I remain bemused by the growing inflexibility of bishops, or now in England, potential bishops to relax jurisdictional authority in the cause of creating space for constituencies whose principles reflect Anglicanism as it has been until fairly recently.  I confine my musings to the “western” provinces in which unity in comprehension has been a notable and perhaps a defining feature.

Until this moment I have been glad to point to the Church of England’s readiness to appoint “flying bishops” and to draw a distinction between the Mother Church’s pastoral flexibility in contrast with my own church’s pastoral insensitivity. I have delighted that the Mother Church, with its historic claim to territorial episcopacy rooted in the organization of the English Church after -wait for it – the Council of Whitby, has found itself able to fudge this heritage in the cause of comprehension while my own church, which has no claim or title to anything but the consenting allegiance of its members, insists on its territorial hegemony.  Bishop Erwin of Walsingham alludes to the English tolerance as “loving jurisdiction”, an outward sign of a bishop’s loving care for all, even at the expense of his or her’s right or status.  Sounds Christian wouldn’t one think?

The pastoral role of an Anglican bishop has been novel.  Presiding over a diocese containing those who describe themselves as Catholic or Protestant, progressive or traditional or even delightfully eccentric, the bishop has patterned the form of priestly ministry necessary in parishes made up of people with all sorts of opinions and personalities. Comprehension has been about unity rather than fragmentation, about mutual respect rather than a determination to win. Bishops have sought to take into account the foibles of local parishes, in liturgy. the content of sermons and even the fancy dress worn. The demands upon “comprehensive episcopacy” even reached to permitting other bishops to substitute for them if parishes found the Ordinary not ordinary enough for their tastes. (TEC changed the Canons to make that much more difficult to permit.)

Indeed it is not too long ago that this form of liberality was regarded as a virtue to be shared on the ecumenical stage as a pattern for Christian Unity. Now it is suggested that such a pastoral provision aimed at individual parishes is an affront to the dignity and authority of bishops and assault on the rights and dignity of those for whom the church recently began to make space in the nest, only to discover a cuckoo on the nest, intent on throwing out all the other eggs. All this, mind you, in the cause of justice, and a pretty harsh judgment at that, one which Anglicans once thought unfortunate in other more regimented Christian bodies.

There is something unbalanced in accusing the English archbishops, or the Communion Partners over here of totalitarianism when they seek desperately to preserve space for the nonconformist in our comprehension while in the name of progressivism and liberality gleefully depriving historic parties, now minorities the space to blossom and flourish or wither and perish within their home.

What will emerge may be more tidy, monochrome and manageable, but it will tragically less Anglican.


Inevitably from me, a bit of history. After the Restoration in 1660 the CofE sought to restore its disciplinary authority. Gradually over about 50 years, two factors frustrated this process. The Later Stuarts, in seeking to protect Roman Catholics from ecclesiastical, statutory discipline issued a series of Indulgences. To demonstrate even handedness they covered Nonconformists by these Indulgences. (James II went too far and was forced to abdicate.)  These Indulgences were also in force in the colonies in which the CofE was Established.

With the accession of William and Mary the CofE leadership attempted to reconcile the mainstream Nonconformists by backing the repeal or non observance of the laws which restricted their freedom. A side effect of all this was a decline of general disciplinary standards. Although this opened the door for movements such as the Evangelical and Tractarian revivals, which each in their own way defied liturgical conformity, the result was a “live and let live” policy. In the later 19th Century both the CofE and TEC attempted to reassert discipline with respect to Anglo Catholicism with lamentable results. What emerged was a sort of offical Nelsonian blind eye to experimentation, accompanied by a refusal to officially endorse controversial experiments until they became generally tolerated or received. Indeed this form of liberality became an unofficial “mark” of Anglicanism, and asserted as one of its virtues.

It is from this “tradition” that the Communion now faces the challenge of what may be permitted and what not. Canterbury presides over a church in which this form of liberality is generally accepted. Ironically contemporary Anglo Catholicism has asserted this freedom in England by using rites and ceremonies not officially permitted by statute while opposing latitude shown to other “parties.”

Canada, for instance, may escape censure at present because it has not institutionalized its “experiments” while turning an official (and encouraging) blind eye to their use. TEC on the other hand has taken actions which formalize practices not generally received and so (with the Southern Cone and others) is disciplined.

The Covenant attempts to draw borders, breaches of which are defined as the official, legislative actions of participating provinces which breach these borders. One of the problems the Covenant process encounters is that while some provinces have created disciplinary structures tougher than those historically in use in other provinces whose composition is “comprehensive”.  They are heirs to missionaries who imposed upon their dioceses and later provinces a monochrome form of Churchmanship and thus discipline.

Thus we have here two forms of Anglican expression, one which is used to discipline and the other used to general freedom. Both may appeal to an Anglican tradition which seems to support their position.  What has changed is that many “comprehensive” provinces,  while appealing to comprehension, in fact have been narrowing that form of inclusion in favor of a governing “party”.   The Covenant seeks to straddle both traditions by identifying limits to diversity while affirming comprehension, no easy task, for in one way or another, both forms of Anglican tradition are challenged by a process which may seem either too disciplinary or too lax.