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Anglican Myth 7: Overseas Bishops will be the answer.

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

The Anglican Myth series considers whether some commonly held beliefs amongst faithful Anglicans actually hold water. This is the seventh in the series.


Last week, the Church of England's House of Bishops met. Their press release stated that they had, "agreed in principle that prayers asking for God’s blessing for same-sex couples – known as Prayers of Love and Faith – should be commended for use."

Many faithful Anglicans agree with the "Orthodox Ordinands" , who wrote in a letter to the House of Bishops, "Both the Prayers of Love and Faith and the indicated guidance leave us feeling vulnerable and concerned. We anticipate fracturing across the Church of England if they are implemented. We fear harm to the church's gospel witness if they proceed."

Both the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans (GSFA) and Global Anglican Futures Conference (Gafcon) have expressed their commitment to supporting the faithful in the Church of England.

After the meeting of the Church of England’s General Synod in February 2023 ten Primates of the GSFA issued what they called the “Ash Wednesday Statement”. In it they say,

“GSFA Primates will carefully work with other Primates to provide Primatial and episcopal oversight to orthodox dioceses and networks of Anglican churches who indicate their need and consult with us”.

Likewise, when Gafcon met for its five-yearly gathering in Rwanda in May this year the “Kigali Commitment” stated,

“We also continue to stand with and pray for those faithful Anglicans who remain within the Church of England”.

Some have thought this type of support might extend to the provision of “Alternative Episcopal Oversight” by overseas clergy for clergy and laity who cannot accept the “spiritual oversight” of their Diocesan bishop but wish to remain in the Church of England.

The GSFA is hosting a historic meeting of orthodox Anglican leaders in Cairo next week and, amongst so many other pressing issues, perhaps this is one of the questions that will be addressed.

It is, however, difficult to see to what extent, if at all, episcopal oversight from overseas bishops, would work given the legal, ecclesial and pastoral issues that arise.


Legal Issues

The Overseas and Other Clergy (Ministry and Ordination) Measure 1967 (O&OCM) raises a number of barriers to an “overseas bishop” (defined as a bishop whose diocese is outside of England, Ireland, Wales or Scotland) providing oversight for those in the CofE.

Requirement for permission from the diocesan bishop and the provincial archbishop:

The first problem is that the overseas bishop can only, “ordain persons and perform other episcopal functions,” if the relevant CofE diocesan bishop seeks and obtains the consent and licence of the archbishop of their province.

It is difficult to envisage many, if any, diocesans being sufficiently sympathetic to the needs of the orthodox to seek such permission. And those who might consider it are probably those who themselves already provide the most acceptable oversight.

It is perhaps even less likely that the archbishop would grant permission, and certainly not without attaching unacceptable conditions. Least expected of all is an overseas bishop being willing to serve in such a situation.

The O&OCM is designed for ‘ad hoc’ episcopal acts rather than ongoing oversight:

Moreover, while in theory “standing” permission could be given, the intent of the O&OCM is for ad hoc arrangements. Even if standing permission were given it can be withdrawn or made conditional at any time. Episcopal oversight which is not permanently available, properly relational and provides for all reasonable needs of both clergy and laity is not really episcopal oversight.

Acts of overseas bishops are deemed to be acts of the diocesan bishop:

The next issue is that even if permission was sought, granted and the overseas bishop content, any ordinations carried out by him are deemed to be the ordinations of the English diocesan. Again, it would be surprising if any faithful bishop of the GSFA, and/or Gafcon, would be willing to be the delegate of, or “stand in the shoes” of, a heterodox bishop of the Church of England. The bishops of Gafcon and the GSFA are doing the opposite of looking for fellowship with, or being in communion with, bishops of the Church of England. A parish with a Church of England bishop with whom an overseas bishop is prepared to share the ministry of ordination does not, logically, require the alternative oversight.

An overseas bishop performing an episcopal function without permission can be disciplined:.

