Pressing issues facing the Church of Ireland.
The Need for Continuing Reform in the Church of Ireland
A Discussion Document
The basic identity of the Church of Ireland can be seen in a document entitled 'The Preamble and Declaration' (near the back of BCP 1926). There we read that the denomination is 'Ancient, Catholick and Apostolick' as well as 'Reformed and Protestant'. 'Ancient' ought not to suggest that we should live in the past, though our roots are there. Nor does 'Reformed and Protestant' suggest that we live in the 16th century. Anglicanism is on the Reformed/Protestant side of the 16th century divide and recent Hooker scholarship has borne that out and made the necessary correction to the notion of John Henry Newman and others that Hooker was a via media theologian who sought to move the Church of England away from the Reformation heritage.
The Church is in constant need of reformation. Our denomination must be open to correction - ecclesia semper reformanda. This need has been well expressed by Carl R Trueman in his recent book Reformation: Yesterday, To-day & Tomorrow: "the reformed church is always in need of reforming. The point is simple: reformation is not something which happens at one point in time and then ceases. Indeed, as soon as we rest content with our outward forms, as soon as we stop asking ourselves the question of whether the way we do things is honouring to God and truly reflects God's grace, then we have failed as reformers. Reformation is an ongoing, critical exercise which must in its very essence avoid any complacency which rests content with the status quo. It starts in the hearts of men and women, boys and girls, and works itself out in the practices and testimony of the church as a whole." (page 27)
Several areas are in urgent need of reformation. Six are listed below:
1 The Theological College/Education
A new principal will soon be appointed to the CITC. An important part of his work will be to see that the college is truly 'the' Church of Ireland College. The name must express the reality. Where a Church has one college, as we do, it is vital that such an institution should be marked by a wide range of scholarship - both liberal and conservative. The teaching staff too must reflect the comprehensive nature of the Church of Ireland. This in turn, should have a special appeal to a wide range of students and should lead to happier relationships. In some sections of Anglicanism, 'fundamentalist liberalism' has worked against such a balanced approach and shown to be very illiberal. We need protection from such.
2 Synod Reform
This has been in the air for some time but unfortunately the General Synod 2001 failed to grasp the nettle. The representation from 'the rotten boroughs' in 18th century England had failed to take note of population shifts but the great parliamentary acts of the 19th century did much to correct that. Since 1870 the Church of Ireland has had significant population shifts and so there is now a real need for the redistribution of seats on general synod and Church committees. Unless such reform takes place in the near future this denomination will not be able to make relevant witness to society. Who speaks for the Church of Ireland?
Northern Ireland has been through a period of political reform in recent years. Such change has often been painful and no doubt the necessary reforms to general synod and other structures will carry pain too. It is vital to the Church's witness and the removal of so much apathy in significant sections of the Church.
It is good to read of suggestions that the Lambeth conference may be moved outside England and so acknowledge the fact that more than 2/3 of Anglicanism is non-white.
3 The Episcopate
The episcopate is in need of reform too. The work load in Connor and Down is very much heavier than in Tuam or Limerick. This problem needs to be addressed. The method by which Bishops are elected requires fresh examination. Recently a new Archbishop was elected for the diocese of Sydney. Some 700 members of their synod took part in the election. Clergy and laity were thoroughly represented. The present electoral college system in the C of I means that smallish bodies are responsible for episcopal elections. Necessary attention should be paid to the election procedures used elsewhere in the Anglican Communion.
Respect for conscience has ever been part of our Reformed tradition: 'My conscience is captive to the Word of God' is embedded in our psyche. One such example of respect for individual conscience can be seen in the ordination service. The notes prior to the AOS (1993) Ordinal have an important note on vesture:
- After the ordination prayer deacons or priests are vested with a scarf or stole according to individual choice. . .(page 97)
- In the service the rubric reads - "each of the newly ordained deacons is vested with a scarf or stole" (page 105)
This law of the Church should be observed at every ordination and in every diocese. Conscience must be respected and ordinands treated with courtesy.
4 Personal supervision/Interview techniques
Pastoral caring is at the very heart of the relationship between a cleric and the Bishop in a diocese. Where an interview may involve discipline it is especially important that the Bishop should be "a shepherd, not a wolf....Be so merciful, that you be not too remiss; so minister discipline, that you forget not mercy...." (BCP, when the Bible is delivered to a new Bishop).
