Friday, 23 January 2009

Just where is the Church?

Today I was briefly looking online at a paper by a certain Colin Podmore, titled The Governance of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, to be presented at the next General Synod in February. In it we find what I consider to be the ‘institutional revisionist’ understanding now dominant in the Church of England, and it is thus worth reading the following three paragraphs in full:

2.2 ... the diocese is the fundamental unit of the Church. In England, dioceses came first historically. There were, of course, always local places of worship, but territorial parishes were formed only in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries (between 300 and 600 years after St Augustine’s arrival in Canterbury in 597). The diocese is not an aggregation of parishes; rather, it is (in the technical sense) a ‘local church’, of which the diocesan bishop is the ‘principal minister’. It is not primarily a unit of administration but a portion of the people of God gathered around the diocesan see and its bishop. Dioceses are sub-divided into parishes. These are, of course, the most local expressions of the Church and the place in which people experience its life. In that sense they are its basic units, but the Church of England is an episcopal not a congregational church.

2.3 The Canons of the Church of England state that the diocesan bishop is ‘the chief pastor of all that are within his diocese, as well laity as clergy, and their father in God’. Bishops have a particular responsibility for apostolic teaching and doctrinal orthodoxy and are to be themselves ‘an example of righteous and godly living’. They also have responsibility for worship, with the right ‘of conducting, ordering, controlling and authorising all services’. They are ministers of unity, charged ‘to set forward and maintain quietness, love and peace among all men’ and ‘to promote peace and reconciliation in the Church and in the world and… [to] strive for the visible unity of Christ’s Church’.

2.4 Both the 1662 Ordinal and the Common Worship Ordination Services understand bishops to be the successors of the Apostles as pastors of Christ’s flock. As such, each bishop is not only a guardian of the apostolic faith but also a leader in mission (an apostle being one who is sent out), charged with ‘proclaiming the gospel of God’s kingdom and leading his people in mission.’ The diocesan bishop ‘has within his diocese jurisdiction as Ordinary, except in places and over persons exempt by law or custom’ and ‘by virtue of his office and consecration, is required to administer discipline’. Most importantly in this context, the 1662 Ordinal understands the office of bishop to be one of ‘Government in the Church of Christ’, and in the Common Worship rite those ordained bishop are told: ‘You are to govern Christ’s people in truth.’

It is the triumphant apogee of the viewpoint, exemplified by Paul Avis in his The Anglican Understanding of the Church, that,

The ‘local church’ in Anglican ecclesiology denotes ... the community of word and sacrament gathered, governed and led by the bishop. (p 77)

Thus Avis observes that when Article XIX, Of the Church, describes the the “visible Church of Christ” as “a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly ministered”,

The Article is not primarily referring to what we understand by a worshipping congregation in a parish ... but to a ‘particular’ church, which for the English Reformers meant a national church made up of dioceses.

Hence he asserts, as does Podmore above,

For Anglican ecclesiology, the ‘congregation’ in the strict sense is the diocese. (ibid)

Regarding the Articles, however, it is an assertion that is surely hoist on Avis’s own petard of denying that the Article refers to the local congregation, for although the Articles do indeed recgonize boundaries in the universal Church, within which decisions may be made about, for example, traditions and ceremonies, these apply to the national church (Article XXIV), not to the diocese. Even though the bishop holds a recognized office, the diocese is arguably not a recognizable ecclesial unit within the Prayer Book, Ordinal and Articles for anything other than the exercise of episcopal discipline and governance.

The real problem for Avis’s argument (and for Podmore’s position) is that Article XIX refers to the visible Church, and hence to the preaching of the Word of God and the ministering of the Sacraments. Yet it is quite clear that the place where word and sacrament are made ‘visible’ is not ‘the diocese’.

Thus no diocesan bishop assembles his diocese to preach to them and administer the sacraments, and no one, asking to be shown the ‘visible church’ in accordance with Article XIX, would be content with a guided tour round the diocese which excluded actual congregations. Why, the bishop is not even master of his own cathedral! (That privilege belongs firmly to the Dean, especially within the Church of England.) Yes, he is the ‘chief pastor’, but his is not the church visible. That exists where not only common sense, but Scripture, says it exists — where the people actually gather, and physically hear the word, receive the sacraments and encourage one another to love and good works (Heb 10:25).

Of course the church does not only exist at the ‘congregational’ level. But that is where the identifying features of ‘church’ are manifested. A diocese, by contrast, is neither a “particular or National church”, nor a place where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments ministered. Those functions, as Articles XXIII demonstrates, are performed by those who are duly authorised “by men who have public authority given unto them in the congregation to call and send ministers into the Lord’s vineyard”. In the Church of England, such authorising and sending is done by the bishops. But the ministry of word and sacrament is done by those so authorised and sent, rather than the bishops, and the congregation is where they are ministering, rather than where the bishop is.

This is why it is sad that Podmore’s paper seems to overlook entirely the crucial role of the presbyter in preserving the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Church. For in the 1662 Ordinal it is not just the bishop but the priest who is charged to “banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word”.

