Recent events in the Church of England have caused me to do some hunting around to find out exactly how the notion of ‘collegiality’ should be understood.
The document to read, it turned out, is an ‘occasional paper’ produced by the House of Bishops, titled Bishops in Communion: Collegiality in the Service of the Koinonia of the Church (London: Church House Pub., 2000).
As soon as one begins to read this, however, the first thing that becomes clear is that there is no such thing in the Church of England as a ‘doctrine of collegiality’, if by this one means a concise statement of what a thing is. Rather, on page ix of the ‘Introduction’ comes this important admission:
When FOAG [the Faith and Order Advisory Group] began its work on collegiality [in 1994], it was aware that ... there is no fully developed ecumenical or Anglican theology of collegiality. Though successive Lambeth Conferences have reflected on their own collegial role and authority, the subject is a relatively new one in Anglican ecclesiology. (ix)
Thus the task envisaged by the group which produced the booklet is, “in a large measure one of reflecting theologically on experience” (ibid).
In the circumstances, these are remarkable admissions: the theology of collegiality is a late development for Anglicans, it is not a coherent ‘doctrine’, but rather a way of describing current practice.
Given the tendency of bishops and councils to appeal to ‘collegiality’ as the basis for the way they work together, and in particular how they deal with difference, it is disturbing to find that rather than working from fundamental principles, when it came to ‘collegiality’ these individuals and bodies were effectively making it up as they went along.
Having admitted the difficulty, the booklet itself attempt to redress the lack of theological coherence. Unfortunately, the ‘working assumptions’ which have beset Anglican practice, and especially those which at that time were becoming prominent in the Anglican Communion, mean that the outcome, rather than replacing confusion with clarity, is a complete ‘dog’s breakfast’.
The problem that the booklet simply cannot resolve is that the desire to emphasize something special about the ministry of bishops (their ‘collegiality’) is offset by the equal desire to allow them to say and do pretty much what they like as individuals.
On the one hand, therefore, it acknowledges the serious purpose of collegiality:
Episcopal collegiality exists to ensure the Church’s fidelity to the apostolic teaching and mission and to maintain the local church/diocese in fellowship – in communion – with the Church around the world today and the Church throughout the ages. (38)
This is truly an awesome responsibility. But what if a bishop steps out of line? In an important paragraph on p43, the booklet recognizes the problem:
One sharp question is how far it is legitimate, once the college [of bishops] has come to a common mind, for any individual bishop to teach what is contrary to the consensus of the college. (43)
Furthermore, it acknowledges the seriousness of this consensus:
While the Church must make room for the prophetic voice, there is a particular responsibility on bishops to honour the consensus of the college, especially when this has been articulated after careful and prayerful reflection and consultation with the people of God.
But in the end, private judgement is effectively given free reign:
Collegiality can sometimes impose limitations on the ministry of a bishop, yet there may be occasions when, in conscience, an individual bishop feels compelled to resist the common mind.
Now of course there is some validity in this argument. Like any individual, a bishop must say what he believes to be true. But as the booklet is keen to affirm, a bishop is not just ‘any individual’. He (or she) is supposedly part of a ‘college’ of colleagues, which incidentally includes the presbyters in the diocese, and therefore does indeed have certain limitations imposed on their ministry — as do we all.
But whilst the booklet speaks in grand terms about collegiality ensuring “the Church’s fidelity to the apostolic teaching and mission”, it places few, if any, real limits on how that teaching and mission might be interpreted, even in contradictory ways. Thus we read,
It is not a sign of weakness that, in the process of discernment, different – even opposing – view are held. (43)
Yet we may reasonably ask, “If not weakness, what is it a sign of?” Once again, the Dire Straits principle can be evoked: “Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong.” Thus if the college of bishops includes opposing views it is not a sign of strength but rather that one (or both) sides must be wrong.
Now of course, that may be a necessary state of affairs, but the booklet is too quick to embrace – indeed to encourage – the possibility, without acknowledging the divisiveness entailed and the extent to which this must inhibit the Church’s mission.
In familiar terms it continues in the same vein:
The role of the bishops is to keep the discussion open until the consensus is formed.
But in case anyone should think this means deciding who was wrong, it adds,
Consensus does not necessarily man coming to a single opinion. It may mean agreeing that for the foreseeable future different views may continue to be held with integrity until the mind of Christ becomes clear ...
Forgive me for saying so, however, but you don’t need to reach a ‘consensus’ in order to agree to differ.
Such weak and muddled thinking explains a lot about where we are at present. This is not to say that ‘collegiality’ has no potential usefulness. On the contrary, if it did indeed ensure the Church’s fidelity to the apostolic teaching and mission it would be a very good thing.
But the thinking behind the report cannot produce that fidelity because it is unwilling to envisage true confrontation, which is the only thing that can prevent collegiality descending into a fatally cosy club-like mentality, set over against the rest of the ministerial body of the Church.
Whilst considering the problem of bishops who disagree with the consensus, the booklet states,
As those entrusted with oversight, the bishops always have the possibility of calling a halt when a matter appears to be going in a direction contrary to the understanding of the college. (44)
But this ‘possibility’ ought to be acknowledged as a responsibility. Collegiality must include holding one another to real account, particularly if there has been, or may be, a breach of the very koinonia that the booklet includes in its title.
We must never forget that when Peter acted contrary to the gospel, Paul opposed him to his face (Gal 2:11). The lack of any such confrontations amongst the present bishops of the Church of England is surely not a ‘sign’ (to pick up the language of the booklet) either of strength or of clear adherence to the declared doctrinal position of the House of Bishops itself.
Many of us are watching the bishops for another sign – that someone will be willing to say “one of them must be wrong”. Unless or until that happens, the doctrine of collegiality must be regarded not as a bulwark of the truth but a Trojan horse.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: