Authority in the Church of England
Authority in the Church of England
Authority can be interpreted in two different ways, administrative and doctrinal. When authority is referred to in Church of England sources the emphasis is usually doctrinal. Episcopal administrative authority is generally taken for granted as essential bureaucracy necessary for diocesan administration. This is circumscribed by the fact bishops have little responsibility individually for most aspects of the Church's finance (although they do corporately by composing nearly half of the Church Commissioners), theological colleges, overseas missionary work, and because of lay and institutional patronage their role in appointing the clergy of the dioceses is only partial. In some areas doctrinal authority and administrative authority interlink. In cases of Church discipline in ritual matters the clergy's response to the bishop's administrative authority was tempered by their attitude towards his doctrinal position, and by whether they believed he had the doctrinal authority to exert administrative authority.
When members of the Church of England refer to authority in the Church they tend to write of the authority of the Bible, the Creeds and the Early Councils, sometimes summarizing these under the heading of Tradition. To this list is often added reason, conscience, the Holy Spirit and the consensus fidelium. The historic episcopate also is included as the symbol of the continuity of the Church's teaching from the Apostolic era. This list was set out clearly by the 1948 Lambeth Conference which defined authority in Anglicanism as being,
'distributed among Scripture, Tradition, Creeds, the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments, the witness of saints, and the consensus fidelium, which is the continuing experience of the Holy Spirit through his faithful people in the Church. It is thus a dispersed rather than a centralised authority having many elements which combine, interact with, and check one another1'
A similar list was given in the report of the Evangelical clergy to the Archbishop of Canterbury entitled The Fulness of Christ (1950) 2. This also included the place of reason in theunderstanding and interpreting of Biblical revelation, an avoidance of definition of the minutiae of doctrine, and an emphasis on the need to ensure the comprehensive nature of the Church.
Various elements within the Church put more emphasis on one aspect of authority than another, for Evangelicals Scripture remained the supreme authority, Tradition and any other sources of authority were only accepted if they were in harmony with Scripture3.
For the Liberal and Broad Church element the consensus fidelium and conscience were a far greater authority than bishops, Creeds and Tradition. Numbered among these was William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, who held that,
'The true authority of the Church is to be found in the immense, the overwhelming, weight, which in the judgement of any reflecting mind attaches to the unanimity of many thousands in successive generations who, having made trial of the Christian way of life, declare that they have found the blessings promised to it to be real and beyond price. It is unformulated authority; and its testimony does not constitute cogent proof; it is always possible that in one point or another new light may lead to a modification of what has been traditionally received.4'...'and thus our conscience, coming down to us, as it does, out of the Divinely2Dguided history of the past, is the supreme authority.5'
Not all who included Tradition in their authority list defined it in the same manner. Tradition can be referred to in three ways. Firstly it is the apostolic record set out in the Scriptures. Secondly it is the Church's understanding of the Apostolic Tradition and its attempt to preserve it by means of the Creeds and other early doctrinal formulae, which for some would include the Early Councils of the Church. Thirdly it covers the Apostolic Deposit, the tradition behind the establishment of what are held to be apostolic truths but which are either omitted or only dimly implied in Scripture and which are formulated in conciliar or papal definitions. When Tradition is referred to in the Church of England as part of the Church's authority it is always taken in the first two meanings only. It becomes almost synonymous with Scripture, the Creeds and the Early Councils6. Only a small number of Anglo Catholics would be prepared to say that the third aspect of Tradition was essential.
The period 1928 to 1981 saw many challenges to the previously held interpretation of Scripture and of the Creeds both inside and outside the Church of England, and with these came attacks on traditional theological dogmas. As these previously accepted bastions were threatened scholars were making statements about authority in the Church which they believed to be relevant to the new era. Hence Wilfred Knox and Alec Vidler could write from the Anglo Catholic end ofthe Church in 1937 that the Church of England did not appeal to a 'fixed and static body of dogma', but to 'a free and living tradition',
'The Anglican tradition does not demand blind acceptance of an ancient settlement, nor does it seek to coerce or override freedom of thought; but it addresses itself to the distinctive judgement of each generation and to the personal insight of each ?individual. That is the tribunal to which it deliberately appeals7..... Our purpose is to claim that the Church of England has in effect returned to the form of authority which marked the Apostolic age and the primitive Church, a form of authority which closely approximates to that by means of which the Lord revealed Himself to His disciples8.'
