseers and they have a collegiate structure too for broader oversight, but then we are into fellowships of believers, and all of them. English Presbyterians could not and then did not set up such structures, and the Unitarians they became never troubled themselves with such incarnate-person theory - except that even in such a stripped out liberal community the ministry was still seen as having a professional duty of carrying the faith of the denomination as it had evolved. Ministers in place had to be able to relate to all the people in the congregation. Actually, supreme power was always held in the trustees, though you would extrapolate ministers from churches: after all it was ministers who were excluded by the introduction and enforcement of the Book of Common Prayer, and it was around ministers that these forced-into-isolation churches formed.

Somehow I have more time for the Protestant approach, rather than fanciful supernaturalist/ magical notions that a particular person embodies the Church and faith - with the exception that these selected ministers have a special even sacred responsibility for being trained to carry the identity of the faith, to cohere its representation. So I am almost Catholic in that sense, but really not - it is about responsibility, duty, training, and representation; and certainly personality matters in all this, but I cannot think there is something about ontology and from it a special charism that is realised in the combination of person and occupied space. It is a theology which has no support in any other discipline of knowledge, and it offends against democratic and liberal sensibilities. When theology cannot relate to processes and means of knowing elsewhere, it becomes uncommunicative and rather lost on its own island.

What's new about that? And it might not be an argument to justify its rejection: it is just that somehow the feudal is even offensive. This is why there are synodical structures, and these qualify the theory of episcopacy (and not only check power).

When I read those Rowan Williams's words about the bishops in dioceses and their special charism, I wonder whether this is a lost rosy-view world of a different era, challenged within Anglicanism itself (as it is also Reformed) and challenged by Protestant experience. Intellectual substance of argument doesn't add up if the foundations have become so shaky.

What is happening, now, in the specialisation of everything, is the loss of the ability for two arguments to run together at the same time, in that the Church of England is having to decide. There is a Catholic view that will include women bishops (i.e. the bishops decide collegiately that women may join their ranks) but it is really more to do with a general Protestant view. It is why the impact of women in ministry is generally a moderate liberal one (obviously Protestant anti-female headship fundies don't agree) and why this will be the effect of consecrating women as bishops. And why it means a lot of institutional sorting, and why, in the end, some of the more experimental liberals and radicals will feel more pressure, not less, to conform.

Those who really believe that a bishop is ontologically the representation of the Church in the locality, and all come under and within him, may find the foundations of the Church of England to become unsupportive as it becomes a more closely defined institution with its loss or marginaliation of extreme traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and its loss or marginalisation of Conservative Evangelicals, weakening both Anglo-Catholicism and Evangelicalism in the process.

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