It is usual for a Bishop to be alone at the time of a pastoral interview. Sometimes he may be accompanied by another person. Where that is so it is very important that the interviewee should have the right to be accompanied by a friend or in special circumstances by a solicitor. Due notice should be given when the Bishop will be accompanied by another person. Human rights issues may be involved here.
5 CACTM Reform
In recent years there has been widespread concern over the operation of selection procedures for those to be accepted to train for the ordained ministry. It is important that:
- Such selection panels should be truly representative - North/South, male/female, clerical/lay, evangelical/catholic.
- The names of those who have served on such panels should be made public. Openness and accountability which are so much part of our everyday world should also be part of Church life. Indeed the Church should give a lead here. Justice is ever the mark of prophetic ministry.
- It may be necessary in the future to have an ombudsman to supervise any complaints in the operation of the selection system.
6 Rediscovery of the importance of Confirmation
The place of confirmation has been to the fore in synod discussions in recent years. Confirmation in the middle teens has been very much part of C of I life and preparation for the rite has been a very important part of the pastor's role. Many young people have come to personal faith in their middle teens through such preparation. Young people have moved from a concrete/literal way of thinking to a more conceptual one and so are better suited to a more mature understanding of faith and to the inner meaning of the HC service to which they are now admitted under our own domestic rubric: every person ought to present himself for Confirmation (unless prevented by some urgent reason) before he partakes of the LORD'S SUPPER (BCP Confirmation service).
Since the 1950s it has become fashionable to assert that baptism is the sacrament of complete initiation. Any notion of a two-stage process (Baptism + Confirmation) is ruled out. The Ely Report in 1971 gave impetus to the one-stage theology as did much writing through Grove booklets. Questions still remain in the face of modern fashion (passing?).
- Where does the need for personal faith come in? What about justification by faith? (Article 11) What about the need for right reception of the sacraments? (Articles 27 & 28).
- Are all the baptised fully initiated? What about Simon Magus at Acts 8:9-25? And the thief at the cross who remained unbaptised? St Luke 23
- Is not confirmation an ideal opportunity to profess faith and so complete sacramental initiation in actual experience? Will earlier Communion lead to more Biblical illiteracy?
- How can we protect ourselves from mechanical views of grace where confirmation is reduced in value or children admitted to HC at a very young age?
A very important Cof E report published in 1948 entitled The Theology of Christian Initiation deserves to be better known. The membership of the committee which drew up that report included such well known scholars as Michael Ramsey, JRS Taylor, CFD Moule and Stephen Neill. In that report we read:
- 'the note of personal response is conspicuous in the theology of initiation in the New Testament.....in view of this, it is not to be thought that the Baptism of Infants (defensible though we believe the practice to be) can bear the whole weight of theological meaning which the New Testament places upon the Initiation of Adults....' (page 12).
- 'there is the suggestion that, for pastoral reasons, children should be admitted to the Holy Communion at an early age, and that Confirmation should normally be administered at an age some years later than admission to Holy Communion. We are convinced that this sequence obscures that initiatory aspect of confirmation which is essential to its meaning in the teaching of the early Church.....' (page 24)
In a letter to the Church Times Professor Anthony Thiselton of Nottingham University raised a crucial question: 'has the discussion about the admission of children to holy communion....taken seriously enough the greater emphasis placed by Paul on the danger of "drinking judgement" in 1 Cor 11:26-32, than on missing out on a blessing?' He added a personal note "I was confirmed at 12, and should not like to have 'drifted' into receiving communion without this public marker of my own endorsement of what parents or sponsors vowed on my behalf at baptism." (Church Times 9/5/97).
At General Synod 2001 the Bishops of the Cof I took a different approach from the 1948 Report. The Irish Bishops brought forward legislation to change the final rubric in the BCP Confirmation service and so open the way for small children and indeed infants to receive the bread and wine. The Synod failed to accept this. Many rejoiced that we had been spared the confusion that would have followed. It is alarming to read that after General Synod one Bishop suggested at his Diocesen Synod that Bishops may have to provide their own personal guidelines. Are we all free to do what we like? Does a Bishop have the right to set aside the decisions of General Synod? Which ones? Are we all free to choose our own areas?
30th June 2001