What is an apostle - what does it mean to be an apostolic church (as claimed in the creed)? 'Apostle' literally means one who is sent - as when early in his ministry Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs to preach to the people of Israel - but more commonly it means to be a witness to the resurrection. This after all is the historical origin of the church, and that is the sense in which St Paul is an apostle, following Road to Damascus experience.
Now one of the ways in which the church has understood itself to be in succession to the apostles is through the laying on of hands, whereby Peter and the apostles laid hands on the first Bishops, and they then laid hands on their successors down the generations. Now this is a deeply rooted biblical principle, whereby spiritual gifts are passed on in this manner. Consider Moses (Deut 34.9), St Peter (Acts 8.17) and the advice in Hebrews 6.1-2.
However, this is, to say the least, a source of some debates between different denominations. To put the question formally, is the laying on of hands the sine qua non of apostolic faith? This is a particular debate between the Church of England and the Methodist church - for the Methodist claim is that whilst there was no explicit transmission of apostolicity in terms of an episcopal laying on of hands and consecration, nevertheless the apostolic faith is preserved in the Methodist church. What might that mean?
Well, if the heart of apostolicity is witnessing to the resurrection then we can ask: what does it mean to be a witness? Surely the heart of witnessing to the resurrection is the transformation of life within the believing community, ie the presence of the fruits of the spirit. In other words, where there is the presence of love as a way of life, modelled on Christ's own love for his community, then that is a sign that the apostolic faith is present. This would seem to be especially so when a way of life is modelled at great expense, eg martyrdom or other extreme sufferings.
So why am I musing on this at the moment? Consider Rowan's letter to the Central Floridians, where he said:
The organ of union with the wider Church is the Bishop and the Diocese rather than the Provincial structure as such. Those who are rushing into separatist solutions are, I think, weakening that basic conviction of Catholic theology and in a sense treating the provincial structure of The Episcopal Church as if it were the most important thing... I should feel a great deal happier, I must say, if those who are most eloquent for a traditionalist view in the United States showed a fuller understanding of the need to regard the Bishop and the Diocese as the primary locus of ecclesial identity rather than the abstract reality of the ‘national church’.
Now I can understand what Rowan is getting at with these remarks - in one sense it is a straightforward declaration of catholic ecclesiology, one with which I have customarily been in instinctive sympathy. Yet what the remarks have clarified for me is an increasing awareness that this catholic ecclesiology is insufficient, and potentially harmful. I'm not about to become a congregationalist but I'm much more open than I have been to that perspective. In large part it's the impact of spending time getting to know my colleagues in the other churches on the island (I'm chair of our Churches Together organisation). What I want to ask is: what is missing when this catholic ecclesiology is absent? Or, to put that differently, in what way (if any) is, say, a Methodist Christian lacking something? The answer I would want to try and explore would involve some sort of description of the wider church, ie that episcopacy in this catholic sense is precisely about acknowledging being a part of a wider whole, and acknowledging the boundaries of unity set up by that wider whole.
The trouble is that this wider whole is itself fragmented, the fundamental fragmentation coming in the 11th century between East and West. In this situation of brokenness an insistence on catholic unity can itself undermine the more fundamental purpose of witnessing to the apostolic faith itself. That is, the preservation of a catholic ecclesiology can itself prevent the Christ-like love which is the primary hallmark of apostolic witness. This seems especially likely in the US.
It seems particularly bizarre in Anglican terms to elevate this catholic ecclesiology above the national identity, for the Church of England was formed as national church; as I understand it, the CofE is in its self understanding 'the church in England', ie the catholic church as defined by national boundaries. (John Richardson has an extremely interesting post on this here with which I am in much sympathy. I often find myself in sympathy with John's point of view, even when I disagree with him, which some might find surprising). I have often thought that, with regard to the Reformation debates, and the Roman Catholic dismissal of the validity of Anglican orders, the important point was the continuity of the church communities in place; in other words, that Christ remained present with his people no matter what was going on in the stratosphere of Kings and Popes. The real problem with that, though, is that the acceptance of other Christian denominations in the 19th Century was the most important change in Anglican ecclesiology - for that turned the Church of England from being simply the catholic church in this land into just another denomination.
I'm coming to the conclusion that the Church of England is about to metamorphose. I was tempted to say 'die' but one of the things I ponder much is the high quality of people whom I see as potential ordinands (I'm Warden of Ordinands in this area of Essex). God is really much too busy with strengthening the resources of the church beneath the surface for the CofE to simply 'die'; there's also the small matter of establishment which acts like the lead keel allowing the yacht to withstand the harshest of storms. I wonder if there is a place that members of Fulcrum and Affirming Catholicism could stand in, as that might be the form which 'inherits' the structures of the CofE (see this post). A secondary question is: would I want to stand there? As time goes on I am more and more committed to the essential task of gathering the Body together - that's what this current Learning Church sequence is really all about. Fragmentation is a sin - yet we are mired in sin and cannot avoid it. We are going to be forced to choose.