- by Revd Trevor Wyatt, Vicar of Christ Church, Bexleyheath and Co-Chair of MOSAIC
As has been widely reported in the media, Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, was recently received into the full communion of the Catholic Church by Monsignor Keith Newton on the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, and with the permission of the Holy See will be ordained to the Catholic priesthood for the Ordinariate at some point in the future. It was my privilege to be Ordained Deacon and then Priest by Bishop Michael in Rochester Cathedral at Michaelmas in 2000/2001. It is a sadness to me that the Bishop who Ordained me has left the Church of England. Bishop Michael has held many senior positions, has a fine theological mind and his leaving will be considered by many to be a deficit to the Church of England.
It seems that a key reason for Bishop Michael leaving, as reported in an interview with the Telegraph is “a lack of teaching authority in Anglicanism, a lack of a sense of belonging to a worldwide church where everyone has to do things in step, rather than everyone doing whatever they want to do”. In its governance structures the Church of England and the worldwide fellowship of Anglican churches (the Anglican Communion) has never had a centralised authority like the Papacy in the Roman Catholic Church that can amongst other things, provide a “clear teaching authority” that all are compelled to follow. The founding fathers of the Church of England relied on a doctrine of provincial autonomy – the church was beholden to nobody but the King, and least of all to a Bishop in a foreign land. The Anglican tradition has tended to eschew centralisation and see benefits where authority is mediated though a number of separate entities thus avoiding the dangers of tyranny and unchecked power. Anglicanism has historically been committed to an approach to authority where its sources are dispersed through a number of different channels with the objective that they are mutually restricting and illuminating. The timeless words of Lord Acton warn us that ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
Because the Anglican tradition has not had a “centralised authority” it has become the kind of church where people can more freely express their opinion about things. The intellectual freedom to question the establishment, speak truth to power, challenge accepted norms and the status quo without being excommunicated is something that many Anglicans treasure. Admittedly this doesn’t look too good in our media age of “sound bites” however the richness of working with different perspectives is arguably something to be celebrated rather than disparaged. The history of the Church of England especially over the last two hundred years has been one of living with increasing diversity over a wide range of theological issues.
During the nineteenth century the various ‘parties’ within the Church of England – the catholics, evangelicals and the so-called liberals became more visible. The Catholic tradition was re-energised and led by the so called ‘Oxford movement’ including John Henry Newman, who of course went to Rome like Bishop Michael. In the Church of England one could now be ‘Catholic’ or ‘Evangelical’. However, differences don’t stop here. Anglicans have always had different opinions about most ethical issues that one might care to mention. When it comes to whether we can “go to war” and kill the enemy, there are ‘pacifists’ who believe that war is always wrong, and then there are those who support the ‘just war’ theory – that in certain proscribed circumstances it is ok. Over the question of contraception, although it was overwhelmingly supported by the Lambeth Conference in 1930 a large minority of Bishops present disagreed with the majority. When the Abortion Act was passed in October 1967 it is on record that Bishops of the Church of England voted both ‘for’ and ‘against’. Although General Synod agreed to the Ordination of women as Priests back in 1992, and women as Bishops in 2014, many issues remain and we need to find better ways of living together with our differences over this so that both sides on this issue can flourish. On marriage after divorce, the church allows clergy the right of conscience not to remarry divorced people. The most recent example of difference has been the spectacle of two recent Archbishops, Carey and Williams, taking opposing views on assisted dying. When we come to the issue of the day – human sexuality – there are passionately held view on all sides and the church finds itself divided pretty much down the middle, if the most recent General Synod elections are anything to go by.
If anything summarises Anglicanism in its classical form and in its history, it is living with diversity and difference – whether Catholic or Protestant, or over the many complex ethical issues about which we take different views. In the future it is unlikely that there will be a ‘knock down argument’ or an ‘overwhelming consensus’ on many of these issues.
It is perhaps ironic that just at the moment when Bishop Michael has moved to Rome, Pope Francis has formally launched a two-year global consultation process in the Roman Catholic Church, saying “. It seems highly likely that many of the questions about which Anglicans disagree will at the very least be debated in this consultation process e.g. women priests and human sexuality.
In response to this diversity that is the sheer reality of things in the Anglican tradition, my deepest prayer and urgings are to encourage everyone on all sides to hold on to our shared identity in Christ above everything else, and to find ways of walking towards each other rather than walking away. That we enter into the areas of tension and find ways of inhabiting uncomfortable places, disagreeing with each other in the kindest way possible and holding on to each other with bonds of love and affection. I recognise immediately that staying and remaining requires sacrifice and has been at a huge personal cost to many, and that I speak as a white straight male whose lived experience is not directly affected as it is for so many others. Not everyone will feel that they can keep with us, but I profoundly hope that most will. Over the years the Anglican tradition has been wonderfully creative and resourceful in finding ways to hold different kinds of acknowledged, public disagreement within a framework of common life as one church, and one communion of churches.
I for one hope we can find similarly creative ways through the current issues that threaten our common life.