A Paper on The Society at the Forward in Faith National Assembly 2011
Posted on the 22nd Nov 2011 in the Category - News
Perhaps understandably, I have lost count of the number of times I have either written about The Society or have spoken of it. During a recent conversation it was suggested that I should find a more headline-grabbing name. You can tell that the conversation took place in the North when I tell you that the first suggestion was that we rename it ‘The Co-op’! The subsequent proposal was that we name The Society ‘The Mafia’! That would certainly have produced more interest but there was always the fear that such a title might just be a little too near the truth.
But, let me start in what to some might seem an unlikely place. I want to begin by paying genuine tribute to those who have felt led by God to join the Ordinariate. Some of my oldest friends are among their number. On a personal note, over the past months what Newman famously called “the parting of friends” has literally at times brought me to the point of tears. I begin here because, right from the first suggestion of forming The Society, some immediately responded by saying it was a swift proposal to try and produce an alternative to the Ordinariate. Nothing was further from the founders’ minds. What we recognised was that just as some were driven by conscience to join the Ordinariate so many others were equally driven by conscience, at least for the time being, to remain within the Church of England. Such people surely had the right to explore how best to organise for the future and especially to identify what might be the most likely ecclesial provision that might be not only acceptable to them but also to the Church of England. Our friends who have in conscience joined the Ordinariate must surely now give us space to try and bring this about. Perhaps I should just say at this point just how much I have appreciated the understanding and encouragement for working towards a successful establishment of The Society that I and others have received from some of our Roman Catholic colleagues.
Indeed, I am sure some of you will have heard Bishop Geoffrey Rowell speak of his recent visit to Rome and of his audience with Pope Benedict. Bishop Geoffrey came away confident that Pope Benedict understood why some of us sought to stay within the Church of England to work for the establishment of The Society. The important thing was that we should remain close to each other in our journey towards Christian Unity.
The key question in seeking to establish The Society is how can we produce something which still enshrines a basic understanding of what it means to be a church of priests, deacons and people gathered around its bishops, given that the Church of England, were it to admit women to the episcopate, has steadfastly set itself against permitting separate dioceses for those of us who could not assent to such an act. I doubt I need to set the problem out in full. Most of us here have lived with the dilemma for many years. We want bishops who are truly our fathers in God, who are the font of our sacramental life, and so also have the care of us that flows from such a position. We want priests who are clearly the priests of such a bishop, alternates with him and with one another as, by their ministries, they bind us more and more into the authentic life of the catholic church.
We want to be empowered in mission to make that church flourish as many more are brought into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. We are far from convinced of a view of the episcopate which sees bishops as some kind of quasi-magical characters. The idea that we can answer to any bishop regardless of gender or orthodoxy and then be grateful for someone whom we regard as being genuinely a bishop being parachuted in for us to undertake certain sacramental actions falls far short of a truly catholic understanding of the Episcopate. I might add, in passing, that the present legislation does not even propose that measure of sacramental and pastoral care for us. It is doubtful that any code of practice would make such provision either.
So it is that in this near last ditch situation some of us are trying to persuade the Church of England to let us live within a Society model. What does this mean? It means that the Church of England entrusts the care of traditionalists to that of traditionalist bishops. They might be orthodox diocesans or suffragans. It is hard to see how any meaningful provision could be made without also having at least three provincial bishops based on the present sees of Beverley, Ebbsfleet and Richborough for those diocese and regions that do not make more local provision. Such bishops would necessarily need to be given such jurisdiction (to use the technical term) that enabled them to be the fount of sacrament and pastoral life for their clergy and people. It might just be that this could be brought about even at a late stage by the re-introduction into the General Synod of something like the archbishops’ ill-fated amendment. Such an amendment would be far from perfect but would probably enable much of what we seek to come about.
There would still be, of course, some anomaly in all of this as we try to work out the basis on which priests of The Society are then, with their Society bishops’ permission, licensed and employed in the various dioceses of the Church of England. Perhaps we might be thinking of something rather like, in the Roman Catholic Church, where the monks of Ampleforth, for example, are firstly monks of that community and then parish priests active within a local diocese; or when, for example, an Ordinariate priest is released for work in a local diocese while, of course, remaining a member of the Ordinariate and answerable to his Ordinary.
Clearly, the parallels are not exact. I admit I am doing some kite flying in an area where much more detail would need to be worked out in the future. Who knows? Addressing such practical implications could even make the code of practice relevant and useful to us.
Is this tidy? No. Is this perfectly reflecting of Catholic order as we have known it? Probably not. But is it a bearable anomaly such as Catholic Anglicans have had to live with since the Reformation and, more precisely, that we have had to live with since the first women bishops appeared within the Anglican Communion, or the first women priests were created within the Church of England? Coping with bearable anomaly is an essential ingredient of being an Anglican in a divided church. If we cannot accept the truth of that then I guess we would not wish to remain members of the Church of England whatever the outcome of our current dilemmas.
What we can do now is to formalise the life we have in fact already been living for the past seventeen years or so into a proper ecclesial body. The Society can, here and now, be our way of living out what it means to be the Church. And up and down the country, in places as diverse as Chichester or Blackburn, Wakefield or the West Country, this is beginning to happen. We have our constitution in place and Catholic bishops are overseeing our journey forwards. We have thousands of people signed up to the idea and need thousands more as we send out a signal to the Church of England that this is not only what we want. It is, rather, the very basic bottom line of what we need if we are to be enabled in good conscience both to stay and to flourish within the Church of England.
Be sure there will still be a need for Forward in Faith. The Society is not a rival society. It is our way of being the Church. We can be sure that, at some time, we will still need a strong and uncompromising campaigning body to help maintain ground won and to help achieving with more in the future.
And finally, a note of caution. We have to be realistic. The evidence so far is that every olive branch we have held out has been refused. Every time we have explained what are the bare essentials for us to stay within the Church of England we have been told instead that we do not understand our own position and that others know what is better for us. I do not know what odds I might put on succeeding in our endeavour. I suspect they would be disappointingly low. The history of the past few years gives little ground for hope.
I do know that God has put me and, I trust, you here at this time to persevere in the attempt and to do our best to make it succeed. If there be only a thirty percent chance or even only a ten percent chance of bringing The Society permanently into being, and I would put the odds a little higher than that, we have no choice but to go for it, being equally realistic and determined.
So, please, support, join, encourage The Society and let us see where God takes us with it.