It isn't all the fault of Rowan Williams

When I was a theological student, we used to learn about early doctrines that came to be regarded as heresies. You had to learn all about who had condemned whom and for what at which Council. Most of the controversies were over who Jesus really was or the nature of God in the trinity. Eventually, once the Church was well established, heresies grew up (such as donastism) which were not just about God, but about the nature of the church.

A good dinner party game amongst divinity students is trying to come up with a new heresy. The rest of the company then have to prove that in fact its not a new heresy but really just a re-statement of old ones. (A commensurate level of theological education and inebriation is needed to make this game go with a swing).

Yesterday, an announcement was made to the effect that the [Roman] Pope was putting in place a scheme whereby disaffected Anglicans could go over to the Roman Catholic Church “en masse” taking the bits of liturgy that they can’t live without with them. (What are we talking about here, by the way, Choral Evensong or the Churching of Women?) The concept of Personal Ordinariates has been dreamed up which would mean that such priests who go over would be supervised by other ex-anglicans and have the potential to develop seminary-style training for others to take their place. It would mean a conclave of mostly married clergy existing with some kind of Western Rite within the Roman Catholic Church.

This must necessarily affect the Church of England much more than the Scottish Episcopal Church. I just can’t think of that many people up here who would be interested. However, the presumption is that there are quite a lot in England just waiting to jump. Time will show whether that is really so. Things don’t look particularly good right now down in Englandshire, and Rowan Williams is getting stick for all this. For example, we have the National Secular Society proclaiming, “Rowan Williams has failed dismally in his ambitions to avoid schism. His refusal to take a principled moral stand against bigotry has left his Church in tatters.”

I agree that Archbishop Rowan has failed to take a stand against bigotry. However, as it happens, I don’t think this particular debacle is entirely his fault, though it does leave some of his statements about who can engage in ecumencial endeavour on behalf of Anglicans ringing a little hollow.

The reason that I don’t think that this is all his fault is that the novelty of a “choose your own bishop” mentality was present in the C of E long before Archbishop Rowan moved to Canterbury. Whether it was flying bishops, the complexities of the London Plan or simply the enshrining of low church suffragan bishops in high church dioceses (or vice versa), the C of E has has been growing a new Choose-Your-Own Bishop system for decades. I now find myself wondering whether the the idea of a choose your own episcopacy based on your own proclivities, mores and prejudices will come to be seen as a new heresy. We’ve had none of it in Scotland and I’m glad we haven’t.

The really interesting thing about this is that I suspect that the Pope has opened the door to a lot more than a bunch of disaffected mostly anti-women’s ordination clergy. (And my heart goes out to my Roman Catholic friends who are on the receiving end of all this, it is hardly the kind of Catholicism that I suspect most of them hope for). What the Pope may have done is open the door to that proto-heresy – that you can choose your Ordinary. (An Ordinary in this context usually means your bishop, but not always). It might take years, it might take decades, it might take hundreds of years, but I suspect if that is the way this develops, Catholics will eventually rue the day.


  1. Robin says

    I don’t see the point of this latest initiative. Either you think the SEC (or the CofE, or whatever) doesn’t have valid orders and sacraments, in which case it’s your duty to leave, or you think it does, in which case it’s your duty to stay. End of!

  2. fr dougal says

    Neat point re pick your own bishop. But the Opus Dei set up had already provided that hadn’t it?

  3. Zebadee says

    It will be interesting to see what will be the attitude of the Orthodox Church to this announcement

  4. Robin says

    > Fr David Houlding, the leader of the Catholic Group on the [Church of England]’s synod, said “several hundred” clergy would leave immediately, and something like 1,500 altogether. (BBC)

    If Fr Houlding and several hundred other priests go over to Rome they will have to assert that they are not, and never were, priests – that they are simply laymen.

    If they believe that they are laymen, why do they still carry on behaving as if they were priests – celebrating Mass, etc? To do so is surely approaching blasphemy, just as it would be if I, a layman, were to “celebrate Mass” by dressing up and doing all the stuff.

    But if they still believe they are priests, how can they deny this and assert, untruthfully, that they believe themselves to be laymen?

    I simply don’t understand them. What am I missing?

  5. Elizabeth says

    I always knew theology was really about gossip. Okay, maybe not ‘always’, but I figured it out pretty quick.

  6. Oh yes, Elizabeth.

    Theology. Gossip. Dinner Parties. Last Supper.

  7. Roddy says

    Of course the elephant in the room no one has mentioned is misogyny. I can’t see many women wanting to move over. I also can’t see the Vatican allowing full freedom of belief in its new “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Catholic” or “Catholic Lite” wing.

    The best way of describing those who would go with this are those who want to have their cake and eat it.

  8. Yes Roddy.

    One good question is whether married priests crossing over will have their birth control pills confiscated before they get to the other side.

  9. Rosemary Hannah says

    The Vatican have been expecting mass defections since 1896 – when they tried to brow beat the 3rd Marquess of Bute into funding the defections they expected following the declaration that Anglican orders were not valid. It has not yet happened.

  10. So, does this mean “Just one step from Rome” in the song “I am an Anglican” doesn’t apply anymore? /snark/

  11. Rosemary Hannah says

    Bute refused to cough up – ‘Rich men are not simply boxes into which the church may put its hand whenever it wants’ he replied. Merry del Val had fifty thousand fits. But even a fund to cushion the Anglican clergy ‘going over’ failed to produce the flood …..

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