Indeed, a comparison of the respective commitments required from bishops and priests in the Ordinal is salutory, insofar as it clearly presumes that ‘hands on’ ministry belongs to the latter, rather than the former. Thus, after asking the bishop-to-be whether he is persuaded that Scripture contains “all Doctrine required as necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ”, the Archbishop continues,

Will you then faithfully exercise yourself in the Holy Scriptures, and call upon God by prayer for the true understanding of the same; so that you may be able by them to teach and exhort with wholesome Doctrine, and to withstand and convince the gainsayers?

To which the candidate answers,

I will so do, by the help of God.

But to the priest, after the same question, he says,

Will you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the Doctrine and Sacraments, and the Discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded, and as this Church hath received the same, according to the Commandments of God; so that you may teach the people committed to your Cure and Charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same? (emphasis added)

The bishop is indeed asked,

Are you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same?

The bishop is clearly meant to encourage his clergy in this task, but it is the priest who works at the coalface:

Will you be ready [as above] and to use both public and private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, within your Cures, as need shall require, and occasion shall be given?

Finally, we must not forget how the architect of Reformed Anglicanism regarded the officers of the Church. For Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, priests were not officers of the bishop but of the Crown:

The ministers of God’s word under his majesty be the bishops, parsons, vicars, and such other priests as be appointed by his highness to that ministration: as for example, the bishop of Canterbury, the bishop of Duresme, the bishop of Winchester, the parson of Winwick, &c. All the said officers and ministers, as well of the one sort as of the other, be appointed, assigned, and elected in every place, by the laws and orders of kings and princes. (‘Questions and Answers Concerning the Sacraments and the Appointment and Power of Bishops and Priests’ in Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer, Ed J E B Cox [Cambridge: The Parker Society, 1846, reproduced by Regent College Publishing], 116, emphasis added)

We may, of course, dispute what the Archbishop said, but we cannot simply ignore it and, as it were stuff our fingers in our ears and sing loudly that the Church of England is different today. Cranmer had his reasons, and if we claim to be adherents of that ‘particular or national Church’ which he, more than any other individual, moulded into its present shape, we must understand what he was saying then, and what it means for us today.

The bishop is not the minister of the local church, because the local church is not the diocese. The bishop is indeed the chief pastor within Anglicanism. But he is also the delegator-in-chief, and it is where we find the word preached, the sacraments ministered, the people gathered and the Spirit present that we find the Church visibly and physically manifested.

Revd John P Richardson
23 January 2009

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  1. Well said. The mindset you describe about the Church of England is also at work in the Episcopal Church. However in the Episcopal Church the foundational documents and first bishops argue that it is the parish not the diocese that is the primary ecclesial unit of the church. Now, of course, this history is forgotten, or ignored.

    George Conger
    Vero Beach, FL

  2. Indeed, well said. As well as Cranmer Podmore curiously omits the continuing practice of appointment of bishops by the Prime Minister. This was previously presented as the virtue of involving the laity in the leadership of the Church.

    Even if a bishop's authority is his own, and not granted by any Synod, this would seem to imply that, in the CofE at least, the authority of a bishop requires the prior assent of the laity (albeit a very select group of them).

    Paul Bagshaw
    Newcastle upon Tyne

  3. This is revisionist only in a local sense. This sort of teaching can be traced back to Crypian of Carthage. This is pretty much current RC teaching minus Rome see for example
    It is significant that this history stars with Augustine of Canterbury and thus neglects the Celtic church. The bit about parish boundaries is nonsense as a medieval peasant who had more than one place of worship within walking distance would be very lucky.

    I would suggest that by the end of the first century the norm was one bishop in each city and the great bishops of the early church were the primary teachers in their areas.

    If bishops were doing a tenth of what the article suggests they should be doing I doubt that their role would be questioned.

  4. David is right. There were Christian churches in Britain long before Augustine. The huge Western Roman Empire dioceses bore little relation to the urbanized churches of the East, where a bishop could reasonably 'assemble his diocese' - as the letters of Ignatius suggest.

  5. The idea of Diocese obviously isn't Biblical, but practical and kind of evolved. As people have pointed out their were Churches prior to Augustine of C. The Celtic Church, I'm told, had Church planting Bishops, which meant that their Diocese had fuzzy edges. Near the centre of the Diocese everyone would be under the same Bishop, but at the edges there would be overlap with the neighbouring Bishop.

    So, you could be in 1 Church, under the oversight of x, whilst the next Church may be under y - because of who started it. Rather than being defined by a line on a map.

    There is a bit of a hangover from this as there are a few peculiars around the country. I.e. a Parish under the oversight of 1 Bishop in the middle of a different geographical Diocese. It's also true of some of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge.

    In summary - what is that bloke talking about?

    Darren Moore

  6. What a surprise: Anglican episcopacy degenerates into prelacy.

    And John, you are quite right to point out from the Articles that if you want to see the church visible, go to a local congregation. You won't see the visible church by visiting a bishop!

    Presbyterianly yours,

    John Foxe (Hertford)

  7. It all depends where you start your history.

    'The diocese is the fundamental unit of the church' - I don't know how anyone who has read the Bible can possibly make that statement with a straight face. Both parishes and dioceses were organisational structures designed to resource local ministry. Neither of them are essential to the nature of the church.

    Good post.

    David Keen, Yeovil