Indeed the authenticity of the statements of the Creeds were questioned by bishops and archbishops, such as William Temple9. He choseto claim the authority that lay behind the Creeds rather than the actual statements of the Creeds themselves.
The veneration paid to the earliest Ecumenical Councils of the Church was not without qualification even among some Anglo Catholics10. Scholars, such as Henry Chadwick, later stated that these councils may need, 'supplementation or even correction by later councils with wiser second thoughts', and, 'their decisions do not make it superfluous to study Scripture and to use one's reason11.'
The effect of modern scholarship on the Church of England was well summarized by Stephen Sykes,
'it is patent that within the last 150 years there has taken place the most profound process of deconfessionalisation to fall upon any European denomination12.'
As examples of this he gave current attitudes to the Prayer Book and the Thirty Nine Articles.
Despite the inroads of scholarship in the area of the Bible, Creeds and basic dogmas, authority in the Church of England was still seen as a derived authority stemming from Christ and the apostolic witness albeit now subject to new interpretations. 'Derived' no longer meant uniformity, and authority in the Church's Magisterium had to embrace considerable diversity of belief.
For many, private judgement remained the ultimate criterion of authority. Not in the sense that the Traditions of the Church were automatically rejected but Scripture, Tradition and previous judgements of the Church were all going through a process of re-examination. The Church itself was no longer producing a list of generally accepted positions, even her bishops were sometimes at variance with each other. In doctrine, and especially on moral issues, the laity and clergy frequently had to study the ?arguments and draw their own conclusions.
The historic episcopate was mentioned in the list of authorities, primarily because it had long been believed that the succession of bishops had been preserved in the Church of England stretching back to apostolic times emphasing the continuity of authority in doctrine and in the form of Church government. It was accepted on this basis by Evangelicals and the Broad Church but without the enthusiasm for other beliefs attached to Apostolic Succession held in varying degrees by the Anglo Catholics. Even the continuity element was to be questioned by some scholars who would date the origins of episcopacy to the second century rather than the first. They asked whether the Church had the right to claim it was the only form of ministry to have apostolic authority. G.W.H.Lampe claimed that the Church of England's position on the matter was based on a Roman type interpretation of Tradition rather than standard Anglican practice,
'Today the official Anglican position appears to be both that one particular form of Ministry is divinely ordained and that there is no clear scriptural evidence for this; so that an absolute requirement is based on the same sort of unwritten tradition as that on which the papal claims rest13.'
The historic episcopate had previously been regarded as a derived authority stretching back to the Apostles if not to Christ Himself. In practice the Church of England has disregarded Lampe's criticism and has insisted on preserving the episcopate in any Church unity discussions in which it has entered. As no theology of episcopacy can be agreed upon by the whole Church, it has still maintained the importance of historical continuity as the reason for insisting on the preservation of the episcopate, rather than emphasizing bishops as major sources of authority.
When the Church of England has talked of authority it rarely mentioned its Convocations, Church Assembly or General Synod, or even the Prayer Book and Thirty Nine Articles. The Church structures have been regarded as there to preserve the other sources of authority, Scripture,the teaching behind the Creeds, and the rest of Tradition, rather than in themselves sources of authority. This is curious as these bodies function to some degree as the Church's Parliament, with a proportion of elected representation. As A.G.Hebert, even writing from the Anglo Catholic viewpoint, expressed it,
'The Church of England never confounds the respect due to Church authority with that due to the intrinsic authority of the truth14.'
