I am clear that it is inevitable for the Church of England as it now is. I believe that Pope Benedict saw this clearly, and reached out to the Anglican Communion, offering it the gift of Christian Unity, for which the Pope has a special responsibility. In offering it unity the Pope was also offering it the gift of authority, the authority of Peter which is the authority of Christ himself, entrusted to his Apostle – and his Apostles. The source of this authority had troubled Anglicans since the 16th century Reformation. The lack of this authority has made the Anglican Communion increasingly dysfunctional at its heart.
This failure to function, which has afflicted Anglican Christianity increasingly since the 1960’s, is the result of two historical events. The first is the separation of the English Church in the forced schism of the 16th century from communion with the Bishop of Rome; and the second is the disastrous influence of the ‘establishment’ of the Church of England. It is clear from the pages of the New Testament that the Son of God left to his followers the Gospel – the saving knowledge of his life, death and resurrection. In order to ensure that this knowledge of salvation, which is truth, be handed on faithfully, the Lord Jesus sent from his Father the Holy Spirit. The record of the life of Jesus Christ, and the response of the men and women who were the Church of the first century, is contained in the Scriptures, in the New Testament. But it is not knowledge of these Scriptures in themselves, that brings salvation. Rather it is to know Jesus Christ and through him to come to the Father, in the company of the faithful who are the Church – this is salvation: this is new life here and now and the promise of life forever in the world to come.
By the end of the first century, those who had known the Lord in the flesh had all died. The bishops were the clear successors to the Apostles. To them was entrusted the responsibility of preserving the unity of the Church in its belief. The Bishop of the City of Rome, where both Peter and Paul had died, came very quickly to have a key role in the decisions which now had to be made, if the faith were to develop along right and true lines. Meeting together in various parts of the known world, the bishops would pray and talk, coming to a consensus about some belief or practice which was troubling their local Church. This decision would then be referred to the wider Church (there was no question of unilateral action) and particularly to the agreement (or otherwise!) of the Bishop of Rome. Presiding in charity, his was a gift of the Holy Spirit, to maintain communion in true belief among the churches spread throughout the world.
It was this charism for the preserving of unity within the worldwide Church which was lost in the 16th century Reformation. It may well be true that the mediaeval Papacy had often failed in its responsibility to the Church, to the obscuring of the Gospel. But the ‘cure’ was far worse than the ‘ailment’ and the subsequent fracturing of the Church has done incalculable damage. In England the severing of the national Church from its communion with Rome was brought about for political ends, and the ‘authority’ of the Church in matters of faith and practice was vested in the monarch and in parliament. This establishment by which the Church of England became the Church of the people of England held in uneasy alliance people who held diametrically opposed understandings of Christian truth. On the continent the Counter Reformation Council of Trent, under the authority of the Pope, Bishop of Rome, met to consider the challenges to traditional faith which were coming from men like Luther and Calvin. Trent reformed, and it clarified, and it reinforced, but above all it declared authoritatively what was to be held as Christian belief. In the Church of England, now under secular control, no such declaration was possible.
The Oxford Movement in the 19th told the Church of England that it was part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. This came as quite a surprise to many who thought it was the Religion Department of the British Parliament. Inevitably, a Movement which had challenged the right of Parliament to abolish and amalgamate dioceses, challenged the very establishment of the Church of England – or, in other words, its control by the secular power. And after it had submitted its new Prayer Book to Parliament in 1927, only to have it thrown out, it was hardly surprising that calls for disestablishment and the freedom of the C of E to order its own affairs grew in strength. But if Parliament were not to be the final arbiter of doctrine and practice in the C of E, who would be?
The answer from 1970 would seem to be the General Synod. Here was a body consisting of Bishops, Clergy and Laity, praying and deliberating so that the mission of the C of E might be forwarded. But two huge obstacles stood in the way. The first was that the ultimate authority still remained with the secular Parliament. From the 70’s onward successive Parliaments brought in legislation which flew in the face of Christian teaching, and Parliament began to demand that the Synod follow this agenda. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the discussions over whether women might be bishops. The second obstacle was the failure to define the roles of bishops, priests and laity, and in particular their part in the formation and declaration of doctrine – what we believe and why. But of course, such definition could never be, because the C of E was still trying to live with three understandings of the Church, of revelation, of the Bible, of the ministry, of the sacraments – of almost everything! For over a century, cautiously, gradually, it had been borne in on the C of E that what it needed (for its salvation!) was true, living authority. It needed Peter! Which is why the Ordinariate was not offered to a tiny group of clergy ‘disaffected’ (how I hate that word) by women priests – but to the whole Communion, in order that it might become just that: a part of the Communion of the whole Church.
The Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus recognises the place of the Synodical ideal within Anglicanism, and makes provision for it. Maybe we former Anglicans have some insight into the role, vocation and vision of the laity in the life of the Church, for as Pope Pius XII remarked, ‘They are the Church’. And maybe it is only within the Catholic Church, in right communion with the Bishops and with Peter, that the Synodical sharing with priests and laity for the good of the whole body, can be properly – and effectively – realised.