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An Anglican angle on Toowoomba


Bishops' headsThis week the third stage of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission begins its work at the ecumenical Monastery of Bose in Italy. Its focus will be on 'Church as Communion — Local and Universal'. Both sides of this now uncertain conversation have important things to say and to hear.

In particular they will certainly be aware of the recent enforced retirement of Roman Catholic Bishop of Toowoomba, Bill Morris, which raises sharply the question of how any central authority in the life of the Church should be exercised, particularly in relation to the office of bishop.

One important area of conversation, firmly evoked in one aspect of Bill Morris' case and less regarded in another, is the clear place in Catholic tradition of local ecclesial responsibility, particularly for episcopal ministry.

The historian Eusebius recounts that when the Roman Christians needed a bishop in about the year 250, they had some possibly miraculous assistance:

They relate that suddenly a dove flying down lighted on [Fabian's] head, resembling the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Saviour in the form of a dove. Thereupon all the people, as if moved by one Divine Spirit, with all eagerness and unanimity cried out that he was worthy, and without delay they took him and placed him upon the episcopal seat.

The principle that bishops were elected by local clergy and people was established in ancient times, even where interventionist pigeons were not involved. Ambrose of Milan was famously acclaimed while still a catechumen; Cyprian of Carthage is adamant about the principle of popular election.

While other bishops, especially the Bishop of Rome, could be involved in episcopal elections and depositions, and choices were later made by Cathedral chapters rather than by larger assemblies, there is no obvious trajectory from this picture of local responsibility to one of a central authority with no constraints for its exercise other than personal fiat.

Reactions to Morris' removal have been varied, but conservative cheers and more circumspect reflections tended to reflect on law, and consideration of the Pope's actions in the light of secular models and practices, rather than on Christian tradition itself. Morris' own response includes a striking quote from the Pope's own statement to him:

Canon Law does not make provision for a process regarding bishops, whom the Successor of Peter nominates and may remove from Office.

Although the ancient stories of Fabian, Ambrose and others concern the arrival of bishops rather than their departure, this present legal vacuum sits uneasily with the general practice of the Church that established the Canon of scripture and the Creeds.

While Canon Law may currently provide for nothing more than papal discretion, to regard this as a universal and obvious truth reflecting tradition would be strange. Canon law is eminently changeable. How it seems to have changed, and could yet be changed, requires some reflection.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference made no reference to the legal state of affairs or secular points of comparison, but in saying that they had in their meeting 'reflected upon the unique role of the Pope as head of the College of Bishops' they signalled that there was a collegial dimension to primacy that was hard to discern in these recent actions, while also acknowledging 'Pope Benedict's faithfulness to the Petrine ministry, even when it involves very difficult decisions'.

Bishops of the Church of England are not appointed more democratically or transparently than Roman Catholic bishops (although there are better-known processes and lines of accountability — and they would have better legal redress should anyone try to get rid of them). Elsewhere in the Anglican Communion however there are expressions of that more ancient practice, where clergy and people have active responsibility for their bishops' appointments.

The Anglican Communion has been shaken by events and issues, from lay presidency in Sydney to openly gay and lesbian bishops in the USA, that reveal not only deep division but a lack of means for central intervention. There have also been recent cases in the Anglican Church of Australia, notably Ballarat and The Murray in South Australia, where the lack of a mechanism to remove an elected bishop from a dysfunctional situation has been damaging.

No one system of ecclesial leadership is ideal, to be sure. The fruits of ecumenical dialogue should include deeper understanding of characteristic problems in each system, but also the prospect of calling one another to faithful exercise of the Church's tradition. 'Catholicity' refers not merely to present Vatican practice, but to a tradition that extends across time as well as space.

Anglicans, who also lay claim to this tradition, should listen to the possibilities as well as pitfalls of a Petrine ministry as exercised in the Roman Catholic Church. They may also be able to share the strengths and weaknesses of their custodianship of a tradition just as ancient as Peter's, wherein the local church itself is the place where the authenticity of a bishop's ministry must be judged, at the beginning and at the end. 

Andrew McGowanAssociate Professor Andrew McGowan is Warden of Trinity College, The University of Melbourne. He blogs at Andrew's Version and Royal Parade Diary.

Topic tags: Andrew McGowan, Bill Morris, Toowoomba, sacked bishop, Anglicans, Catholics



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Existing comments

Very interesting.
Reflecting on the bishops as 'servants', it occurs that servants are chosen by those whom they serve...

Given early church history, it would seem that there may be something to be said for a role of the wider church in the appointment of bishops in contemporary times.

MBG | 19 May 2011  

I'll stick with the Roman Catholic Church. At least you know what is what. And, unless someone can prove otherwise, the idea of a successor of Peter as well as the reality is awesome whether or not the person is. Peter was a sinner too.

Mary | 19 May 2011  

Thanks for a splendid piece. For me, and i submit, for the whole Church, the crucial sentence here is, "Canon Law is eminently changeable". It was changed quite recently as regards official responses to clerical sexual abuse. It seems to me that there is a heavy onus on Canon Lawyers - advising Bishops - to press to have it changed in relation to secret delations to Rome by the 'cowboys' and secret decisions made by Rome in response to them - an abhorrent aspect of modern church life.

Joe Castley | 19 May 2011  

Anyone still got that pigeon's phone number?

