Sunday, 28 October 2007

Fragile Times (Telegraph)

The condition of the Anglican Communion and Church of England is a bit jumpy at the moment, so that reports dropped like pebbles into the pond seem to have the potential of a small tsunami.

There is a report in The Sunday Telegraph by Jonathan Wynne-Jones that is such a pebble. If it is not a pebble, but is a stone, then it could cause a full blown tsunami - given the recent words and limited clarification of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The report basically states that there are secret papers drawn up by the Church of England House of Bishops to allow foreign oversight by bishops on conservative evangelical parishes that might otherwise form their own Church within a Church.

The context of this must be that the Archbishop of Canterbury on 14 October told Bishop John Howe that the primary unit of the Communion is the Bishop of the diocese and that such a diocese could be in the Communion on a Windsor (process) compliant basis even if the "abstract"province - the national Church - was, say, not. This was then clarified so that the national Church has important administrative functions and delivered a unity of canon law, which for many is an inadequate clarification.

Now one wonders about having foreign bishops overseeing within parishes that bypasses the person who is the bishop in a diocese. It rather runs against Catholic theology, indeed Rowan Williams when in the United States called such arrangements "illicit" - a hefty Catholic code word (valid bishop but illicit).

The papers say, apparently, that such overseeing should not normally take place, but there should be the possibility of properly authorised schemes of pastoral oversight. The language of the Sunday Telegraph report then gets somewhat suspicious in at least a couple of paragraphs worthy of some attention:

The House of Bishops paper, which is responding to the idea of an Anglican Covenant for the worldwide Church, also emphasised the need for a means to discipline provinces that refuse to toe the line.

This would ensure that "those who have erred are brought to repentance, healing and restoration", but adds that those who refuse to abide by the rule book will be effectively expelled from the communion. The Rev Rod Thomas, chair of Reform, a traditionalist group that is already preparing to bring in bishops from overseas, welcomed the move.

This just does not come across like the language of the House of Bishops. It comes across like the proposals of the pressure group Reform, a conservative evangelical group, or a modern day equivalent of Anglican Puritans.

First of all the papers that are said to be from the House of Bishops have been seen by The Sunday Telegraph. It says the proposals come from the Church's Theological Group, chaired by the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, as its response to the Anglican Covenant.

Well the words could be those of Michael Nazir-Ali, given his own increasingly semi-detached towards the conservative evangelical position. So it must be asked whether it is some Machiavellian piece of paper placing with the press on matters as advocated by Reform, in order to have a big impact in their favour at this time of confusion. It could be, though, Nazir-Ali doing his thing (and giving Reform a bit of help in the process).

If it is Nazir-Ali, and he is delegated the task of writing, then there is a problem - the Covenant is intended not to be some fellowship by doctrine document, but a Catholic agreement by consensual process across a centralised Communion - where the instruments of Communion make decisions for all national Churches to follow together on contentious matters. Such a body would do this despite having no synodical structures of its own. The Anglican Communion, instead of being a connection by bonds of friendship between national Churches that share a heritage, where national Churches recognise one another (or do not), would become a substitute Church. Once again, the reason why national Churches can issue a unity of canon law is because they are the focus of unity for their dioceses and their bishops. It is up to them whether they recognise any other Church's canon law and basis of ecclesiology, whether the others are Anglican or otherwise.

This is not Nazir-Ali's agenda. What he wants is all these Churches to follow the stricter boundaries of how he understands Christianity. He accuses some others of following virtually another religion.

For what it is worth, my own guess is that the proposal in these papers seen by The Daily Telegraph, if from the source they quote, has no agreement yet of the House of Bishops and do not represent policy, and are unlikely ever to represent policy. Reform may still be well disappointed. According to the Archbishop of Canterbury, before his statement to Bishop Howe, with it and after clarifying it, they will remain disappointed (that is, no they cannot have illicit oversight). After all, even Reform itself said it preferred an "English solution", which would also overturn the relationship between bishop and diocese. This jumps one stage further before even an English solution to their own problem.

Various clarifications are awaited!

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