Not long ago I wrote about A hopeful moment in the Church of England, hopeful because
the church is beginning to realise part of what I wrote last December, that the parish system is a historical relic which is not helpful in the 21st century and needs to be abolished, or at least radically modified.
Today may be another hopeful moment because of the publication of the Manchester report into women bishops in the Church of England, reported by Ruth Gledhill in The Times. It seems hopeful to me not because it is a step towards the acceptance of women bishops in the church. My welcome for this step is somewhat muted because the path on which the step is being taken is so long and convoluted. But today is hopeful for me because the report fundamentally undermines the principle of geographical dioceses, the other anachronism which I wrote about last December.
Of course this principle has already been seriously, but unofficially, undermined in North America, first in the United States, and more recently in Canada with the defection of several Anglican Church of Canada congregations, and clergy, to the Province of the Southern Cone. But today for the first time there has been acceptance in an official report of the Church of England of the principle that, in effect, a congregation or parish may choose to separate from the diocese in which it is geographically located and join one of, in Ruth Gledhill’s words,
A series of new dioceses that would transcend geographical boundaries.
As Ruth continues, adoption of these proposals
would also set a new precedent in altering for the first time the centuries old principal of dioceses being determined by geographical boundaries. As a precedent adopted by the Church of England, the mother church of the entire Anglican Communion, it could even offer a way forward to a body in the throes of schism over how to accommodate those in favour and against gay ordination.
Indeed. In fact the mixed messages coming from those close to Archbishop Rowan Williams on the situation in North America, as well as the publication of the Manchester report, suggest that at least serious thought is being given to officially accepting this kind of breakup of the diocese and province system internationally. The reason why this idea is perhaps being taken seriously is because, at least as I see things, it is the only way to preserve some semblance of a united Anglican Communion.
But of course this could be seen as the start of a slippery slope towards a situation in which each congregation chooses for itself which bishop to put itself under. That prospect may be seen as too radical and divisive for the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.