Bishops, writing on the authority of the Church of England, have often had little to say about the role of bishops. A good example of this is a book published by J.W.C.Wand entitled What the Church of England stands for: a Guide to its Authority in the Twentieth Century (1951). Wand was the Bishop of London at the time he wrote the book yet in its 131 pages bishops are only briefly mentioned in passing. This clearly suggests that he did not regard bishops as authority figures and therefore did not stress this element to the laity for whom the book was primarily written.
In lists of what constitutes authority in the Church of England the most important omission is that of the State. Henry VIII established himself as 'supreme head' of the Church, a title his daughter Elizabeth changed to 'supreme governor'. In this form it has been retained until today, although the governorship in practice has passed from the Monarch to Parliament and has been exercised by the Prime Minister. It is the Prime Minister who chooses new bishops, albeit since 1976 in consultation with the Church. It is Parliament which passes Church legislation, no measure of the Church Assembly or General Synod has any force until it has been passed by Parliament, and even the Church's Canons must receive Royal Assent before they come into force. Royal assent and Parliamentary agreement are not a mere matter of form and have been refused on several occasions within this period. Authority in the Church is not therefore independent of outside forces, especially the State. The Church of England has had little practical authority which it can exercise in its own right, although it gained a little more with the 1974 Worship and Doctrine Measure.
There has been always a strongly constitutional element to authority in the Church of England, the powers of Convocation, Church Assembly and General Synod were all carefully delineated, likewise the role of the State. Even the authority of bishops and its limits was also fairly well prescribed by statute, by the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles which are appended to statute. Each part of the authority structure knew the extent of its power and kept within it. There has been no chance for the structure to become monarchical as the Archbishop of Canterbury, while holding the title of 'Primate of all England' has an authority above other bishops based largely on influence and not power.In 1946 Kenneth Kirk, when Bishop of Oxford, stated that,
'the "rubber stamp" theory of the bishop's office has already insinuated itself a considerable distance into Anglicanism, and some of its manifestations are of ancient date.15'
He then proceeded to list the numerous restrictions the State imposed upon the episcopal office. Because of this the structure cannot really be called hierarchical, except where Parliament has delegated some of its powers, especially since the Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974, to the General Synod. It must be described as disseminated ?authority since in different matters authority comes from different sources, and that authority has varying natures, from power to moral influence. As Bishop Hugh Montefiore expressed it,
Anglicanism functions by means of a disseminated authority rather than "line management", even if authority is mediated through the bishop as Father-in-God.16'
Those who are the strongest advocates of Synodical government in the Church of England would reject this and instead demand authority not in its present disseminated form but channelled through the Church's Parliament, the General Synod.
Authority in the Church of England is essentially a consensus. It is a moral authority of bishops and elected Church bodies rather than authority enforced by discipline and coercion. Ian Ramsey, writing in the 1960's as Bishop of Durham, expressed a view on ecclesiastical authority for his time and for the future with which few in the Church of England would quarrel. Authority in the Church was primarily spiritual, and secular power should never be used to enforce religious conformity17. He saw the Church's authority as 'a vision of God's love'. This should be the content of its Magisterium rather than a body of doctrine to be accepted by believers,
'A Church of the kind which can never arise around a Church which saw herself as a purveyor of hard facts and well polished infallibilities18.'
For William Temple the Church of England's unwillingness to be decisive on many issues and speak with a voice of authority was one of its glories, however frustrating others might find it,
'this makes it, like the British Constitution, the despair of the systemisers; and in times of controversy it is sharply called upon to declare its position. Does it hold this view or that ? Does it regard this or the other institution which it maintains as necessary to its character as a Church, or only as spiritually valuable or convenient? The Church of England has been slow to answer such questions, because it has steadily believed that those who give different answers none the less can, and ought, to worship and work together in one body. It thus loses sharpness of definition, and therewith some of the zeal and zest and effectiveness in immediate action which sharpness of definition promotes. But in every generation it can rejoice in its former refusals to take ?sides as a body in controversial issues, and therein finds encouragement to persist in its traditional course19.'
