Episcopacy, sacramentality & identity

When I was training for ordination the college I attended offered seminars on a Wednesday afternoon on ‘Anglican Identity.’ Now I can’t pretend that Wednesday afternoons were necessarily, always, the most riveting part of the week, but, looking back, the seminars were extremely useful.

Of course for some, perhaps even many, developing a sense of Anglican identity isn’t that important and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that each and every member of our congregations attend their parish church because they have spent hours and hours navel gazing and, working out which denomination best fits their theology.

However, over time, many of those who stick around come to love and appreciate ‘their’ distinctive Anglican Church. I say ‘their; because we are, famously, a broad church. But, how can broad can we go without becoming just a tad to flabby and unhealthy is an interesting question.

What I would like to suggest is that, even though we are a broad church, there are key theological words and phrases that define our Anglican identity and are non negotiables. Such words include: episcopal, sacramental, apostolic, national, established (in relation to the C of E), reformed, catholic (or even reformed-catholic.)

I am sure there are other words and phrases too. The point is that all of these words have real (yes, sometimes disputed, but real) meaning and, as such comprise our Anglican identity. Change the meaning any of these words and we change the shape of our identity; which is of course perfectly permissible, but not always desirable.

The understanding of apostolic was, for instance, changed when the Church of England made the decision to ordain women as priests and, the definition of episcopacy was extended when it was agreed that women could also be consecrated as bishops. Changing our core identity is not only to be allowed, but in many ways encouraged. Doctrine is not necessarily static, it can also be progressive. But, what it can’t be is simultaneously static and progressive; at least not when what we are talking about is relational theology, such as the theology that binds priest and bishop together in a shared and mutual undertaking of sacramental ministry.

For mutuality to apply both parties have to either progress and develop, or the status quo has to be retained. When the decision was taken to ordain women priests it became necessary to simultaneously extend the theology of episcopacy. Priesthood and episcopacy only make sense in relation to the other and, where one affirms the (sacramental) reality of the  other. Where one party cannot fully affirm the reality of the other the relationship can only ever be partial and, never entirely wholesome.

Mutuality, let alone ‘mutual flourishing’ cannot be about the out-working of personal preferences, the simple accommodation of difference,  or even deeply held theologies. Mutuality stresses that ‘there is no me without you, no I without the other,’ (Ubuntu). Bishops exist to animate this sense of mutuality and shared sacramental ministry. It is a very basic point but if a bishop cannot accept the legitimate and real sacramental ministry of a particular group of people then it can’t be shared! Zero is not divisible!

And it matters not a jot whether a particular diocesan bishop delegates ordinations to an ‘affirming bishop,’ for this does nothing to affirm the the mutuality of the relationship between the (diocesan) bishop and his or her priests. We must also be careful not to diminish the word ‘delegate.’ Delegation is not about avoidance or abstinence. Delegation is practical but not political. Delegation is effective when we delegate that which we believe in and wish to affirm; delegation is not an avoidance tactic.

When an act is delegated the person carrying out the act is the agent of another person who remains the sponsor, holder and advocate for the act being carried out. An example would be the investiture of honors or the conferring of degrees. When Prince William invests a person he does so on behalf of the queen, not instead of the queen. The person presenting degree certificates does it on behalf of the university or college, not instead of the university or college. Delegation and moral agency are inextricably bound up, except as things stand, in relation to this issue, in the Church of England. This is somewhat paradoxical given that the established church, over and above other institutions, really should ‘get’ the concept of delegated moral agency!

If I was to select one word that best summed up Anglican identity it would be liturgical. It is through our liturgy that we, as Anglicans, affirm our core beliefs. The only way, for instance, that we affirm our belief in the reality of ministerial priesthood is through the liturgy of ordination. We have no other real means of verification.

As a church we seem to have forgotten that this most basic of principles that doctrine and belief is enacted, in the Church of England, through liturgy. Phrases like ‘mutual flourishing,’ ‘affirmation,’ and even ‘radical new inclusivity,’ can only have real meaning when liturgically verified. To suggest otherwise is to radically change our Anglican identity. To use words such as ‘leadership’ over and above priesthood also potentially changes our identity.

I am sure that non ordaining bishops are able to affirm the leadership of women but this is not the same thing as recognizing and sharing in the sacramental priesthood of women. Ministry in the C of E is a shared phenomenon and surely this is central to all notions of mutual flourishing? The relationship between the bishop and priest must be one of mutual sacramental recognition; without mutual sacramental recognition there can be no real affirmation, and of course it is through the liturgy of ordination that the sacramental relationship is truly affirmed.

No amount of slogans, strap lines, or mere rhetoric can change this Anglican fact. A bishop who is not content to ordain cannot be said to be truly affirming, or at least not unless we, as a church, are prepared to accept that sacramentality is incidental to our identity. This would of course be a mega change in our understanding of the theology of both priesthood and episcopacy.

So as the C of E we need to get back to the job of doing theology and, doing it properly, and this is largely the job of our bishops. The bishops must take a theological lead. They must, and should, confront and unpack areas of tension and conflict. They must always favour theological over and above managerial and political modes of thinking. They must always seek to make sure that the terms and phrases we use have real, theological, content.

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Episcopacy, sacramentality & identity

  1. “I am sure that non ordaining bishops are able to affirm the leadership of women but this is not the same thing as recognizing and sharing in the sacramental priesthood of women. . . A bishop who is not content to ordain cannot be said to be truly affirming, or at least not unless we, as a church, are prepared to accept that sacramentality is incidental to our identity.” I think this is such a beautifully written and well-argued piece, from start to finish. It is amazing to me that those who support the appointment of Philip North as Bishop of Sheffield, and seem to think those who oppose it are somehow not being fair, or not playing the “five guiding principles” game, completely overlook the theological argument you so eloquently advance. It is so fundamental – why can they not see it? Even to a long-lapsed churchgoer like me, it seems so obvious when I read it set out so clearly. Thank you.

    • Unfortunately, the “Five principles” was a promise made that progressives are now breaking. If leadership had promised to bring in women bishops, but never actually appointed one, “She’s not a good enough evangelist, that one is too frank and comes across as mean spirited….” then the lie would have been shown on the other side. You can disagree with it, but it was a promise made. When has theology ever really been the deciding factor in the CoE, where it doesn’t matter if you believe in transubstantiation or literal resurrection, etc.? Liturgical churches let individuals decide the meaning for themselves. Frankly, when it was made I knew “mutual flourishing” was a lie and never expected conservatives to ever be a welcome part of the church again, except as a source of income and padding for the membership rolls. In this diocese women priests often make comments, implicit and explicit, that conservatives aren’t real Christians, so I know that mutual flourishing is not possible when progressives are in charge either.

      • Thank you for responding. I don’t think it is quite correct to draw the distinctions on conservative-liberal lines. I would hope that we do have a robust theology of the relationship between priest and bishop but take your point.

  2. ‘What I would like to suggest is that, even though we are a broad church, there are key theological words and phrases that define our Anglican identity and are non negotiables. Such words include: episcopal, sacramental, apostolic, national, established (in relation to the C of E), reformed, catholic (or even reformed-catholic.)’
    A key theological word is missing from this statement: Doctrine (i.e. truth) above all defines Anglican identity and should be non-negotiable. This means the 39 Articles.
    Phil Almond

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