SAID the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, to me in the previous November when I had been appointed to the bishopric of Southwark: "Shall we fix a date for your consecration? It must be a Saint's Day, so I think May I 1959, the feast of S S Philip and James, would be appropriate." "Yes sir," I replied with suppressed glee, as the headmaster had not realised that this "red letter day" had more than one interpretation: for the Left, and in particular for the USSR, it was the day of all days to proclaim the glories of socialist revolution.
It is sometimes said that I successfully twisted the primate's tail in this choice of date in the interests of my political views; alas I can claim no such machiavellian masterstroke; the former headmaster of Repton would no more think of consulting one than he would have thought of asking his prefects to determine the dates for the beginning and end of term. In fact when 1 come to think of it, Fisher, whom I liked personally and with whom 1 had several rows, treated the bishops as monitors and prefects. He spoke to us with an "infallibility" that Rome might envy.
THE word "infallibility" causes me to reflect on the progress, if any, that has been made between our two churches during the past 30 years. The "if any" may suggest I am a cynic. I hope not. But I should be less than honest if I were to give the impression that I considered the position as
hopeful as it was when good Pope John XXIII attracted the love and admiration of millions from all creeds and none.
I sometimes compare President Gorbachev with him in so far as both men ushered in an era of hope and changes. Just as most governments in the west assumed that the Iron Curtain and all that it represented in terms of intransigent Marxist domination made impossible serious collaboration between the democratic and communist states, so 30 years ago non Roman Catholic churches thought of reunion, other than a reunion which implied total submission to Rome, as a "far off divine event" to be realised not in this world, and probably not in the next.
And then came Pope John who electrified the Christian world with a vision so splendid that what had seemed impossible was now within the realm of possibility.
Alas, this vision has been shadowed by an ecclesiastical cataract. Yes, we co-operate on specific issues, we are polite to one another, we have valued Friendships, and our leaders leave their flocks to risk their lives in aeroplanes and automobiles, but the fire and the charismatic drive seems to have disappeared. Where do we go from here, or is all lost?
AS one who has been a bishop for 30 years and a priest for 52, I look back to my first reunion conference before the war to which I was sent by my diocese.
And then I think of the conferences galore with other denominations in England and Europe, and I recall especially the immense privilege I had of the two private sessions with Pope John and with Athenagoras, the Oecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople: and as I reflect 1 put forward these suggestions:
(1) The Church of England must be left to make up its own mind on what it believes to be the best way forward. No pressure should be brought upon it by other denominations. What is more, if pressure groups within the Church of England try to use other denominations as tools for their own purposes, I counsel caution.
(2) The Church of England is painfully facing the problem of the ordination of women. No matter what we who constitute a single unit within the Anglican Communion decide, other denominations, especially the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox, must face the fact that other units within the Anglican Communion have already admitted women to Holy Orders.
(3) The relationship that exists between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches may provide a guide for establishing a constructive relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. For instance (a) the Orthodox Church does not accept the Primacy of the Pope as is commonly understood by Roman Catholics, nor does it accept the doctrine of papal infallibility; (b) the Orthodox Church is not committed to some Marian doctrines which are de fide in the Church of Rome and
which are unacceptable to most Anglicans: eg the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. the Assumption.
If differences of theological opinion are permitted between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox without damaging their basic relationship, why should there not be a similar relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and t he Anglican Communion?
(4) Officially the Roman Catholic Church regards Anglican orders as "null arid void" although the position may have changed in view of the fact that most if not all bishops in the Church of England have Old Catholic Orders, either directly or indirectly. Be that as it may, it is not for Anglicans to defend what we believe requires no defence. And it is helpful to remember that some Orthodox churches have already accepted the validity of Anglican orders de jure while others have accepted them de facto pending_ an Ecumenical Conference.
Learning by numbers
MORE important than these differences of opinion with regard to ecclesiastical matters is the fact of the dramatic decline in church membership as evidenced by baptism, communion and ordination statistics in all denominations during my episcopate. What is more the average age of the clergy is, I am informed, over 50. I can only wonder what the position will be 30 years hence. Will the faithful have to baton on the doors of retired priests and convey them in ambulances on Christmas Eve to croak the Midnight Mass from their stretchers and invalid chairs?
What are the reasons for the decline? These possible explanations occur to me:
(i) The reluctance of the church to face the deep intellectual problems which the Bishop of Durham, together with others, is bringing to the fore. Whether Dr Jenkins is judicious in his approach and his vocabulary is not my business, but I am sure he is right to sound a warning, and to urge a solution. We lost the intellectual battle in the last century in matters of biblical criticism and theories of creation; and we may lose a more serious and definitive battle in
this when the existence of God is widely repudiated.
(ii) The churches arc sexobsessed. Too often it seems that the one implication of the Gospel on which judgement depends is adherence to a code of sexual morality which, in many respects, ignores the advances that have been made in the scientific understanding of our sexual constitutions. To insist upon the evils of birth control, of loving and lasting homosexual relationships, of the re-marriage of those who, perhaps as
teenagers, made disastrous partnerships, is as cruet as if is ridiculous. To deny the sacraments to those involved in these situations is to give the impression that the Church is content to remain in the academic era of the dinosaur and the mammoth.
(iii) The churches are too much concerned with The Church the ecclesia and too little with The Kingdom — the basileia. The Church is the instrument for the furtherance of the Kingdom and if it fails in its job by devoting its interest to its own ecclesiastical concerns then as Jesus said "The Kingdom shall be taken from you and given to a nation that produces its fruits". As I reflect on 30 years as a bishop I doubt whether the carpenter of Nazareth would have been admitted either to the General Synod, or to the Vatican Council.