Something peculiar happened in the Church of England last week. We are, of course, very used to peculiar things happening in the Church of England, but this was so peculiar that it made no column inches in the mainstream media, and a only an opaque paragraph in a few church trade rags, principally because no-one is really sure what the announcement meant, or means, or will mean.
The Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement together with the Archbishop of York declaring that they will cease making bishops forthwith – not as a cost-cutting exercise of episcopal reduction for empty old wineskins, but as a demonstration of archiepiscopal unity in the act of episcopal consecration. The statement read:
You may be confused, but fear not: this is the Church of England; there is always method in our madness. Or in most of the madness. This statement is essentially an expression of charity and humility: in order to continue to be a necessary focus for unity, the Archbishops will no longer consecrate where that might magnify division: “the sad reality that not all in the Church of England agree on issues of ordination”, they say, and so, in the absence of agreement, they seek to remain neutral.
Except this isn’t quite neutrality: it is more an abdication of archiepiscopal responsibility, not to say vocation, and something of slight to women in the Church of England who have fought long and hard to be recognised as priests (1992), and then as bishops (2014). The making of bishops is obviously a principal function of archbishops, but because “not all of the Church of England agree on issues of ordination”, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York will no longer lay hands on anyone, male or female, which rather reifies the ‘theology of taint’ – except that all shall be equally tainted. Presumably, this consecration strike will continue until all of the Church of England agree on issues of ordination, which may be some time.
The next Archbishop of Canterbury would, of course, be at liberty to abandon this policy, but it’s hard to see how today’s divisive consecration can become tomorrow’s sacrament of unity.
Since the ordinations and consecrations of both Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell are valid for all (being of unbroken male lineage in the Apostolic Succession), there is no reason why, as the most senior clergymen present at an episcopal consecration, they should not be the principal consecrators. To announce on the day of consecration that the Bishop of London will be principal consecrator when the Archbishop of Canterbury was present effectively elevates the Bishop of London to the archiepiscopate. Further (conveniently?), should a woman ever become an archbishop, the matter of division over ordination and consecration would not arise since the precedent is now established that she would not be principal consecrator (or even a consecrator at all).
You may still be confused, but fear not: this is the Church of England, suspended in perpetuity (this side of eternity) somewhere between the certainty of the Catholic creeds and vibrant diversity of Reformed continuity, working through latitudinarianism and dealing with adiophora in the process. A little more confusion over episcopal consecration and sacramental assurance won’t really trouble anyone.
A better solution, however, would have been for the Archbishops to have continued to lay hands upon candidates as principal consecrators with traditionalists co-consecrated by ‘flying bishops‘ as necessary, instead of opting out of consecrations altogether and apparently (divisively?) paving the way for a female archbishop (which is effectively what this policy does) years if not decades before it might be required, or even desired. Surely if an appointment to the episcopate is deemed fit and suitable to be appointed by the Supreme Governor (via the Crown Nominations Commission), then the Archbishops should be prepared to consecrate them, no matter what doubts or divisions may persist among some? Isn’t that what the General Synod legislated for? Isn’t this precise via media ‘tension’ how we shape each others’ theologies and change our perspectives? Isn’t this Anglican ‘madness’ part of the process of iron sharpening iron; of responding to a dynamic and living tradition; and of the essential mission leading to personal and societal transformation?
Doesn’t active collaboration with difference and sacrificial participation in division make us keener servants of Christ, more informed theologians, and better Christians?