Fourth, if a heroic overseas bishop was willing to “perform any episcopal function” without the support of the diocesan and consent of the archbishop they can be subject to proceedings under the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure 1963. It seems unlikely any orthodox overseas bishop would want to be put through a Church of England disciplinary process, not least if it potentially opened the door to an injunction preventing them ministering in that way again.

Clergy permitting such an ‘irregular’ episcopal act can also be disciplined:

And those are just the problems for the bishops. Any clergyperson permitting an overseas bishop to minister, other than within the provisions of the O&OCM, could be subject to a disciplinary process for that failure.

Clergy inviting an overseas bishop to minister without the appropriate permissions would themselves also be in breach of the canons - B18 as to who can preach, B27 as to who can confirm, B43 as to who can minister and how, Canon C18 as to the rights of the diocesan and so on, together with a host of regulations. Such an invitation is likely simply to be the start of a battle with the diocese and all the more so in the case of repeated such behaviour.

Clergy ordained in an ‘irregular’ act cannot minister in the CofE without permission of the archbishop:

What is more, anyone “irregularly” ordained due to non-compliance with the O&OCM cannot minister in the Church of England without the permission of the archbishop of the province in question (Canon C8(5)). That is a problem that some clergy have already had to deal with.

Need to comply with local safeguarding and immigration procedures:

Lastly, although there is not complete uniformity across the dioceses, in essence all clergy from outside a diocese and/or the Church of England, can only officiate (including preach) if the diocesan safeguarding and immigration procedures are complied with. A failure to do so is a serious disciplinary matter.

Ecclesial Issues

Concerns about "border-crossing"

“Border-crossing” is the term given to unauthorised cross-diocese or inter-provincial episcopal intervention.

The present incumbent of the See of Canterbury is adamantly against “border crossing” and has criticised provinces that came to the assistance of those in North America who sought alternative episcopal oversight after approval of same-sex blessings in New Westminster and the consecration of Gene Robinson in the Episcopal Church USA (TEC). He is not the only one; it has long been the habit of revisionists to make false equivalence between breaches of Lambeth Resolution 1998 1.10 on human sexuality and breaches of a resolution of the 1988 Conference- number 72 on “border-crossing”.

 

[This site sets out much of the pre-2008 history in North America

This video offers an overview from a UK perspective]


 

Justin Welby could not be clearer as to what he thinks of unauthorised “border-crossing” – he spelt it out in a letter to the Primates in 2017 - for him (and others) the practice was ruled out as long as nearly 1,700 years ago.


But, even if, as many think, the archbishop is wrong about the historic canonical position, it will be readily seen that those participating in “border-crossing” will be said to have abandoned the “moral high ground” making everyone “as bad as each other” at just the time when the faithful are acting out of costly principle. This makes the discipline of those engaging in such ativities more likely.

Fragmented jurisdiction

In the 2000s in the USA and Canada overseas bishops did provide oversight, but the experience highlights another particularly ecclesial problem - different provinces - Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya, the Southern Cone, Uganda etc provided ministry in different places- whether for a diocese or just for a single parish. This resulted in both fragmented jurisdiction - bishops of different churches, not in a college of bishops together, operating on their own authority, creating various outposts of their Provinces across North America. The arrangements had the effect of cementing long-term bonds of deep affection which have served Gafcon and the GSFA well, but such a patchwork of oversight was never anticipated to be a long-term solution.

If at all possible, all orthodox Anglicans in England will, in future come under the oversight of a single jurisdiction. In an ideal world that would be the Church of England but failing that all relating to bishops of a single province forming a College of Bishops as part of universal synodical and canonical arrangements must be an essential part of a renewed Anglican polity.

Pastoral Issues

Even if an overseas bishop has formal permission to provide oversight to Church of England clergy or ordain clergy to serve in parishes, they will still have no canonical authority over them and no means of disciplining them. It is not possible for a clergyperson to submit to the authority of two different bishops under two sets of canons because both the form of oversight and the law may conflict.

