Whose calling in an incoherent church?

A bevy of bishops, aka the Lambeth Conference

After their rather brief diversion into Purgatory, the articles return in number 23 to the organisation and ministry of the Church of England. (The arguments and debates of recent years may, of course, suggest to some that Purgatory is precisely where such questions have lead the Anglican Communion.)

XXIII. Of Ministering in the Congregation
It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same. And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.

This takes a stand asserting episcopē over charismatic authority. It is not sufficient for someone to feel they have a calling: that calling must be discerned, validated, and echoed by those who have authority. There do appear to have been some ambiguities in practice with the recognition of those ordained in non-episcopal churches on the Continent, and it is hard to know how much these represented particular theological positions, and how much practical ecumenical generosity borne out of a sense of common cause against the papacy. But, as far as I can ascertain, the preface to the Ordinal remained essentially the same (on this point, at least) in 1549 and 1552, despite the more Calvinist tone of the latter. In what follows I indicate the changes between 1552 and 1662.

It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. Which Offices were evermore had in such reverend Estimation, that no man [1552 adds by his own private authority] might presume to execute any of them, except he were first called, tried, examined, and known to have such qualities as are requisite for the same; and also by publick Prayer, with Imposition of Hands, were [1552 omits were] approved and admitted thereunto by lawful Authority [1552 omits by lawful Authority]. And therefore, to the intent that these Orders may be continued, and reverently used and esteemed in the [1552 reads this] Church of England,* it is requisite that no man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Priest, or Deacon, in the Church of England, or suffered to execute any of the said Functions, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following, or hath had Episcopal Consecration, or Ordination.
[*1552 reads for this last section: (not being at this present Bishop, Priest nor Deacon) shall execute any of them, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following]

In one sense, again, this shows the weakness of Cranmer’s earlier article on the visible Church. There is no easy way to relate what he says there to what is said between article and ordinal here. Here the universal Church stretches back in visible documented history that is “evident to all men” to the time of the Apostles, and the writing of the Scriptures. Here also Cranmer makes clear that he intends that “these Orders may be continued” and so stakes a claim for the Church of England to be a visible expression of this catholic Church in this realm.

Cranmer is reforming the church, not refounding it, and the visible organisation and transmission of authority through episcopal orders is intended to trump any claim to immediate authority granted solely through an individual sense of being called by the Spirit, having the true meaning of the Scriptures, or being authorised by a congregation.

One of the questions that taking this seriously throws up for today’s Church is the appropriate level of authorization for particular lay ministries. In theory, and in most places, the ministry of lay preaching is carried out under a similar pattern of diocesan discernment, training and episcopal licensing through the order of Readers, increasingly now rebranded and broadened into the category of Licensed Lay Minister. The ministry of assisting at the Eucharist and taking Communion to the sick is carried out through parochial discernment and training, and some degree of episcopal recognition or delegation of authority so to authorise. Those congregations that see fit to organize their own recognition of these ministries are not only going against article and ordinal, but have simply failed to take due note of these as ministries of the whole Church.

But there are a great many other ministries, some of which are still rare or patchy, such as evangelist, lay pastor / pastoral assistant, or those who share collaboratively in the leading of worship. Here there is no coherence in discerning vocations, offering training, or otherwise encouraging or authorizing these ministries from diocese to diocese. It is a strange way to honour either people’s vocations or the bishops’ responsibility for oversight. Not all (or even perhaps the majority of) ministries need episcopal licensing, some do. Others require perhaps a corporate assent, which would include the bishop’s general consent, and then specific and more local developments.

Then there are the widespread and common ministries of reading the scriptures in public worship and leading people in prayer, where, to be frank, parishes rarely seem to exercise much discernment about whether people have a calling (or ability) to do this (and I suggest both these ministries are more important than we often treat them) or are trained to do it. And obviously, one could add a great many more, but the principle of appropriate discernment, training and commissioning enshrined in this article for ordained ministry, is one that could profitably be extended, and made coherent for all — not least for the benefit of all those who have been on the receiving end of an incomprehensible reading, or a homily masquerading as prayers of intercession.

It is also at least arguable that the clash between this article on a legitimately authorised ministry, the earlier emphasis on the visible church in a congregation that proclaims the word and ministers the sacraments, and the theologically concealed (and ill-founded) but ever-present reality of a national church, is in large part to blame for the incoherence currently affecting the Anglican Communion. The confusion in Cranmer’s ecclesiology is at least as responsible as new readings (or misreadings – take your pick) of scripture for the current situation where some priests feel they can choose their own bishop, and some bishops feel they can exercise authority in whichever diocese they want to.

(Not that I would minimise the problems of American cultural imperialism, and the exporting of their internal culture wars, nor the ambitions and egos of those who like to portray themselves as champions of orthodoxy.)

It is a stunningly awful practical illustration of the inability Anglicans have had to make a workable theological system out of Cranmer’s inconsistency, and an indictment of the Church of England’s inability to do what, I think, I have repeatedly argued was necessary, but may now have become impossible: to revise these articles coherently with fresh readings of scripture, and due attention to traditional ones. Relying on the British Empire and a form of common prayer in Tudor English to disguise major fault-lines has proved to be no substitute for a coherent ecclesiology.

One Reply to “Whose calling in an incoherent church?”

  1. Good stuff as always Doug. I’m not sure it’s Anglicanism in per se but the Anglican churches, not least the CofE in particular, that has been unable to make a workable theological system out of Cranmer’s inconsistency. The clear drift (intentional or not) towards congregationalism in the thinking of Lambeth, the Archbishops Council and House of Bishops, offer plenty of evidence that this confusion is only getting worse. Indeed this is where the CofW will split into Episcopalian Anglicanism and a Presbyterianism which might well be the part that keeps the established status. Fine by me. 🙁

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