The Limits of Ecclesiastical Power by David W. Virtue
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Tue Nov 13 01:46:10 EST 2001
THE LIMITS OF ECCLESIASTICAL POWER
By David W. Virtue
In the light of recent actions by a United States judge to grant
unlimited ecclesiastical power to Washington, DC Bishop Jane Dixon in
dealing with a single orthodox parish priest, I asked an Oxford-based
Anglican scholar, author and teacher how the Church of England with its
close ties to the state would have handled a similar situation.
An interview with Canon Michael Green, Senior Research Fellow at
Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, an Evangelical Anglican college that trains
ministerial candidates and the next generation of Anglican scholars.
The college's principal is the prolific author and theologian Dr.
Virtuosity: How do you see the differences in structure and function
between the US and UK in the basic setup of ecclesiastical authority?
Green: We have 48 dioceses in the UK with most dioceses having a
diocesan and a couple of Suffragan bishops. Increasingly these days
they are being given territorial authority. The Bishop of Oxford, where
I live, has three subdivisions. These suffragan bishops are the pool
from which the next diocesan bishops are drawn.
Virtuosity: What is the extent of the bishop's power, bearing in mind
the close ties the church has with the state?
Green: The bishop has enormous respect but there are all sorts of
checks and balances on his power. In the United States he would have
almost complete power in the way that your canons work, here it is
hedged in quite a lot.
First of all there is the synod which is a gathering together of church
leaders right from parish level to archbishops and several hundred of
these gather together twice a year and they promulgate policy and
bishops cannot run against that.
Equally there is also a house of bishops, actually you've got a bit of
a nonsense here. Either you go for synodical power, which is a
mimicking of parliament or you go for the power of the House of
Bishops. In point of fact we hobble between the two. The bishop in the
diocese has a lot of respect and power, but interestingly he can't just
put men or women into parishes. There is a very ancient patronage
system in this country whereby somebody is given the power to appoint
to the local church. In days gone by it was the local squire or local
knight and he appointed these guys.
A lot of their successors, fed up with the system don't know who's who
so they give the bishop the right to appoint clergy. So bishops have
been accruing these rights increasingly but there are a lot of catholic
bodies and evangelical bodies that seek to keep a continuity of that
strand of Christian teaching in their parishes, and the bishops cannot
do a Sam Edwards. The bishop can't turn down a person if he's a godly
guy and he has been put in their by the Trust and is acceptable to the
parish. The bishop has got to induct him and no nonsense.
Virtuosity: What if the candidate in question makes statements that the
Anglican Church is the "unchurch" or "Hell bound".
Green: The lawyers might want to argue about that. But we don't go
much in the way of legal stuff in this country. There is no
litigiousness really, which is quite a curse in the American scene. If
[Edwards] was as blunt as that there would be questions as to why he
was ministering in a church that he thought was hell bound, can he with
integrity do this. But you wouldn't have an Accokeek situation in
Virtuosity: What is meant by clergy freehold?
Green: It goes back to the Reformation and the determination of the
Reformers that godly people who believed the Reformed Faith should not
get kicked out of their parishes. So if I am the rector of St. Aldate's
(which I was), the bishop could not get rid of me. No one could get rid
of me unless I resigned, or unless I ran off with the choirboy. Even
that would be a bit arguable these days in some parts of the world.
(Laughter). That is what is known as freehold. A clergyman could only
be dismissed for gross impropriety and there would have to be a legal
case to get him ditched. So it very rarely happens.
What was created for the benefit of the orthodox faith has now
boomeranged because all sorts of dodgy people have gotten themselves
ordained and into parishes and you cannot get the blighters out.
So you can have a truly unbelieving person who really is very dubious
about God, doesn't believe in the deity of Christ, has no time for the
atonement, and the result is that some of those people creep through,
though not many of them, and if they are inducted into a parish as
vicar he cannot be kicked out.
Virtuosity: In the U.S. a Bishop has a right to visit a parish every
three years. No such right, it seems, is made here. I met a vicar who
said he hadn't seen his bishop in 20 years, and doesn't want him
around. How is that possible?
Green: The theory is when you are inducted into a parish the bishop
says, "take authority to exercise the cure of souls, both thine and
mine," he shares the episcopacy, the oversight, with the clergyman. He
doesn't give it all to the clergyman so that he can't interfere, nor
does he hog it all himself so that the clergyman is just a stooge. It
is a shared oversight, and going back in New Testament times sharing in
the oversight of God with His people. A bishop just can't walk into a
church, he must have the agreement of the clergyman.
Virtuosity: Who initiates the call?
Green: It can be initiated from either side, but most good bishops and
their suffragans go and see every clergyman who is in charge of a
parish every two or three years to encourage them, spend time with
them, walk round the parish, have a meal with them and pray with them.
It is much more a fatherly rather than a judiciary way, which seems to
me to be the situation in the U.S.
It is very important to understand that in England there are distinct
checks and balances in the whole area of orthodoxy, which are not to be
found in the U.S. If you ask what are the doctrinal norms of the C. of
E. there is a very clear answer. The supremacy of Scripture is the
first one. Scripture is normative and nobody can be ordained unless
they accept the authority of Scripture, and the catholic creeds. In a
tertiary role the teachings of godly Anglicans down the years. So It
gets woollier as it goes down. I was on the doctrine commission that
actually defined this, and it is quite clear that the supremacy of
Scripture was the thing that some of us were fighting for and won. Not
only does that have to be signed by every clergyman that is ordained,
but also every time he moves into a new job he has to make this
affirmation of faith. So that is one great safeguard. Of course people
do it with their fingers crossed, they do it looking at the stars,
nevertheless they are manifestly in the wrong and hypercritical if
they are doing so.
