Friday, November 28, 2014

Sowing wild oaths

From The House of Bishops' Declaration on the Ministry of Bishops and Priests (GS Misc 1076)
34. At ordination and on taking up any office in the Church of England priests and deacons are required under Canon C 14 to swear or affirm that they will “pay true and canonical obedience to the Lord Bishop of C and his successors in all things lawful and honest.” Bishops are similarly required to take an oath of due obedience to the archbishop of the province. Clergy and bishops also take an Oath of Allegiance to the Queen and make the Declaration of Assent.

35. These Oaths and the Declaration are important because they each involve recognition that a person does not exercise ministry in isolation or on their own authority but within a framework of relationship with others and within the tradition of faith as the Church of England has received it. The House acknowledges that the taking of the oath to the diocesan bishop or the oath of due obedience to the archbishop may, in future, raise issues for those who, for theological reasons, remain committed to a male episcopate and priesthood.

36. Nevertheless, the House believes that all ministers of the Church of England will be able, in good conscience, to take the oath. Doing so adds nothing legally to the duty of canonical obedience, which already exists in law. Rather, it is a recognition of the pattern of relationships which underpins the exercise of ministry by those who make and receive the oath. It follows from the guiding principles set out in paragraph 5 above, and the spectrum of Anglican teaching and tradition which they acknowledge, that the giving and receiving of the oath does not entail acting contrary to theological conviction.
The Church of England is a veritable curate’s egg. One might say that the good parts are purely aesthetic, citing the buildings, the choirs, et c. I think that there Is more good in the CofE than that. There is a lot of good pastoral work being done to help those who are in need. One thing, though, that the CofE is simply not good at is being clear either to its members or to its clergy. It is in the lack of clarity that confusion arises, and from confusion, ill-feeling and from ill-feeling the charge of institutional dishonesty.

The Anglican Catholic Church is not perfect either. Many may indeed take issue with the stark clarity of our canons and reject us because of our hard-line on sensitive issues. This does pose problems for us which need to be worked through, but it should not prevent dialogue. It may be said that the reasons for joining the ACC do not outweigh the reasons for finding somewhere else. If so, then at least we have allowed the one searching for a spiritual home to make a clear decision in their search. We are a cuprinol Church: in theory, at least, we try to make it clear what we believe and what we don't.

In all conscience, I cannot trust the government of the CofE (I have good personal reasons for finding the institution untrustworthy), and this section of the latest measure on the purported ordination of women to the episcopate shows me why, and confirms my belief that the Anglican Catholic Church is an alternative to the Church of England that should be considered by any Catholic minded Anglican.

Let us suppose that Elizabeth Saquebout is elected and made Bishop of Fredgington in the Church of England. Upon her assumption of the position what will happen to the canonical oaths made by the clergy to the Lord Bishop of Fredgington and his successors? Well, is Elizabeth his successor? Well, legally yes, and the oath will stand because the CofE has passed a law through parliament to say that Elizabeth is the Bishop of Fredgington. Whether or not the clergy believe that she really is a bishop, their oath to “pay true and canonical obedience to the Lord Bishop of Fredgington and his successors in all things lawful and honest” remains valid. Except…

There is this word “canonical” and it is this word that produces confusion. The clause in this measure states that "Nevertheless, the House believes that all ministers of the Church of England will be able, in good conscience, to take the oath. Doing so adds nothing legally to the duty of canonical obedience, which already exists in law."

To my mind there is an equivocation of the word "canonical" here. "Canonical" in this context can mean according to the Canons of the CofE which are enshrined in law. All priests, then, have a legal duty to obey their bishop in all things lawful and honest, and Elizabeth is legally the Bishop of Fredgington. Certainly, any priest could in conscience make the oath according to the law as it stands. The question remains, however, whether legislating a woman to be bishop is enough to make her position as bishop Canonical in keeping with the Catholic Faith.

As far as the Catholic Faith goes, the Church does not possess that authority for women in the Episcopate. Thus, under the Catholic sense of Canon, there is a different understanding and thus an equivocation for the priest who holds to the Catholic Faith. In the legal sense, i.e. the existence of the Church of England as a legal body, Elizabeth is indeed owed and entitled to the respect due to any other legal bishop, no less, no more. If a priest accepts the equivalence between the Catholic and legal senses of the word "canonical", then he is duty bound to accept her as his bishop and pay her what is due.

However, what if he does not accept the equivalence? Then we are in a bit of a pickle. If a priest accepts the Catholic Faith as once received by the saints, then he separates the two definitions of Canonical. He must pay legal obedience in all things lawful and honest to Elizabeth, but he does not recognise her as a bishop. Let us now ask this question, suppose that Fr Ernest Rankett is a member of Forward in Faith who moves into Elizabeth's diocese. Since she is the Diocesan bishop, she gives her license to Ernest to celebrate Mass in her diocese. However, as a priest, Ernest will be acting as her vicar in his parish. But Ernest surely does not believe that Elizabeth is a priest, so how can he possibly be the vicar to a vacant see? Elizabeth, being a fair-minded person and committed to the CofE, abides by the Code of Practice and ensures that Ernest gets alternative episcopal oversight together with his parish.

All well and good. Elizabeth is not going to demand that Ernest attends a Mass which she leads, and Ernest will ensure that he meets with Elizabeth on all relevant matters pertaining to her legal oversight of the Diocese. Ernest and Elizabeth clearly work together in the spirit of the "framework of relationship with others" even though he doesn't believe that she is a bishop. Yet, the fact remains, he is celebrating his Masses with the sacramental authority of a legal bishop who not a Catholic Bishop. If Ernest claims that he is using the authority of his appointed suffragan, then he is not recognising Elizabeth as his Diocesan which is not legal. It is the Diocesan that issues the license to officiate which is not just canonical in the legal sense, but also in the Catholic sense. If Ernest celebrates Mass with Elizabeth's license, he operates against the Catholic understanding of episcopacy. If he does not celebrate Mass with Elizabeth's license, then he operates the legal understanding of Elizabeth's canonical authority.

Now, I am sure that this has all been worked out legally and that something has been put into place to ensure that Ernest derives his permission and license to celebrate Mass according to Catholic understanding. However it seems to be a rather tortuous and tortured affair. The question really becomes that of a moral duty not of a legal duty. Can the priest look at section 36 of the above measure and be clear that "Nevertheless, the House believes that all ministers of the Church of England will be able, in good conscience, to take the oath. Doing so adds nothing morally to the duty of canonical obedience, which already exists in law"?

There is actually a grave examination of conscience needed here, and quite a number of moral gymnastics. The legal business is sound, but the moral issue is not quite that clear. Can the priest be certain for whom he is a vicar at the altar? Perhaps I am being uncharitable (I hope not) but I do think that the CofE needs to be as clear with those who are of an integrity different from the "clear" decision which it claims to have made.

And I do remind any priests whose consciences are pricking them, there is always an alternative to the CofE.

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