David B | 19 May 2011  

Well said, Mary (19 May 2011)I will always stay with the Catholic Church.

Colin | 19 May 2011  

Saint Martin of Tours is an example to us all. He had got so far along the road of wisdom that his main occupation was praying to God in the mountains. The people loved him, in fact loved him so much that they asked him to come down out of the mountains and become their next bishop.

This caused no end of complaints from the powers-at-be, who thought Martin not a gentleman walking around in poor clothes and talking to everyone and loving them all without distinction. As far as they were concerned, the idea of him being the bishop was quite beyond belief. But the establishment was in the minority and Martin was made bishop by the people. That’s because people know a saint when they see one. With reluctance he became bishop, but by acclaim he was the one they had to have.

That was in the fourth century. I cannot remember who was pope. Later on the saint was made a saint.

PHILIP HARVEY | 19 May 2011  

Your summary heading does not reflect the actual text. The text says quite accurately that the bishops of the Church of England are not appointed democratically or transparently. They are appointed in a secret process by by the 'crown'.

However, the practices of the Church of England and the non United Kingdom Anglican churches are quite different. Most of the areas in the world where the Anglican Church exists, their diocesan bishops are appointed by the synod of that diocese, with some form of approval from the wider church (national or regional). And the synod is made up of lay people and priests, and bishop [who is of course in the appointing process yet to be appointed, the see being vacant]. There is more variation in appointing archbishops.

john wright | 19 May 2011  

I came to this article late and was surprised (and disappointed) to find that it elicited only 6 comments by 6.00 pm 19th May.

I always had a problem with the Pope being described as Servus Servorum Dei (The Servant of the Servants of God). I thought it was a succinct description of what Christians might expect from their supreme leaders when they strive to follow the example laid down by Our Lord Jesus Christ when he washed his followers' feet at The Last Supper. However when I read the history of The Papacy down through the ages many many Popes acted more like Lords over the Servants of God.

A Pope might be prepared to perform the ritual washing of feet of a select few on Maundy Thursday but shies away from the humility required to deal in a Christ-like manner with the dusty and dirty feet of some of his subjects.

I know Christ set a very standard. But I believe that the person elected by a College of Cardinals to be The Vicar of Christ should humbly follow the spirit of Christ's example at the Last Supper. More listening, less pontificating

Uncle Pat | 19 May 2011  

I appreciate many good points you make, but, with the utmost respect: you're by proud admission an Anglican. You're not a Roman Catholic.

When you acknowledge the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church in matters of faith and morals, perhaps you'll appreciate the difficulties that millions of Catholics have (or would have) with Bishop Morris's utterances.

HH | 19 May 2011  

HH would be well advised to go back to the red catechism for the requirements for an infallible pronouncement and would then see what Paul Collins pointed out on John Cleary's show recently, that the conditions are not met in this case. From memory, from the 1930s, 'The Pope is in fallible when, speaking as head of the Church and binding all the faithful, he defines doctrines of faith and morals." It is the last of these conditions that should send Benedict back to Theology 101, however much he (or Woytijla) would have liked to fudge issues by invoking infallibility.

Joe Castley | 20 May 2011  

Epicopally led and synodically governed is a crucial phrase for many Anglicans when they describe their dioceses and archdioceses or national churches and Anglicans are familiar with language about the bishop in Synod. How would things have gone for Bill Morris if his situation had been publically discussed and voted on in a diocesan synod or even in a regional or national synod where votes would have been recorded from the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity-- and the President. If Catholics had a similar structure, the President could be the Pope or his delegate or the senior bishop, perhaps in Australia, Cardinal Pell.

A typical Australian Diocesan Synod contains among others the Bishop as President, Other Bishops and Clergy, two Lay people from each parish. A formal motion has to be passed by the house of bishops, the house of clergy and the house of clergy and then signed off by the president.

It would be good if Bill Morris's church was episcopally led and synodically governed.

Gerry Costigan | 20 May 2011  

"Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter
of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine
constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the
brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority
whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this
judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

Speaking as head of the Church? Tick.
Binding all the faithful? Tick.
Matter of faith and morals? Tick.

Reaffirmed later as infallible teaching? (Ad Tuendam Fidem) Tick.

Even Hans Kung admits that it's a classically defined doctrine:

"The impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood is now an irrevocable and infallible doctrine, demanding final assent from all Catholics. The Response of the Congregation is not just about a disciplinary or canonical matter - - (which can be altered at will), but a real faith truth, which is unalterable, irreformable, irrevocable ... Rome is acting according to the system - no matter how much Catholic theologians may wriggle and interpreters of dogma twist and turn." Interview, Suddeutsche Zeitung 2/3.12.1995

When Fr Hans Kung, Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II agree that a doctrine meets the criteria for infallible teaching, what does it matter what Paul Collins thinks?

HH | 20 May 2011  

In matters of faith and morals the RC Church is infallible. Were we infallible when we tortured people and had them killed in the Inquisitions? Were the Crusades infallible? Or were these not moral issues? Were popes infallible when they declared that only RC's could be saved? How many infallible statements have there actually been? According to some only two.

Charles | 20 May 2011  

What's in the mailbox, Charles: Jack Chick or The Watchtower?

HH | 23 May 2011  

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