Sex and morality in Church and society
by Ian Paul, Psephizo:
Following the debate in General Synod on the House of Bishop’s report on the Shared Conversations, various bishops have been making statements to their dioceses outlining their reflections on the debate and where we have got to as a Church. Perhaps the most striking was that made by Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, in his Presidential Address to Chelmsford Diocesan Synod.
There are some welcome things in this address, not least the focus on the importance of the apostolic faith, and the attention to be given to ecumenical relations as we think about sexuality. But there are also a good number of very surprising things. The first comes in the first substantive paragraph. Reflecting on the role of the episcopate, Bishop Stephen comments:
The bishop is the focus of unity for the Church, the person through whom the sharing in the apostolic ministry of Christ is continued, and the guarantee that the Church in this time and place is in continuity and communion with the Church in every time and place.
This seems to me to be unusual language for any Anglican to use. I would agree that apostolic succession should be understood in relation to the faith ‘revealed in Holy Scriptures and set forth in the Catholic Creeds’, especially when we include the word ‘uniquely’ as it is in the Declaration of Assent. It is in this sense that St Paul talks of his apostolic responsibility to ‘pass on to you what was passed on to me’ in relation to the content and truth of the proclamation of the good news (1 Cor 15.1–3).
This means that bishops have a responsibility to be guarantors of ‘the apostolic ministry of Christ’, but neither their existence nor their actual ministry can be the unqualified guarantee of that ministry. The Lambeth Quadrilateral notwithstanding, episcopal ministry is not the esse of the Church of England, even if it might be of the bene esse. And the oath of canonical obedience is in ‘all things lawful’—there is a mutuality of accountability between the episcopate and the presbyterate in keeping faith with the apostolic deposit of truth. Jesus’ prayer was not simply ‘that they may be one’, as is repeatedly and rather oddly claimed; it is that ‘they might be sanctified in the truth; your word is truth’ and in that sanctification ‘they might be one’ so that the world might believe. It is not so much about an absence of schism, but the presence of united cleaving to the truth Jesus has made known.