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An Anglican angle on Toowoomba

  • 19 May 2011

This 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,