Monday, November 2, 2009

Law and Gospel

The two words "Canon Law" often get you one of those glazed looks, even at clergy gatherings where most folks should know better. However, it is a "true saying and full worthy of all acceptation" that no human institution of any size can survive without some sort of Law for its governance. In the case of Canon Law, this administrative function is coupled to the higher function of preserving the Sacraments and Ministry from profanation and irreverence.

Canon Law was something that evolved slowly over the centuries. Ecumenical Councils and Provincial Synods, and at times Diocesan Synods, legislated for the Church with the result that a vast body of Law, broadly similar in many of its principles, but varying in detail grew up over the centuries. From c.1200 Rome's role as an appeal court for the western Church helped to give Canon Law a more uniform basis, but it 1917 before a unified Codex of Canon Law was published.

In England, Wales and Ireland, quite a lot of Canon Law was absorbed into Common Law, and is only now being rooted out in the name of Secularism. The result of this Common/Canon Law over lap was that at the Reformation the basic purview of Canon Law was the clergy and the sacraments, church buildings and how they were used and furnished; those elements of Canon Law which dealt with marriage and property were part of Common Law. Also, things like the due form for appointing a bishop were part of Statute Law, so much was the Church bound up with the Establishment.

The inertia of the Establishment meant that a lot of the tensions that could lead to schism were absorbed in the late mediaeval tangle of rights and privileges that protected clergy from bishops, bishops from the clergy, and the clergy from the laity. The Church of England did suffer schisms, but they were departures of people who basically did not share its theology and ethos - the Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Baptists to name three. The Non-Jurors, loyal High Churchmen though they were, departed over what was essentially a political principle. The Methodists were lost through a mixture of inertia and misunderstanding, coupled with the desire of the Methodist preachers to govern their own house. On the whole, the Church of England and the Church of Ireland rubbed along quite happily as part of the Establishment in a compaitively homogenous cultural and spiritual environment.

In Scotland and America things developed differently. The Scottish Episcopal Church developed a fairly comprehensive Canon Law to govern its internal affairs. This was couple to a great respect for the function of the College of Bishops as the final court of appeal. The Scottish love of Logic did the rest, and apart from the "English Episcopalians" of the mid-1840s, the SEC stayed together fairly well and was even able to absorb the old "Qualified Congregations" into its busom.

The American Church's Constitution and Canons provided an excellent framework, but an inadequate one. It required some very careful handling from Bishop White (PA 1787-1836) to stop disputes between bishops escalating into open schism. Eventually, the House of Bishops was large enough for most trivial disputes to get lost in the mix. The major disputes between Evangelical and Catholic tendancies took place against the background of mutual loyalty to the Protestant Episcopal Church. The PECUSA only suffered two significant departures, that of Bishop Cummins and a few dozen his Evangelical clergy friends in 1873, and of the Anglican Church of North America (Episcopal) following the St Louis Congress in 1977.

Both the REC and the 1977 ACNA(E) suffered in their early days from both lack of experienced leadership, and some pretty strong personalities in the top slots. There were times in the early days when the Chicago Synod and the Philadelphia Synods of the REC were at each other's throats (the REC in England actually split), and the history of the Continuum has been fraught with dispute and schism. Much of this was due to three factors:

1. No clear method of resolving disputes within the College of Bishops
2. A failure to appreciate the need for a clear Canon Law to resolve disputes and provide guidance on how the church should be governed, coupled with a preparedness to set aside Canon Law in the name of political expediency.
3. The dominance of Churchmanship over loyalty to the denomination.

It was these factors that lead to the break-up of the original College of Bishops. However, human beings tend to learn from their errors, (except for Socialists) so in order to see what the future of the Continuum might hold, we have to ask the question who has learned from the mistakes of the early days?

Without a shadow of a doubt both the Anglican Catholic Church and the Anglican Province of Christ the King have both learned the lesson. Both jurisdictions go to great lengths to obey the provisions of their Canon Law Codes. Of course occasional mistakes are made, but these usually do not usually compromise the integrity of the Church.

The only serious split that the ACC has experienced since it internationalised its Canon Law took place because a group of bishops put their own interests above the Law of the Church. Although this may seem like a failure, the rule of law within the ACC still allowed the damage to be limited, and in the UK, many of the parishes that were syphoned off by the departing bishop have returned to the fold. It is also becoming evident that the ACC's stability is becoming attractive to an increasing number of Continuing Anglican not just in the USA, but in the UK, Africa, and Australia.

APCK has displayed a similar tendancy towards stability encouraged and enforced by the rule of Law. However, the more uniform Churchmanship - a product of Archbishop Morse's thirty years as bishop and of its reliance on its own seminary - have tended to set boundaries to internal disputes. As a result there have been very few major departures from APCK; the two that have occured have been over issues on which their Canons do not speak clearly - the ordination of divorced and remarriage men, and Ecumenicism.

Of course, even though Law can help prevent disputes and provide for the administration of the Church, it should never blind us to the need for the Church to be committed - first and foremost - to preaching the Gospel. A shared vision of the Catholic Faith and a broad and tolerant understanding of the orthodox Anglican tradition is the surest way of preventing schism. The two working together will eventually produce a strong and unified Church which will be able to successfully combat the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil and show forth the glory of the Gospel.


  1. Your Grace:

    One quibble, one of the APCK splits noted in the post was not about ordination of divorced and remarried men, as the men in question were once married, having obtained valid annulments. Rather, the dispute was actually whether clergymen could obtain an effectual annulment -- a point I would have thought long settled in Anglican tradition, which has always treated clerics and laymen equally regarding marriage discipline. So, the real problem in that schism was not the clarity of the APCK canons but whether Anglican or Romish general principles ought apply, quite similarly to the ACC's "Marian Schism." Which amplifies your point that not even the best set of canons can resolve every dispute, especially when one of the parties is not even pretending to follow the spirit of Anglicanism, but rather another that of a foreign communion.

  2. A fair point. However, the APCK Canon is a little lacking clarity.

    Being from the other side of the Pond it took me a long while to get used to the whole Annulment business. Growing up in the Church of England in the 1970s and 80s even most liberal clergymen would not marry a couple where one partner was divorced, and the Church of England had no annulment process.

    I tend to regard the annulment process as being pastorally helpful, but I think several things need to be remembered:

    1. Marriage is still indissoluable; an annulment says that a previous marriage did not satisfy the Canonical requirements for sacramental validity.
    2. It should always be regarded as an exceptional procedure - even though statisically it may not be.
    3. That it should not be used to cover up serial monogamy.

    Also, the Continuing Churches need to reach a common mind on the ordination of men who have an annulled marriage in their background and have subsequently remarriage. They also need to agree on their interpretation of 1 Tim. 3,2. Otherwise disputes like that in the APCK a few years back will continue to arise. However, that still won't deal with the "perverse and contentious."

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