A Generous Catholicism and Beautiful Anomalies #MMIC

As always on this blog, I write in a personal capacity. The Sodality of which I am Superior, is a community that has always had a single aim, the sanctification of priests, and does not take positions or campaign in any way. Members of the Sodality will have a variety of views on many issues.

“Make the unity of Christians your passionate concern”

Brother Roger of Taizé

When I am staying with the Taizé Community, I concelebrate the Eucharist early each morning, in the Orthodox chapel beneath the community church. Surrounded by icons and with just a handful gathered together it is for me one of the deep points of my year. I concelebrate with brother Pierre-Yves. He must be in his 80s now and is an expert on Cistercian spirituality. He is the principle translator, into French, of the works of Bernard of Clairvaux and frequently asked to teach and lead retreats in Cistercian communities.

The liturgy at these early morning Eucharists is delightfully simple. The readings from the daily Mass lectionary, Pierre-Yves extemporises a Collect having prayed the Scriptures in advance. He wears his white choir habit with a simple coloured stole and I an alb and stole. We concelebrate, him in French, I in English. In the little sacristy beforehand, in a mixture of French, Greek and Latin he divides the Eucharistic Prayer up. “Mon Pere,” he says, “vous avez le Sursum Corda … le pain … la coupe … anamnesis …. intercessions” and so on. For the first few years I followed his practice, and instruction, to pray without a text, latterly I have given in and have a Common Worship booklet with me.

“Who”, I asked some years ago, “should I name as bishop?” As an ecumenical community, he explained, we do not name the local, particular bishop, but the heads of all the churches, Pope, Patriarchs, Archbishop of Canterbury, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, and occasionally others.

Concelebrating with Brother Pierre-Yves is a beautiful anomaly. He has not been episcopally ordained. He is a pastor of the French reformed church.

In Liverpool the nearest I have come to a home parish (I travel around and help out and preach where I am asked), is St Agnes, Ullet Road. This is a parish under the care of the Bishop of Beverley, Glyn Webster. The Missal is carefully marked in the intercessions in the Eucharistic Prayers to pray for “Francis the Pope, Glyn our bishop, Paul bishop of Liverpool”, which I happily pray when I am there.

Celebrating at St Agnes and being, at that moment, part of Glyn’s presbytery is a beautiful anomaly.

The document Mission and Ministry in Covenant is an important one. It is the latest phase in the movement towards unity of British Methodism and the Church of England. It will be discussed in General Synod this week. It has already produced some heat among Catholic Anglicans and statements from Anglican Catholic Future and Forward in Faith opposing the introduction of interchangeability of ordained ministries between the two churches, and the gift of episcopacy to the Methodist church by the ordination of the President of the Methodist Conference as a bishop.

There are various anomalies about the proposal. It is not corporate re-union. The churches will, for the time being, remain separated but in full communion with each other. For the lifetimes of the currently ordained presbyters of the Methodist church, ministers who have not been ordained by a bishop will be able to minister, in an unrestricted way, as priests in the Church of England. The role of the President-bishop and the retired President-bishops is theologically unclear.

I also believe the recommendations of this report need a good degree of consensus, if it causes further internal division it is not building that unity and communion which it seeks.

The theologian-priest Andrew Davison, has written a good critique of the proposals in the Church Times. Andrew is an excellent theologian and I tremble to enter into this territory. I have invited responses from a number of people to this post and an happy to post them here. I make a plea for kindness.

Andrew states that:

“For the C of E to accept [these proposals] would be to say at least one of the following: (1) that nothing sig­­nificant distin­guishes ordination by a bishop from ordination with­out; (2) that nothing about the eucharist (or anointing or absolu­tion) is significant for the jour­ney of salva­­tion; (3) that orders are ir­­relevant in these cases, since means of grace depend only on the inner dis­position of each individual. Each of those arguments sells short the faith and practice of the C of E.”

I think this is incorrect. If any of these statements was correct there would be no need for the Methodist church to accept episcopacy or be required to ensure that its future presbyterial ordinations were conducted by a bishop.

Andrew also writes:

“THE Synod documents show a lack of clarity about the word “presbyter” (or “priest”). Introducing the report, the Faith and Order Commission makes much of welcoming “presbyters/priests serving in either Church as eligible to serve in both Churches”. The suggestion is that there are Anglican presbyters and Methodist pres­­­­byters, and that they are basic­ally the same thing: wouldn’t it there­fore be ideal if they could serve in one another’s churches?”

I think he is on weak ground here. The New Testament, the Biblical, word for ordained ministry is ‘presbyter’. The documents of Vatican 2 are happy to use the word presbyter. For Christians there is only one priest, Jesus himself, who offers the one sacrifice. The ministers of the church are priests both by analogy and by sharing in the ministry of Jesus. Unlike either pagan or Old Testament priests they do not offer any sacrifice of their own. Ian Paul has a good article on the words presbyter and priest here. Although, I think he goes too far and does not give enough weight to the use of the word priest in the official formularies of the Church of England. I also know many Roman Catholic priests who dislike the term and prefer presbyter as more biblical.