Again, the example of the USA and Canada is instructive. Overseas bishops only served dioceses or congregations who had either voluntarily, or as a result of their clergy being deposed already, left The Episcopal Church (TEC) . As such, although often described in this way, the alternative oversight provided was not “border-crossing”, at least in an ecclesial sense, if not a geographic one - because due to their false teaching TEC had lost its jurisdiction in those places already. If that were not the case the overseas bishops would not have been willing to serve as they did - “multiple citizenship” does not exist in Anglicanism.

Informal oversight might be offered. To be cared for, prayed for, ministered too, mentored and advised are lovely and welcome things, but it does not amount to proper episcopal oversight, only partial oversight.

Not only will informal oversight not provide for ordination (or confirmation), wise shepherds know their own hearts and their need for formal accountability and discipline, preferably from the same bishop over many years. Bishops are first and foremost guardians of the faith, but to do that when things have gone wrong requires authority to act.

Cross-cultural ministry and mission are at the heart of our faith, not least because it is challenging and enriching. Whatever the colonial history, however, no Anglican province is now governed by overseas bishops. The desirability of mainly “indigenous” episcopacy was recognised early in the USA when, after their initial intervention, the Anglican Church of Nigeria consecrated an English-born American, Right Revd Martyn Minns to serve as the founding missionary bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). That being said, he remained a bishop of Nigeria until CANA became a founding part of what is now the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Only then did Bishop Minns actually become an American bishop of an American church. For the long-term it is surely right that these islands provide their own bishops both by nationality and consecration.

It is simply a matter of practicality that, unless the overseas bishop can spend significant periods of time, on a regular basis, a proper relationship between a bishop and the congregation and clergy cannot exist. That many have in the past had only a “semi-detached” relationship with their Church of England bishop is no reason to repeat the failing in the future.

It is fair to say that some of the orthodox in England are not used to submitting to proper episcopal oversight but that is something that needs to change. In too many situations in recent years confused and conflicted or vague and distant oversight has been, quite properly, identified as at best creating very unhappy governance and at worst being a safeguarding risk. However clergy have functioned in the past, remote or absent episcopacy is not something to be desired - it leaves the sheep more vulnerable to error and mistreatment than they should be.

Summary

It is precisely because of the type of legal, ecclesial and pastoral problems identified in this post that the Gafcon Primates have, at least so far, avoided inserting overseas bishops into Europe and instead created other arrangements.

The provision of the proto-province of the Anglican Network in Europe (ANiE) with its two dioceses creates a new jurisdiction, not intervention into an existing one. The consecration of ANiE’s now Presiding Bishop, Andy Lines was only done with great deliberation. It was conducted by the ACNA - a church not in communion with Canterbury, was of a Scot (and originally for Scotland) and was to only provide oversight for those already outside the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) and then Church of England/Church in Wales (CiW)

Those principles have been retained over the following six years as ANiE has evolved. It is for the same reasons of retaining separate and distinct jurisdictions that the five bishops have ANiE have made it abundantly clear that they will not operate formally, or informally, within the Canterbury-aligned churches . It would be a strange thing indeed if overseas bishops were to provide oversight in the CofE, CiW or SEC when the English, Welsh and Scottish bishops, aligned to Gafcon will not do so.

The good will and good intentions of the Primates of the GSFA and Gafcon cannot be doubted. Amidst all the issues they face at home and in the “Anglican realignment” they have devoted an extraordinary amount of time and effort to ensuring that the relatively tiny number of faithful Anglicans in England are cared for. Doubtless they will graciously continue to do so, but the provision by them of overseas bishops for England, would be fraught with so many difficulties that it would be fair to say that it would create more problems than it solved.


With thanks to Atturi Jalli from Unsplash for the image

 

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