A question of jurisdiction - Chris Sugden

david at virtueonline.org david at virtueonline.org
Fri Jul 9 17:28:09 EDT 2010

A question of jurisdiction

by Chris Sugden 
July 8, 2010

In this debate we need to keep in mind that we are looking at providing for the Church of England in 50 years time, not just in five years time.

Many orthodox evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics are agreed that there must be transferred jurisdiction to alternative bishops, which includes ordination, appointment and licensing. It is not clear whether these are included in the Archbishops' proposals.

The difficulty in the way of securing this without creating two classes of bishops, in that people could appeal against the jurisdiction of a woman bishop, is the tradition of mono-episcopacy.

This is the irreducible minimum to which the Revision Committee have hung on. Yet it gives rise to the oddity that an innovation (women bishops) is resulting in objectors being excluded because of appeal to a tradition (mono- episcopacy). This theologically threadbare understanding of sole jurisdiction has no biblical or theological warrant that I have seen deployed in these discussions. This tradition is an accretion to the church - arguably through exercise of male power. A male pattern of ministry was developed over centuries without asking what pattern of ministry women should exercise in different situations.

If we believe in real ministry for women, then surely male models should not be imitated but rather appropriate patterns should be developed which would also reshape the ministry of all, including a shared understanding of episcope. There are some places where signs of this are appearing. In the desire for women to share episcopacy with men, at no stage has this concept of mono-episcopacy been challenged. Yet it is the source of the current impasses.

The mono episcopacy to which we have become accustomed and which became quite ideological in the Church of England in the latter part of the 19th century was not quite so firmly expressed in early centuries of the church's life in this country.

Particularly at times of change, it can be useful to revisit models of the past going back beyond the Reformation to medieval and even earlier times. We have already done this extensively with respect to liturgical order. Until comparatively recently, the pews, the musical dominance of the organ and the very fixed furnishings of late Victorian church layouts have given way to more flexibility, the wider use of musical instruments and flexible use of the nave in ways which are in some ways more reflective of medieval church buildings and liturgical use.

The account of St Wilfrid of York in Henry Chadwick's book Not Angels but Anglicans, makes it clear that he exercised his episcopacy on a network basis across communities in much of England. This illustrates some of the diversity there has been in the past. It opens up the possibility of drawing on older traditions of episcopacy than those regarded as normative in the late 19th century when looking for creative ways of including all the historical traditions of our Church as we proceed to the episcopal ordination of women.

One solution is to exclude the dissentients. But how is this inclusive? It also breaks the promises made to dissentients to women in the priesthood in 1992 on which they were asked to invest their lives, their work and their vocations before God. Now the Church of England proposes, via the current legislation, to end that. What sort of witness does that give? And what sort of trust does that engender in those who are being called to trust in as yet unspecified arrangements? And further, how is it an expression of being liberated from "male episcopal tyranny" to exercise female episcopal tyranny?

The other solution is to make provision. That could be through a religious/mission society. This would have permeable boundaries; those in the society would come under the oversight of an alternative bishop for all Episcopal functions, and remain part of their geographical diocese for all temporalities.

To opponents of making provision this sounds like an agreement to abolish slavery, except in certain defined areas. But it should be pointed out that in these areas no one is required to be slaves; their condition is not experienced as slavery; and they can opt out of slavery at any time. This is called freedom to choose. Are people going to be deprived of freedom of choice, even a choice of which some may disapprove? It appears to be a characteristic of God to let people make choices of which one does not approve.

To have a church enact legislation in which it breaks solemn promises, exacts revenge on former " oppressors", and denies freedom of choice is not the Church of England any of us joined or really want. What we are being offered in the current legislation is a form of divorce which is entirely on the terms of one party.

It will be argued that as these provisions would be for a minority, they do not need to be guaranteed in law. But this is not the way we deal with minority rights in other sections of society. If it were proposed to treat minorities on the basis of religion, disability or race, in the way that the minority opposed to women bishops are to be treated in this measure - ie with no statutory protection, there would be political uproar.

The Archbishops' latest proposals are well intentioned and helpfully recognize the need to address the issue of jurisdiction by means of a 'nominated bishop' arrangement. This represents a significant improvement on the current draft of the measure .

But, to secure the honoured future of those who in conscience cannot accept the ministry of women bishops, will need further elaboration as to their powers of ordination, appointment and licensing. There also needs to be further elaboration on how consistency between the dioceses will be achieved. To provide for 42 separate diocesan schemes is to set up a "post-code" lottery. A scheme that derives authority from the whole church should have arrangements also provided by the church as a whole.

The concept of a mission society, if carefully crafted, providing the necessary fellowship for the bishops, clergy and people so affected, would give much of what is necessary in a clearly Church of England framework, and provide a strong impetus for mission.

----Canon Chris Sugden is executive secretary of Anglican Mainstream. This article appeared in the Church of England Newspaper 

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