In a conversation with Andrew last week he stressed the incomplete theology of Episcopacy that the report has. However, anomalies around episcopacy abound in the churches, our ‘flying bishops’, even our suffragan bishops, would be on that list. In the Roman Catholic Church Personal Prelates, bishop-administrators in the Vatican and episcopal ordination of senior military chaplains would join them.

Even gently suggesting that the report might not be all bad has provoked strong comments to me. I regret that because the command to seek unity is a Dominical command. We should do what Jesus asks us to do. Pursuing unity will require generous hearts and gracious gestures. It will involve kenosis, a letting go of what we hold dear and an embracing of the treasured traditions of others. Anglo-Catholics should be among those most committed to corporate unity. We need gentle words and gestures to foster communion in and beyond our church.

I hope that Synod does take note of this report. I hope that it will consider, or ask others to consider, two refinements. Further work on episcopacy would be helpful. That is the easy one. I would also prefer it if synod asked that anyone moving from one church to the other for a full-time, permanent post be conditionally re-ordained.

In the summer of 1993, while preparing for ordination as deacon I could not find my baptism certificate. Writing to the parish priest in Chesterfield, where I had been baptised and confirmed, he found that in the baptism register my father’s name had been put in the candidate’s name box and vice versa. York would not accept this. In the College Chapel at Chichester in the presence of the Principal, Bishop Eric conditionally re-baptised and re-confirmed me. I would happily accept conditional re-ordination to be able to minister full-time as a Methodist presbyter without repudiating my previous ministry, just as (many) of my friends have accepted re-ordination as Roman Catholic priests without repudiating their former ministry.

However, even without Synod requesting these two changes to the report’s suggestions I would happily embrace the anomaly the report suggests not as bearable, but as a beautiful and generous way of embracing unity.

Let me explain why I can embrace this suggestion.

It seems to me that discussion of ‘validity’ and ‘sacramental assurance’ are extremely unhelpful. We must be careful to avoid magical thinking about the sacraments. Such thinking leads to episcopi vagantes with apparently valid orders. Just no Church.

Just as there is, for Christians, only one priest, Jesus, so there is only one sacrament, his sacrifice on the Cross. Baptism is the ‘Ur’-sacrament by which we participate in that sacrifice, Eucharist is the making present of that sacrifice and our participation in it through time and space. The other sacraments, likewise, are extensions of that sacrament.

The church (and the sacraments, therefore) are to some extent present in every baptised person. The sacrament of order is present in every Christian community as it orders its life for leadership and mission, and for Eucharist. The fullness, the Catholicity, of the Church is undivided, it is every baptised person in every time and place. The disunity of the church diminishes the Catholicity of everyone. There is no ‘real’ church which has 100% Catholicity while others are Catholic-lite. There are deep anomalies in the ordering of the fragmented churches which draw Christian assemblies away from Catholic order with its threefold order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. Just as we are diminished by disunity we will be enriched by steps towards unity. To share episcopacy with the Methodist church will make the Church of England more, not less, Catholic.

Do I believe that Jesus is as present in the Eucharistic elements when Brother Pierre-Yves celebrates when I am not there, as when I am? I certainly do.

It is normative to authorise ministry by the laying on of hands by a bishop. However, by its forms of authorisation the Methodist church has, I believe, ‘valid’ ministry. When, God willing, they are an episcopal church their Catholicism will be enriched, as will ours. When Methodist presbyters minister in the Church of England their ‘validity’ will be assured by their ordination and by their authorisation by the Church of England and the bishop whose licence they hold. Laying on of hands by a bishop continues to be normative and will be the practice for all future Methodist presbyters, but it is a sign of that authorisation and its permanency, not a magic touch that causes it.

Our communion with Jesus flows from our baptism, our entry into the mystery of the Cross, and the water and blood that flow from Jesus’ side. For those of us who are ordained that ordination intensifies our participation in that mystery, is, if you like, a magnification of the priesthood of all believers, like a magnifying glass focussing and making warm and visible the rays of the sun. That ministry is always about communion with the Church.

When, tirelessly, the Church listens, heals and reconciles, it becomes what it is at its most luminous—a communion of love, of compassion, of consolation, a clear reflection of the Risen Christ.

Never distant, never on the defensive, freed of all harshness, the Church can radiate the humble trusting of faith into our human hearts.

Christ is communion…He did not come to earth to start one more religion, but to offer to all a communion in God…’Communion’ is one of the most beautiful names of the Church.

Brother Roger

Mission and Ministry in Covenant is an opportunity to deepen our communion, to demonstrate to the world that listening and hearing which are at the heart of reconciliation, a clear reflection of the Risen Christ.


1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this considered response. What Andrew also fails to acknowledge is that what is proposed is already happening in Ireland, where the President of the Methodist Conference there is, upon election, consecrated a bishop (an “episcopal minister”) by three bishops of the Church of Ireland. Similarly, in the USA the Episcopal Church has “temporarily suspended the Preface to the Ordinal” because the Evangelical Lutheran Church has accepted it, and its bishops are now, without exception, consecrated in the historic succession (the United Methodist Church is in the process of joining this scheme). I simply cannot see how Methodism (and Lutheranism) taking the historic episcopate into their own communions, albeit with the anomalies which will remain for a season, can be viewed as a departure from catholic order – if anything, it’s the reverse. Thank you. The Revd Dr Keith Riglin SCP.

    Liked by 2 people

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