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This page last updated 1 December 2003
Anglicans Online last updated 10 December 2017

an essay for Anglicans Online

The Blight of Parallel Jurisdictions
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon

Bishop-in-charge, Convocation of American Churches in Europe
Assisting Bishop, Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe
Assisting Bishop, Lusitanian Catholic Apostolic Church
Assisting Bishop, Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church
Assisting Bishop, Old Catholic Church in Germany

Every so often, someone in America is quoted as saying that the four Anglican jurisdictions in Europe are a fine example of how parallel jurisdictions work well. Why not, in light of the Robinson consecration, establish something similar in the States? This reflects a serious misunderstanding of the situation here in Europe, for we do not have parallel Anglican jurisdictions in Europe. Even worse, it is also an endorsement of the desirability of parallel jurisdictions as a solution to church conflicts. There is however nothing good about parallel jurisdictions.

The European situation is this: there are two national churches and two missionary jurisdictions. The first two, the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church and the Lusitanian Catholic Apostolic Church, have geographical jurisdictions in their respective lands, like the Episcopal Church or the Church of England. The Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe has geographical jurisdiction in Gibraltar only: the rest of its extraordinarily far-flung congregations are under the spiritual jurisdiction (the words of the diocesan constitution) of the diocesan bishop. This is because these congregations grew out of the need to provide pastoral care to the subjects of the Crown living outside the United Kingdom in Europe. Congregations accordingly are known as chaplaincies, not parishes. This reflects a further sensitivity on the part of the Church of England, the historic church of that land, toward the historic churches of Europe among whom we minister.

The Convocation of American Churches in Europe has a similar history, coming into existence officially as an area mission (the canonical term) under a bishop-in-charge as a result of action of the 1859 General Convention, which created what is now Canon I.15, Congregations in Foreign Lands. Although this writer is the first elected Bishop-in-charge, the Convocation is not an Episcopal diocese, though it functions in most respects like one. Like the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, the Bishop-in-charge exercises (on behalf of the Presiding Bishop) a spiritual jurisdiction, that is, oversight of congregations acceding to the authority of the Episcopal Church's constitution and canons,.

The Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe has a significant number of congregations in Spain and Portugal, and some of the English congregations even antedate the founding of those churches. (There are no Episcopal congregations in the Iberian Peninsula.) English and Episcopal congregations co-exist in Bologna, Bordeaux, Brussels, Florence, Geneva, Paris, and Rome, with varying degrees of collaboration among them. There are no parallel jurisdictions, however, for there are no geographical areas claimed simultaneously in any of these cities or countries.

The Lambeth Conferences since 1968 have called upon the four Anglican judicatories to seek appropriate provincial structures. While there is much work to be done, we can report significant progress. All the bishops in Europe are licensed as assisting bishops in each other's jurisdictions, which means that individual congregations can invite any bishop to preach and administer the sacraments without the diocesan's permission. Some congregations hold joint services regularly, even have joint confirmations, with an English bishop one year and an American the next.

Nevertheless, there remains a lot of work to do to develop a sense of common mission in Europe. Having four jurisdictions each with a different self-understanding often makes for much misunderstanding, especially at the local level.

It is quite clear that this situation in Europe is a unique anomaly caused by the unusual circumstances both of the missionary needs of the Anglo-Saxon churches and the founding of the Iberian churches after Vatican I. The jurisdictions do not overlap and therefore are not parallel. A better example is the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, organized in its unique tripartite structure in order to meet the needs of the Maori and Anglo populations. But it too is not a true example of parallel jurisdiction.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church have parallel jurisdictions in the United States. This reflects of course the division that existed between the two until very recently. Full communion has done much to alleviate the strain of the overlap, however, as well as heal the scars of ancient rifts. Another example is the jurisdictions of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican bishops, which overlap and have very few structural points of contact outside ecumenical committees. These too testify to the divisions of the Church. Their existence is a continual reminder of the centuries of strife among Christians, giving the lie to all our claims to be following Jesus. For the Lord's commandment has no loopholes, admits no exceptions: we are to love one another as he has loved us (John 15:12). Overlapping jurisdictions are standing stones of witness to our failure to honor Christ in each other. They are a blight upon our preaching and teaching, a pollution of the waters of Baptism and a stain on all our sacraments. There is no more telling argument in the quiver of atheists to aim at us than our schisms and the institutions — the parallel jurisdictions — that embody them.

What makes schism attractive, of course, is the arising of heresy, or the choosing of teaching not accepted by the Church. But the schism occurs precisely because people do not agree on whether this or that doctrine is heretical. Often, as in the case of the Nestorian controversy, the schism is a result of incomprehension. Sometimes it has deeply political roots, quite apart from doctrine. But schism is never an acceptable way to resolve conflicts, for rather than resolving them, schism institutionalizes them. Whatever the value of the ideas in question, schism replies by saying we cannot resolve this and so we must separate from those others. Dialogue and argument cease: insults and anathemata become the norm. The doctrinal problems become irresoluble, because the schismatic ideology of both sides forbids as treason open discussion of them. Thus third parties need to choose between the two groups as to who speaks for the Christians. This is the genesis of wars of religion, leading to the ultimate abomination of Christians killing other Christians in the name of Christ. Schism historically has led to the discrediting of the churches, and by extension, the discrediting of Jesus Christ himself.

It has been said that there are over 20,000 Christian denominations in the world, almost all a result of schisms. Who dares call this massive rejection the New Commandment a good thing? Whatever the effects of the New Hampshire election and its confirmation by the General Convention, will yet another denomination fix anything?

For those contemplating parallel jurisdictions in the Episcopal Church, let them not use European Anglicans as a prop for their schemes. We have enough problems without being misrepresented. Let them not hide the vileness of schism behind some new stretching of Anglican comprehensiveness. Let them call it what it is: yet another rending of the Body of Christ, further discredit upon his Church, more comfort for the enemies of the Gospel.

Let them call it a parallel jurisdiction.


THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe. He welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at bppwhalon@aol.com.