Not everyone agreed with Temple. Robert Page, writing in 1965, said of the lack of doctrinal definition and exercise of a decisive Magisterium,
'This innate suspicion of the authoritarian claims of any "created power" leads to a large measure of diversity of opinion and diffusion of doctrinal authority. Perhaps in no church in Christendom is there greater intellectual freedom. Probably nowhere is there a greater amount of clerical eccentricity as well20'
Kenneth Ross, writing from a conservative Anglo Catholic point of view, was even more condemnatory,
'it is a most grievous scandal that no official action is taken against a bishop or priest who denies a fundamental article of the faith... The impression easily gets abroad that because no action is taken, the issue is lightly regarded21.'
Coercion had been tried in the nineteenth century to ensure doctrinal and liturgical conformity under the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874, strongly endorsed by Archbishop Tait and Queen Victoria. It had failed dismally as prosecutions made martyrs, and bishops were further hampered in enforcing discipline by the patronage system and Parson's Freehold.
Both St.Ignatius of Antioch and St.Cyprian of Carthage have been cited as role model for the Church of England episcopate and its authority. The Ignatian model is used to stress the importance of moral influence rather than legal authority. The Cyprianic model is used to emphasise joint responsibility among bishops as at the Lambeth Conferences, and in the reluctance of bishops to suppress minority opinions.22 Yet these models must not be pressed too hard. St.Ignatius envisaged a Church where each bishop presided over a single town or small area, not the large dioceses common within the Church of England where clergy and laity see their bishops infrequently. For Ignatius the bishop was the one who was the centre of the congregation, keeping in touch with each member personally23, who dealt with each person in the most ?appropriate way24, he had to agree to all marriages and knew the secret vows of the pious25. A bishop who had this degree of intimacy with his flock could guide it by moral influence rather than legal authority.Likewise St.Cyprian could not have imagined a State Church where bishops could be overruled by lay persons, including non Anglicans in Parliament, or by a General Synod in which the laity or clergy could veto the bishops' intentions. He also might have regarded the Church of England as schismatic. In this instance he asserted the people should depose their bishop and choose a new one as bishops and parts of the Church which were in schism could be no more part of the Church26.
Although churchmen such as Temple gloried in the comprehensiveness of the Church of England others had questioned its intellectual integrity. There was no real consensus available, rather an agreement among the best scholars in the Church to differ, as was evident from the various reports of Doctrinal Commissions.
Ian Ramsey's contention that the authority of the Church must be based on love and a desire to build up the Body of Christ, rather than coercion, has been increasingly accepted as the norm in the Church of England27.
The role of bishops in this authority structure has been to influence the beliefs and conduct of their clergy and laity in accordance with the Church's sources of authority as interpreted by the Canons, the decisions of Church Assembly and General Synod, especially where these have been ratified by Parliament. In doing this they relied largely on moral influence not coercion. It is this role which will be examined in ensuing chapters.
Hence it may be said of authority in the Church of England that it is constitutional not monarchical, disseminated not hierarchical, an authority derived from Christ through the Scriptures, Tradition and the ongoing working of the Holy Spirit which should be used to build up the Body of Christ. This authority works on a consensus basis, although some might question whether the comprehensive nature of the Church really constitutes a consensus but rather endangers itsintellectual integrity. Disciplinary coercion was finally abandoned by the 1930's. It is not entirely authority without power, but the source of power is to be found largely in the State rather than in the Church. All Canons needing Royal Assent before they become effective, and Church Assembly and General Synod Measures need Parliamentary approval before they can be implemented. Such approval is far from automatic and sometimes refused. Authority in the Church therefore cannot be said to be independent of outside pressures. It issignificant that the majority of members of Parliament are not practising Anglicans and that members of other denominations speak and vote on Church of England issues.
The attitude of the Church of England to authority has had its effect on ecumenical ?relations. The very comprehensiveness of its attitude to doctrine causes difficulty with other denominations which have a more definite confession of faith. As far back as 1938 H.L.Goudgepointed out,
'If other communions are to unite with us, there must be something definite and ordered with which to unite28'
Likewise Knox and Vidler spoke of Roman Catholic and Protestant attitudes to Anglican comprehensiveness as,
'an attempt to maintain an impossible compromise, which results in sheer confusion, both in theory and practice29.'
