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The perils of Surbiton

02 November 2006

THE ordinations in Surbiton on 2 November were, on one level, of no concern to the Church of England. A bishop of the long-established Church of England in South Africa - which has never been a Church in communion with the see of Canterbury - ordained three new ministers in his Church. It is immaterial that the three were formerly Anglican laymen. Many Christians switch denominational allegiance for practical, theological, or personal reasons.

On another level, the incident has significance for Anglicans. A form supporting the ordination has attracted 177 signatories (at the time of writing), mostly conservative Evangelical Anglicans, many ordained. Their intentions in signing are not entirely clear, but the effect is to associate them with the refusal by the Revd Richard Coekin, Assistant Minister of the Proprietary Chapel of Emmanuel, to accept the authority of the Bishop of Southwark. The reason he gives is Dr Butler's refusal to condemn the recent House of Bishops statement on civil partnerships; but behind this protest lie the ambitions of the conservative Evangelical network Reform. Meeting a week ago, its members rejected the use of Resolution C to obtain the ministry of a provincial episcopal visitor as a sign of impaired communion with diocesan bishops. A plausible inference is that this would not be radical or confrontational enough: the Resolutions, it is stated, "do not, in themselves, help in the process of reforming the episcopate".

If these actions represent a spirit of defiance at large in the Church, the Surbiton ordinations are not a true test of it. The ordaining bishop was not an Anglican. Mr Coekin's congregations meet in schools, not parish churches. If parochial congregations were to follow suit in some way, it is hard to see what they would gain. Mr Coekin's licence to officiate has been withdrawn; this would be a likely result of similar action elsewhere. Legislative change currently in the pipeline is set to ensure that in future the freehold no longer protects other clerics working under other conditions of service from liability to discipline.

An irritating aspect of this affair for the Southwark diocesan authorities is the matter of nomenclature. It has already affected the way the incident has been reported. The word "Anglican" has its origins in ecclesia anglicana: the English Church. It was extended to those Churches in communion with the Church of England; and it has found its way into the name of at least one Continuing Church, the Anglican Catholic Church. This last extension has so far been on a small scale. But the Surbiton ordination may be the harbinger of more serious challenges in the name of a "pure" or "orthodox" Anglicanism. Other bishops, possibly Anglicans, not having a full grasp of the complexity of the English parish system and the Church's responsibilites to the state, might be persuaded to join in with ventures of this kind; and lay people could be confused about the ecclesial status of particular congregations. Then it would need to be made clearer where a diocesan bishop's writ runs.

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