I write this with some trepidation, although my thoughts in this area have been with me since I first went to college over forty-seven years ago. I had been taught in my ignorance that “private judgement” as related to Scripture and doctrine and indeed discipline, was a theory which came to life in late 18th Century Evangelicalism, largely because those wonderful people mistook the theory of perspecuity (the Bible is open to believers) with the disciplinary practice of the major churches affected by or founded at the Reformation. For instance, our own Reformers gave to the collective “institutional church” the right to determine the outcome of controversies in doctrine, although not of doctrine itself. The right was not given to parish priests, literate laity, theologians or even bishops per se. The authority was given to the “national church.” Do note that our Reformers said very little about a level above the local church, not because they believed that the national church was “it”, but because in a divided Christendom the only way to hear the voice of the larger church was to go back to the Undivided Church and particularly the Councils. This they did. Jewel did, Hooker did, Andrewes did, evangelical, broad and catholic.

Because of this realism, Anglicans were often accused of archeological religon and it was this barb, framed by Dr Wiseman, which probably finally pushed Newman to Rome. Some Anglo-Catholics seek to find some essential authoritative commonality within contemporary “Catholic Christendom” but that requires a reductionism and an over-simplification of some proportion.

For a few decades now using private judgement, even in the context of some consensus, we have been told to believe that we cannot return to Fathers and Councils, because their conclusions were those of “winners” and therefore suspect at least. (Winners nowadays are good and uninfluenced by contemporary political and social theory!) For instance our theology of Orders must now bow to the sort of theory first proposed by 16th Century Anabaptists and those who later would become Congregationalists and Baptists. Well not quite so. The modern theory that all “ordination” happens at baptism and all ministries are merely recognition by the church of talents or charisms given in baptism, would not have set well with those who saw conversion as the real thing and baptism as a mere symbol. But of course if the Eucharist is to be opened to the non-baptised, we shall all soon be Brownites, except Mr. Brown would not have permitted the non-baptized to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Now we have radical Anabaptism on our hands. (Notice that few dare reduce episcopacy to mere function.)

I’ve often said that Rome once seemed to teach that the only priests who were priests were priests, while extreme Protestants taught that the only people who were not priests were “priests”. Few now notice that the doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers is primarily about Jesus and only by extension about us. All ministry belongs to Jesus, and as PT Forsyth put it, “we are his curates.”

So we are asked to believe that early Christians were egalitarian Democrats (maybe Republicans too) until the Order of Priesthood devolved from the episcopate, and then by dreadful papish plot, deacons were flung from the nest. We are asked to believe that all those delicious gnostic texts -never mind that Gnostics tended to be as puritan as our right-wing moralists – were condemned by power play of “orthodox” males who with the help of Constantine ( George Bush of his day) – we forget what happened after he died – made the church boring and Roman Catholic and masculine.

As long as the authors of texts supplying this Dan Brown version of Church History inhabit Chairs, or thrones our seminarians bow the knee to authority and our church undergirds policy by recourse to what in reality has no authority other than private judgement. Now Global South bishops join in the method and perhaps the madness.

Before some of you jump and clap, let me say that one of the glories of Anglicanism is the freedom given to its scholars and laity to read, to explore, to propose, “to criticize” anything and everything without being hauled before an inquisitional tribunal. (Bishops, I believe are not as free by virtue of their job description and oaths. I would extend this to parish priests in public exposition, and preaching. This in no way prevents responsible enquiry or a refusal to discuss alternative ideas and theories, hope and doubts.) The fault lies not there, but in the fact that we have all forgotten where authority lies. Anglicans were once thought to be grown up enough to respect authority without being burnt thereto The fault is in our willingness to confuse the faith of the Church as expressed, however archeologically until unity returns, in Church Formularies, with private speculation, and to confuse ecclesial authority with private speculation, however popular. It is one thing, for instance, to speculate about the origins and development of ministries and quite another to set up a mandatory system based on that speculation. It may also be one thing to explore ways to minister honestly to same-sex couples and quite another to set up an authorized “system” permitting that which the Church does not sanction. And no amount of votes in synods makes one into another.