Secondly there is a situation in England where the normativeness of
the Book of Common Prayer is still highly influential. In many churches
it is the only book being used and the whole theology of it is biblical
and reformed, in fact nearly all the bishops in the Elizabethan
Settlement were moderate Calvinists. So that's the background. It wants
to keep continuity in all sorts of ways with the Catholic Church down
the years, but it is very much reformed and that is the stance of the
Church. So anything that goes wildly against the Prayer Book is by
definition out of court.
The third doctrinal norm in the Anglican Church is the Ordinal. And
that is not in question in the US or here. But what the US has not got
is the first one. The supremacy of Scripture, which is the sixth
article of the 39 articles, and the 39 articles, were created in the
middle of the 16th Century to define the position of the C. of E.
doctrinally over against the cultural and ecclesiastical arguments of
the day. Some of these are pretty out of date like the Christian man
and his oath and men taking up the sword. But what it has to say about
sacraments and church leadership, Scripture, the Creeds is pristine NT
stuff and that together with the Prayer Book and the Ordinal are the
three doctrinal norms of the C. of E.
Virtuosity: But this is not the case in the US.
Green: In Canada, Australia, the U.S. and other places they have
dropped the 39 Articles. They say it is a funny old document of the 16th
Century, and only the stupid old Brits keep this stuff. Let's lose it.
But you are not losing a16th Century document, you are losing a very
important doctrinal norm of the C. of E. and the Anglican Church.
So you now you have a situation in parts of the world where the
Anglican Church is highly revisionist and takes a very long step away
from what historic Anglicanism has held and it puts all the power in
the hands of bishops who have nothing to regulate them. Look at the
situation with Spong and bishops like him. He never even got ticked off
for his Koinonia Statement.. Now there are some 80 bishops who signed
up to Spong's Koinonia statement. It is incredible that he and they
should have been gotten away with this without a rap on the knuckles.
Virtuosity: What would have happened in England if a Koinonia Statement
of that magnitude would have been written by a bishop in England?
Green: There would have been a most unholy row. It wouldn't have taken
Virtuosity: Despite this England is, by any standards, in sad shape
spiritually. There are more practicing Muslims than there are
Green: No, that is not so.
Virtuosity: The numbers indicate about 1.2 million Muslims versus about
one million Anglicans.
Green: I think that is roughly true. There are more Muslims than there
are Baptists in this country. It is also hard to define an Anglican.
Some go to church once a month, some once a week, others once a
fortnight. They meet in the middle of the week, they have Saturday
night services. The numbers are skewed if you think only 10 o'clock
Virtuosity: There is a post-modern haze hanging over England. There is
a spiritual malaise despite the fact that you have an Evangelical
Archbishop, still the malaise continues. Is ALPHA the solution to
Green: It is a solution. ALPHA is so well known that one in five
members of the country know what an ALPHA course is. Hundreds of
thousands go on it. It is publicized on enormous hoardings, backs of
buses etc. I saw a bus the other day with a woman beaming down on me
from an ALPHA slogan saying "the journey's the same, but the life is
different. An exploration into life, come to your nearest ALPHA
course." Sure that's a great thing. But there has got to be a radical
change, which can only come about by the living God. You cannot
organize revivals and that is what is desperately needed in this
country. There is lots of good will in the country, there is a
tremendous hunger towards spirituality, but the churches have not been
able to capitalize on it. Most people don't think the churches have got
Virtuosity: Are they correct?
Green: Yes. There is a revival of witchcraft and WICCA in England that
the churches have not been able to cash in on it. There are all sorts
of spirituality that the church has not been able to cash in on it in a
Virtuosity: Some might suggest that the very formal nature of
Anglicanism gets in the way of the possibly of the Spirit moving. Would
open contemporary worship change that?
Green: Those are the churches that are growing. There are masses of
Anglican Churches that do not use morning or evening prayer at all, and
they only thing they use in the Eucharist is the shape of it and the
great Prayer of Thanksgiving. There are contemporary forms of worship,
people come in ordinary clothes, etc. People got fed up with being
squeezed, so the house church movement started. They started in homes
and grew in cinemas. They are growing in England but they are minuscule
compared to the C. of E. But having guitars and choruses isn't going to
solve everything. That's candy floss. The reality is the work of the
Spirit of God, which you do see in all sorts of places in this country,
but we desperately need more of and it is going to come surely.
Virtuosity: Why is God withholding His Spirit?
Green: I don't know. I don't think we know how to pray. For all the
formal prayers the prayer level is nothing to write about in this
country, Canada or the U.S. One hour on Sunday won't do much. What
happens in private intercession I would hate to be flashed on a screen.
In South-East Asia people are up all night praying. The Oxford
University Christian Union is having a three hour prayer breakfast this
week and they are having a through the week prayer chain, surely that
is the way things are going to change in this country. And if that
happened that would change things, but the truth is we have not learned
how to pray. We have all the IT (technology) we have got all the
computers, and we don't need God.
Suffering is the key. The church in China knows how to suffer. You have
never seen a big growth in the Church without suffering. It was there
in Acts chapter 8, it has been there all down the history of the Church
and we are flabby, we are flat fish. We haven't got the guts to go
against the current of unbelief and skepticism or of post modernity so
we have gotten caught up in the wash. The pressures, for example, in
West Malaysia are enormous where Christianity and Islam face each
other. We have no courage like that. We have got nothing like it at
all. We don't prayer and we don't have to fight and I think there has
to be some blood-letting before the church realty comes together. I
hope I'm wrong.
Virtuosity: Thank you Canon Green.
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