The arrangements put in place by the Roman Catholic Church to admit Anglicans disillusioned by women bishops has highlighted a couple of other issues about ecumenism in Britain.
The joint statement made by the two archbishops recently states what might be called mainstream ecumenism will continue between the two churches. These are the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC ) and the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM ). I am sure they will continue but we need to understand something of the context in which they will continue.
It is significant that this move came as something of a surprise to the Archbishop of Canterbury and I will explore the reasons for this in my next post. It seems to me that we are moving into an era where we have at least two ecumenisms.
The conversations between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches are premised upon episcopacy. To clarify: this word describes governance through usually geographical dioceses and bishops. The similar word episcope refers to the more general question of authority in any given tradition. So, for example, British Methodism has episcope (through Conference) but not episcopacy.
An argument, which seems to be shared by episcopal churches, is that episcopacy is an ecumenical form of governance. Full visible unity is possible only through this form of governance. This means ecumenical conversations have a different character between episcopal churches. Is episcopacy essential to ecumenism? I see two problems with this argument.
First, episcopacy seems to concentrate power. This may or may not be a good thing depending on where you stand but it does make conversations between such concentrations of power difficult. Power is the elephant in the room. Of course there are concentrations of power in all churches, including those that are congregational; episcope helps us identify where the power is. It does seem inevitable that conversations between episcopal concentrations of power are going to be difficult because of their natural desire to maintain local power.
I can point to united or uniting churches with congregational (URC) or connexional arrangements (Methodist Church of Great Britain). I can also think of united churches including one episcopal church and other congregational or connexional churches. But I cannot think of one instance of united or uniting episcopal churches.
I'm not saying unity between episcopal churches is impossible. I think when the claim is made for episcopacy as a route to ecumenism, what is meant is not that episcopacy makes ecumenism easier but that a single united non-episcopal church is unthinkable.
Second, episcopal power bolsters itself through claims about tradition. The insistence that only men can be ordained seems irrational to me. It betrays the focus on power amongst certain church leaders. They see women as a threat to their power. It is equally difficult to imagine a united church without an equitable place for ordained women.
Ecumenism involving non-conformist churches seems to be easier than that between episcopal churches. There are of course many Protestant churches that are jealous of their independence, some even believing they alone are the true church. But where the will to ecumenism is present, the matter seems more straightforward. This has to be because for non-conformist churches there is less at stake.
Of course, some Protestant churches seem to grow by splitting which might suggest they place less value on visible unity. This is proving to be a very successful approach where Pentecostal and similar churches all over the world have grown to make up one quarter of the world's Christians over the last century or so.
The Church of England in Britain, and possibly the Anglican communion as a whole, straddles these two ecumenisms. The Church of England is in a Covenant with the Methodist Church and in conversation with other non-conformist Churches. At the same time it is in conversation with the Roman Catholic Church. All these conversations are bilaterals so we have a chain of conversations with the Church of England in the middle. (Of course the non-conformists have bilaterals with the Roman Catholic Church too.)
This chain is interesting because it pulls the Church of England in what seems to be two mutually exclusive directions. Unity with the Catholic Church would exclude women priests let alone bishops. Indeed for some Anglo Catholics one reason for their opposition to the ordination of women is that it effectively scuppers union with the Catholics. On the other hand there is no way the British Methodist Church would countenance unity with the Church of England unless women had equal status with men as priests and bishops.
For the non-conformist churches it often feels as if they a playing second fiddle to the bilaterals between Anglicans and Catholics. They feel as if they are not at the table where the main decisions are being made. The Anglican Communion may well have had a taste of this feeling following the Catholic Church's announcement. It does seem that all are in agreement about the desirability of full communion, it's just that getting there seems to be far more difficult than it should be.
There is of course at least one other fault line in this. Local churches in many places are getting on together fine as they are until they see the heavy weather made of unity by church leaders and theologians. Many younger people have seen enough and voted with their feet. Post-denominationalism is the order of the day. This ferment of incidentally ecumenical activity contrasts markedly with the tensions and slow movement in the church leaderships. Something has got to give.