by Jean Mayland
from Signs of the Times No. 45 - Apr 2012

In the year 2000 the Council for Christian Unity of the Church of England published a booklet entitled Bishops in Communion: Collegiality in the Service of the Koinonia of the Church.

It was actually written[viii] by the Faith and Order Advisory Group of the Council for Christian Unity who drew on ideas from the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches which had published a study of 'Episkope in the service of the koionia of the Church'.  This study explored the ways in which the collegiality of church leaders or overseers or bishops could enhance the communion of separated churches while not destroying their diversity.

Where the word koinonia was used, however, it was taken to mean a unity which embraces difference and not a uniformity. The report of the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches states that

'Unity and diversity are the twin elements in Christian Koinonia, but the diversity must have its limits... a diversity which divides and excludes, thus destroying the life of the body of Christ, is unacceptable'.[i]

The Faith and Order Booklet examined ways in which the collegiality of Bishops might enhance the communion of the Church of England i.e. its inner unity. This booklet sets out some of the implications of collegiality and koinonia for the Church of England and its House of Bishops in particular. It admits that

'the subject is a relatively new one in Anglican Ecclesiology.  Neither is there in practice a full expression of the ministry of collegiality while churches remain separate'.[ii]

The Group also claimed that

'In exploring the issue of collegiality FOAG became convinced  that it was best set within an understanding of the Church as communion or fellowship (koinonia) in which every member has a part  to play'.[iii]

They went on, however, to claim that in maintaining koinonia Bishops had a special role.  They must hold together the local community with other communities. Bishops are representative of Christ in a special way. Their collegiality should always be understand within the collegiality of the whole body but in that body they had a special leadership role to play. Exercising that leadership Bishops must act in ways that were true to the collegial agreement of their fellow bishops.

What was applied to the Church of England FOAG began to apply  to the whole Anglican Communion too. The Document stressed the importance  of the Bishops working in collegiality and agreement, but maintained that

'In the Anglican Communion the collegiality of bishops is always understood within the conciliatory of the whole body.'[iv]

It admits that in the process of discernment different and even opposing views will be held.

So far as the Church of England's is concerned the Report admits that

'Collegiality can sometimes impose limitations on the ministry of bishops  yet there may be occasions when, in conscience, an individual bishop feels compelled to resist the common mind'.[v]

This sounds lovely and is written in Dr Tanner's smooth style. In fact  it did not work out like that.

Dr Carey had been surprised to become Archbishop and was at first not at all sure of himself. He needed to be surrounded by bishops who would not break rank  and who supported lines that were laid down.

Soon irreverent comments began to circulate about bishops having their backbones removed  when they were consecrated! Men of independent mind and courage suddenly became a crowd of passive people ready to sing from the same hymn sheet. They were all instructed to support the Act of Synod and Flying Bishops and oppose the ordination of gay and lesbian men and women. Obediently the majority did so - at least openly although they might be drawn to say something different in secret.

This trend continued with Dr Williams and it seemed essential for Bishops and indeed clergy and lay people not to challenge him in General Synod. Bishops must toe the party line and clergy and laity were made to feel guilty if they voted against him. It was not so in the first 20 years of Synodical Government as I well know.

We can see the harmful results of the application of the principle of Collegiality  in the Church of England at the moment and in the wider Anglican Communion.

In the Church of England, Bishops feel that they must be true to the 'party line';  established by the Archbishops and a majority of their colleagues instead of speaking and acting in ways that their conscience believes to be right.

For example there are bishops who support the concept of women bishops and believe that those who are opposed should be content to accept a canonically consecrated male bishop in the place of their woman Bishop. Yet they feel obliged to support the Archbishops in their desire to provide for those who oppose women bishops a special line of 'untainted' male bishops even though to have such an arrangement is in fact heretical.

Many Bishops want to be able to ordain openly gay clergy in committed relationships  and bless Civil Partnerships in Church. Yet they feel obliged by the requirements of Collegiality to 'toe the line' of the so called 'Bishops Report' and reject them. Gone are the giants who dare challenge these views and Church and society are poorer as a result. Moreover the pain of it all is borne by those pushed to the margins - women and faithful lesbian and gay Christians. Such sycophancy has also led to a failure to act strongly against clergy and leaders who in the past have committed sexual abuse of down loaded images of children being abused. Conscience is in fact stronger than Collegiality and is ignored at a Bishop's peril. The net effect of all this is to widen the gulf between the Church of England and the rest of society to which as Established Church it should have a special care.

Many Church of England Bishops are known to be opposed to the proposed Anglican Covenant  and yet they dare not say so openly because of this message of collegiality and not upsetting the Archbishops. So they not only vote for the Covenant but push it through their own Dioceses by only providing papers and speakers in favour. Only one Diocesan Bishop has had the courage to vote against the Covenant. Only two retired Bishops have spoken out publicly against it.

In the Anglican Communion in the past Provinces have done what they believe to be right and maintained friendship with those Provinces who behave differently over such matters as remarriage after divorce, contraception and women bishops. Even then women have suffered from not being fully recognized, but the Communion has hung together.

Now we are told that in the Anglican Communion we all need to hold together in 'Conciliarity and Collegiality'. In other words if a Church does not accept the will of the majority. it is being selfish and breaking the unity and so must be punished.

It has been claimed that

'the worst punishment that is being suggested is suspension from participation  in the instruments of communion. Given that these rebelling churches do not accept  their accountability to these same instruments, this hardly seems like  dire punishment'.[vi]

This is an insult to the American Episcopal Church. That Church is NOT saying that African Christians for example should follow their line. What they are asking  is that Africans and others recognize that in their situation  the actions they are taking are a necessary part of their mission and this does not mean that they do nor value the fellowship of the Anglican Communion. They do hold the Anglican Communion in great regard but want it to uphold the kind of unity which it has displayed for centuries. They want to hold on to the Anglican notion of unity which allows for and embraces differences. Moreover in this the American Church does not stand alone. There are many Anglicans in England, Scotland, New Zealand etc who feel the same.

As two Anglican Bishops - John Saxbee and Peter Selby - said in a letter to the Church Times

'this is a time to hold fast to Anglicanism's inherited culture of inclusion and respectful debate which is our way of dealing with difference rather than require assent to procedures and words that have already shown themselves to be divisive.'[vii]

One Diocesan Bishop, defending the Covenant, has told his people that

'My desire is that we be a communion rather than a federation'.

My argument is that the Anglican Communion has always been a Communion as it gave room for difference. The Covenant would stop us being a Communion and attempt to turn us into an authoritarian Church like the worldwide Roman Catholic Church - a Church which wants to impose a narrow way and makes no place for differences of culture in life and mission. This must be resisted at all cost.


[i] Signs of the Spirit - official report of the seventh assembly,  WCC ̓1991 p. 249
[ii] Bishops in Communion - Collegiality in the service  of the Koinonia of the Church, Church House Publishing 2000, p. ix Introduction
[iii] Ibid, p. ix
[iv] Ibid, p. 31
[v] Ibid, p. 43
[vi] Extract from paper by Peter Doll, Canon Librarian of Norwich Cathedral.  He is American but has served in the Church of England since his ordination in 1995.
[vii] Church Times, 6/1/2012
[viii] The printed edition mistakenly includes a reference to Dr Mary Tanner as one of the authors. This has been corrected here.

Jean Mayland is a retired priest and former Co-ordinating Secretary and  Assistant General Secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.