Continuing Anglicanism: Conscience and Communion

by Philip Jones

‘the exercise of conscience is an act strictly and indefeasibly individual.  A number of individuals may take the same stand of conscience; but individuals they remain nevertheless.  No commonality, no collective identity, is created, nor can those who follow their own consciences create a new legitimacy, a new source of authority or conformity’.

(Enoch Powell on the non-jurors, The Times 14 November 1988)

A small piece of ecclesiastical history is being made today with the consecration of the first woman bishop in the Church in Wales.  This year will also see the 40th anniversary of the Affirmation of St. Louis, Missouri in 1977, made by ‘traditionalist’ Anglicans who could not accept the ordination of women.

The Affirmation of St. Louis announced that the constitutional structures of the Anglican Church of Canada and the American Episcopal Church had dissolved as a result of ‘unlawful attempts to alter faith, order and morality’.  Thus the Affirmation did not purport to dissolve any structure.  It merely declared that the structures had dissolved already.

The constitutional structure of the North American Church had dissolved, but not the Church itself.  On the contrary, the Church continued to exist.  It was therefore in need of a new constitutional structure.

The Affirmation therefore made a distinction between (1) the Church and (2) its constitutional structure.  ‘The Church’ comprises bishops, clergy and laity.  Thus the Church consists of real people, its structure is an artificial institution (or institutions).

If the constitutional structure is dissolved, where is the authority to create a new structure?  The authority came from the Affirmees themselves, who ‘affirm, covenant and declare that we, lawful and faithful members of the [North American] Churches, shall now and hereafter continue and be the unified continuing Anglican Church in North America, in true and valid succession thereto’.

Authority and communion were therefore united in the Affirmation.  The Affirmation itself was to be the source of constitutional authority in the continuing American Church.  Full communion was found only in the Church declared by the Affirmation.

The reference to a covenant makes the point that the basis of future governance is the Affirming Church members’ covenant with each other.  And the Continuing Church proceeded to make constitutional rules and to govern itself on the basis of this 1977 covenant.

A covenant is capable of creating a consensual authority as between the parties thereto, but it cannot bind third parties.  Moreover the whole point of a consensual covenant is that it rests upon the consent of the individual parties, which may be withdrawn at any time.  The ‘unified’ Church proclaimed in 1977 did not last long.  Today there are apparently several continuing Anglican Churches (including at least 2 in this country), each of which claims that it, and it alone, is in ‘true and valid succession’ to the Church recognised by the Affirmation.  Authority and communion have become hopelessly fragmented.

The Affirmation of St. Louis offers what might be called (to adopt the language of Brexit) a ‘hard’ continuing Anglicanism.  A softer continuing Anglicanism is to be found in the Church of England, and in the Church in Wales.  It was described in an interesting paper, ‘Ecclesiological Issues’, delivered by the Bishop of Ebbsfleet to a conference held in anticipation of today’s historic event (21-22 September 2016, text accessed on the Credo Cymru website 19 January 2017).

The Bishop belongs to the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda.  This Society is described as ‘an ecclesial structure which continues the orders of bishop and priest as the Church has received them’ (para 12).

The Society requires the appointment by the Church of

(1) a male bishop

(2) who only ordains male priests and

(3) is a member of the Society’s ‘College of Bishops’.

Such a bishop is required because he supplies the magic ingredient of full communion.  By providing pastoral oversight to traditionalist clergy and parishes he is their ‘focus and means of … communion’.  The full communion of the Society’s College of Bishops brings its clergy and parishes into a relationship of full communion with each other.

That is not all.  The bishop also effects a degree, or ‘dimension’, of communion (albeit something less than full communion) between his followers and their own diocesan bishops, also their ‘neighbouring parishes in the life and structures of deanery and diocese’.  In other words, a bishop of the Society forms a link or bridge between traditionalists and the rest of the Church, ‘their brothers and sisters … under the oversight of bishops who ordain both men and women’ (para 13).

Apart from the reference to ‘continuing’ the ordained ministry, this is a far cry from the Affirmation of St. Louis.  There is no triumphalist assertion of authority and communion.  The Society does not consider the existing ecclesiastical structures to have dissolved.  On the contrary, it wishes to be accommodated within them.  Nor does it make any exclusive claim of communion.  It seeks to integrate the full communion that exists between its members inter se into the communion of the Church.  So far from ‘unchurching’ other Church members who do not share its traditionalism, it humbly asks to be admitted to the same degree of communion within the Church as they.

The Bishop conceded that his Society and its College of Bishops have no authority in English law (nor in the constitution of the Church in Wales).  There is no legal mention even of their existence.  Their sole basis is the mutual recognition and consent of their members.  They are not a Church within a Church, merely an informal ‘ecclesial network of clergy and parishes, with ‘a certain ecclesial pattern’.

Above all, the Society makes a strict submission to ecclesiastical authority: ‘nothing can alienate the parish and its clergy from the juridical oversight of the diocesan bishop’ (para 9).  A bishop of the Society can offer only pastoral oversight.

Thus the ‘full communion’ proposed by the Society has no legal basis or expression to support it.   It depends entirely on the goodwill of those outside the Society who possess the necessary legal authority to appoint its bishops to positions of pastoral oversight.  If they refuse to appoint such bishops (and the Church in Wales authorities have refused so far, notwithstanding the Bishop’s eloquence at the conference), that is too bad.  There can be no full communion.

This bleak narrative of continuing Anglicanism, in both its hard and soft versions, supports the moral drawn from the experience of the non-jurors of 1688-89, quoted above.  Forty depressing years end where they began, with an individual conscientious objection.  They demonstrate that an act of conscience cannot create an authority or a communion.