Life in the Church – part 5 “Quis et unde?”

In 2018, I was faced with a challenging combination of circumstances. With our third child now expected, my family had outgrown San Luigi House and needed a bigger home. Moreover, having elderly family members living on the other side of the country, we no longer wished to make marathon train journeys to see them. Added to this, the AEC had continued to grow overseas, but had dwindled in Great Britain to the point where I was now the only remaining clergyman in major orders. With the exception of my own family, the remaining laity were, through age and geographical disparity, no longer in a position to form a viable worshipping community.

In such circumstances, a public chapel could no longer easily be sustained, and when we moved to Shropshire in December 2018, it was with an awareness that the provision of congregational worship in Great Britain would no longer be a priority. Even in far larger and better-resourced churches than ours, the decline in congregational worship was endemic. For all that our vision of the church is built upon the worshipping community, it proved necessary for us to reconsider how and where ministry can take place when people are no longer turning to the church as they have done in the past. Our solution was in various forms of voluntary service in the community and in the preservation of the distinctive history, tradition and identity of our communion through curation of its archives, the preparation of further book and article publications, and the maintenance of its detailed and informative website. Through all of this, we continued to support our overseas parishes and missions through practical assistance and in prayer.

During 2019, I was particularly pleased when a group of Brazilian clergy joined the Byelorussian Patriarchate, having previously been part of the related Belarusian jurisdiction of the American World Patriarchates. The creation of the Brazilian Exarchate under Dom Nagui Zayat brought about a new headquarters for our mission there in the form of the Cathedral of St George and St Sebastian in Rio de Janeiro.

The new year and the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic brought a much-needed opportunity to re-think the structure and organization of our missions going forward. The outcome of this was that the Abbey-Principality of San Luigi became the parent body for all jurisdictions, and the Catholicate of the West was established as the ecumenical organization within the Abbey-Principality under which they would be gathered.

Postscript – some general observations

I am sometimes asked how my office as a bishop in the smaller churches differs from that of bishops in the larger, mainstream denominations. Clearly there is a difference in the numbers concerned, both in respect of clergy and laity. That makes the bishop a more immediate and accessible figure in the smaller church, and also means that the bishop can undertake more in the way of a presbyteral ministry. Bureaucracy is generally more streamlined internally, but no less so in respect of conformity to external laws and requirements, which can involve multiple jurisdictions and require some degree of legislative expertise and linguistic dexterity.

A smaller church will inevitably bear the imprint of the bishop who leads it. In the modern age of centralized, committee-run churches, this is unusual, as is the directly hierarchical structure in which the presiding bishop has the final say on all matters. The model that works best in this situation is that of the benevolent dictator, but it is crucial that in exercising authority, the bishop is aware of the implications of his decisions on the church as a whole. He may have the ultimate responsibility before God, but he would be foolish not to listen to his clergy and laity. I have been surprised over the years how many outside my churches have wrongly assumed that the policy of my churches is merely a direct reflection of my own views. In fact, policy is carefully crafted bearing in mind the significance of tradition, external requirements (such as legislation), the need for accountability and the nature of the body of active clergy and laity as it may be constituted from time to time. My role is to integrate these factors and to consider, after prayer and reflection, how they may be best expressed in practice.

Probably the biggest point of similarity with the larger churches is in dealing with the clergy and the challenges they face. These raise familiar and universal themes, but within a structure such as the Catholicate of the West where the clergy are all non-stipendiary, there is the additional factor that the connexion between the clergy and their church is more readily frangible; there are many competing denominations, and where church buildings are not owned centrally, they can move jurisdiction with the clergyman in question. This tends to produce a pressure for smaller churches to advance their clergy irrespective of pastoral necessity, in order not to lose them to other churches where they might find such advancement more readily. I have always taken the view that this pressure is to be resisted. Holy Orders are conferred for the Church, not for the individual benefit of the person concerned, and it means considerably more to be a priest in a well-run church than it does to be a bishop in those jurisdictions where the episcopate is indiscriminately conferred. With most smaller churches being “top heavy”, what is actually needed is more deacons and priests, more lay ministers, and of course, more laity.

The experience of working with others within small religious bodies tends to heighten differences that would be more readily absorbed within a larger organization. When the group of clergy is small, there is a risk of dominance of the more extrovert personalities at the expense of others, and where there is a clash of ideologies or personalities it will become more readily apparent at an early stage. Over the years, I have been privileged to work with some outstandingly gifted clergy, who have been every bit the equal of those to be found in the larger churches. Notwithstanding this, there have been occasions when it has been necessary to admit that the paths of clergy have diverged to an incompatible extent from the nature of our church, and occasions where working relationships have sadly broken down. Wherever possible, my duty is to assure stability and to manage change in a way that is organic and that offers reassurance as to the way ahead.

There are inevitable difficulties in relations with members of other churches who have a prejudiced view of our traditions and practices. The smaller churches have not proved immune from the scandals of abuse that have affected the mainstream communions, and so there is a particular need for vigilance in respect of the selection of ordinands and others who may be placed in positions of trust. On a more subjective level, there are issues where I take a particular position in view of some of the more justified criticisms that have been levelled at the smaller churches over the years. I have always insisted that candidates for admission to the clergy be of graduate standing and undergo background checks (including in some cases psychological testing by a qualified professional). Those convicted of criminal offences are not eligible for admission to the clergy. I require of the clergy that they conduct a purposeful and visible ministry in the community, or follow a contemplative vocation guided by a Rule of Life.

More generally, I try to avoid “hard edges” in theological interpretation, mindful that it is the pastoral application of theology that is at the heart of Christian ministry. I have also always taken a studied disinterest in the minutiae of liturgy, ceremonial, and ecclesiastical robes, having too often seen these things lead clergy down the wrong paths and away from our proper priorities. I hold, in the words of Mar Georgius of Glastonbury, that “the most spiritual people are usually the most natural”.

Regarding the question of titles, I believe that these should serve a practical purpose within the body concerned, and be integral to the preservation of its distinctive ethos. Often, those who object to titles are objecting primarily to the hierarchy that they signify, and yet hierarchy is fundamental to the nature and governance of all the churches that I lead today, having been inherited by me as a living tradition and continued accordingly. I do not interpret Christianity as supporting egalitarianism, and neither did the overwhelming majority of Christians prior to the second half of the twentieth-century.

I am a firm believer that integrity in the episcopal office is best served by a thorough knowledge both of the Church and her mission and of oneself. The diversity of character among those called to the episcopacy is considerable; some are obvious saints, some are of almost monastic mien, some are parish priests writ large, while others are sadly clearly more at home with administrative responsibilities than with people. My own approach is to be and give of myself as much as I can, and through this, to try to lead people to Jesus by my own, inevitably flawed, example. Key to my approach is to try to meet people at the point they have reached on their spiritual journey.

The Anglican tradition of “muscular Christianity” has a certain appeal for me, and points towards a degree of unstuffiness in which the Christian way becomes the natural context for our values and behaviour, integrated indelibly into the archetypal English character and the history of our nation. I also identify with the concept of the guardian of multiple traditions, maintaining and preserving these in good order so that in due course they will survive me. Although these are sober and sometimes weighty responsibilities, I try to remain as grounded as possible and not take myself too seriously, which is an easy task with three young children.

About johnkersey

Historian, musician and educationalist.
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