In proposed unions with Protestant Churches the Church of England's desire to preserve episcopacy, with no more theology of episcopacy other than historical continuity, has caused especial difficulties, as hasthe relationship of Church and State without disestablishment. Free Churches might well believe that they could become equally subject to Parliamentary authority as a result of any unity scheme30.
In talks with the Roman Catholic Church similar difficulties have arisen. Although there have been many changes since Vatican II Roman Catholic authority is far more structured and hierarchical and bishops exercise greater practical authority. Laity and clergy do not posses the power to outvote the bishops or the Pope on doctrinal or liturgical measures. Whereas the rest of the Anglican Communion can freely debate these matters with Rome and if they so choose pass measures in their assemblies which could lead to union this is not so for the Church of England. Any proposed union between the Church of England and Rome would have to pass not just General Synod but Parliament. In the process the Church would almost certainly have to be disestablished and a considerable number of statutes of the realm would have to be amended31. Ultimately the authority required to agree to any proposals for Church unity lies with the State rather than with the Church.
1) The Lambeth Conference 1948, (1948), pp 84-5
2) The Fulness of Christ,pp.51-2
3) See W.H.Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology, 1st edn. 1930, 6th edn rev. by J.I.Packer, (1978),p.129
4) W.Temple, Essays in Christian Politics and Kindred Subjects, (1927), p.95
5) W.Temple, Church and Nation, (1916), p.180
6) The Fulness of Christ, (1950), pp.27-29
7) Wilfred Knox and Alec Vidler, The Gospel of God and the Authority of the Church, (1937), pp.82,83
8) Ibid. pp.85-86
9) W.Temple, Christus Veritas, (1924), p.162 n.l
10) N.P.Williams, 'The Theology of the Catholic Revival', p.182, in Northern Catholicism, ed. N.P.Williams and Charles Harris, (1933)
11) Henry Chadwick, 'The Status of Ecumenical Councils in Anglican Thought', Orient. Christ. Analecta, no.195, (1973), p.407
12) S.Sykes, 'ARCIC and the Papacy', in MC, the Journal of the Modern Churchman's Union, New Series, vol. XXV, no.1.
13) G.W.H.Lampe, 'The Authority of Scripture and Tradition', in Authority and the Church, ed.R.R.Williams (1965),p.6
14) A.G.Hebert, The Form of the Church, rev.edn. (1954), p.114
15) The Apostolic Ministry, ed. K.E.Kirk (1946),p.4
16) Hugh Montefiore, So Near and Yet So Far, (1986), p.31
17) I.T.Ramsey, 'The Authority of the Church Today', in Authority and the Church, ed. R.R.Williams (1965), pp.78-9
19) W.Temple, The Genius of the Church of England, (1928), p.7
20) Robert Page, New Directions in Anglican Theology,(1965),p.37
21) K.N.Ross, Why I am not a Roman Catholic, (1953), pp.17-16
22) See R.P.C.Hanson in Lambeth Essays on Ministry ed.A.M.Ramsey (1969), pp.81-82. This was developed at greater length by Gareth Bennett in To the Church of England, Worthing (1988),p.154ff
26) Ep.67:3. The concept of collegiality in Cyprian is to be found especially in Ep.55:24
27) See especially Richard Harries, The Authority of Divine Love, Oxford (1983)
28) H.L.Goudge, The Church of England and Reunion, (1938), p.318
29) Wilfred Knox and Alec Vidler, The Gospel of God and the Authority of the Church, (1937), p.103
30) Archbishop Ramsey, in private conversation after his retirement, agreed that this was an aspect to which the Anglican2DMethodist talks and subsequent proposals had given insufficientattention.
31) 20See especially Quentin Edwards 'The Canon Law of the Church of England : its Implications for Unity' in Ecclesiastical Law Journal, no.3,July 1988,pp.18-23