The matter of an Anglican Magisterium...

Peter Carrell
Over on AnglicansDownUnder Peter Carrell is hard at work in spite of the earthquakes of the past week. 

Peter has given us outlanders a real sense of the massive destructive power of the quakes but more a sense of just how it is possible to get on with theological work in the midst of things falling down all around.  

In the parish of St. Peter's in the little town by the bay and the big waters here in Lewes, Delaware we have been praying for the people of New Zealand, and when we pray I keep seeing Peter's mug shot in my mind. (One of the dangers of information overload from the Internet.)

What has Peter been thinking on?  Well, the notion of an Anglican magisterium. I will be frank to say that many is the day that I get up and don't think a bit about an Anglican Magisterium, but Peter just won't let me go with that. In his latest post he says,

"I continue to think that an 'informal magisterium' operates in Anglican churches, through its bishops, synods and general synods....

 "My thinking is about an Anglican Magisterium, so I ask that we think about what this might mean in order for it to be an Anglican Magisterium and not a copycat of Rome's Magisterium. It could well be, for instance, that a 'properly' organised and recognised-as-authoritative Lambeth Conference and Primates' Meetings in between Lambeth Conferences becomes our magisterium.

"An Anglican Magisterium's role would not be to determine every correct thought an Anglican should have [ :) ], but to assist the world Anglican Communion in understanding what its common understanding of doctrine and practice consists of, and, in respect of novel proposals, or departures from existing agreed doctrine and practice, what it does not consist of!"

"I do understand that around the Communion a number of people, for various reasons, feel strongly that a body with authority to declare what is our common doctrine and practice and what is not, is a bad thing. I simply find it inescapable that continuing lack of this body means we will continue to fragment and divide as a Communion. I think that is a bad thing too!

Peter is on to something. It is the same "something" that has been bothering Anglican theologians for some thirty years now, really since the spread of the ordination of women.  The question is, how do we understand our staying together when there are matters of serious division to deal with?

Back in 1930 the Lambeth Conference opined that churches in the Anglican Communion are bound together "not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference." 

What is lacking is this "mutual loyalty" and I submit it is in part lacking because Anglican bishops increasingly represent a more and more widely dispersed cultural, linguistic and ethnic characteristics and more widely differing "second religions." The problem is they (and we) have not dealt with that reality.

The differences among bishops is deep enough to make the loyalty difficult and costly. We can hope that common counsel of the bishops in conference is not based on coming to agreement on this or that matter of judgment, program or doctrine. The common counsel is about sharing the one thing the Church expects bishops to live into - namely the vow to have oversight for the Church, for Christ's sake.  Loyalty based on mutual care for one another in the difficult positions they into which God and the Church have put them is the "glue" that ought to hold this Communion together.

I guess I am not as interested in the teaching magisterium of the bishops as I am in their willingness to hear one another out.  I know bishops who as young men were sent to the side door of the Episcopal residence in their diocese because they were "native" clergy or "colored." I know of bishops who resent to this day the years they felt they had to come to their "agency" or church leaders hat in hand to ask for support for work that those agencies and churches had begun. And I know bishops who have worked hard to support churches "overseas" and resent that even the minimal courtesy of reporting back on the work done was not forthcoming.   Bishops gathering at Lambeth may be moving to a post-colonial place, but they are not there yet. There is plenty of distrust and unresolved matters to go around and not nearly enough efforts to nourish mutual loyalty.

The reason why the Anglican Communion is in trouble of cracking is not, I submit, primarily about doctrine or moral stances. It is mostly about the lack of mutual loyalty built on common counsel. A Lambeth Conference consultation on mission is much more important than a Lambeth Conference magisterium.  

And yet Peter is on some level right not to let us get away with this. I would like the Anglican Communion at "its highest level" to conclude that slavery in any form is antithetical to the Gospel and its implications.  My sense is, the "highest level" is bishops gathered for consultation, and their comments, letters and resolutions can provide support for the church working at its own level - namely in the dioceses of the various churches.  Beyond that I am less certain. 

I don't believe the solution to our problems is central authority, but dispersed - that is widely shared - mutual care.


  1. Hi Mark,
    I sense that we would both like to be in the same place, an Anglican Communion which holds together rather than fragments, but see different routes to that place. I wonder if a very slight advantage to my route is that I think I can argue that Anglicans have not really and truly tried it yet (i.e. it might succeed despite naysayers) whereas your route (I would argue) has been tried and, well, look where it has taken us!

  2. A teaching magisterium is a profoundly bad idea.

    It inevitably falls - as the episcopacy has frequently done - to the lowest common denominator, and those are not the people who should be speaking for any part of the Body of Christ.

    Frankly, I still hold out hope for the death of this alleged communion, and may it be buried with a compass rose through its heart. It's become nothing - absolutely nothing - but a profound waste of good peoples' time, appealing to a queasy sentimentalism of "but we're all family" or a flawed notion that church has done a better job than secular charity organizations.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.