A Provisional Note

The dear old Church of England has been tying itself into knots of late over the Bishops’ amendments to the Measure on Women in the Episcopate. The good bishops made two amendments. One has been welcomed as providing some clarity about exactly from where episcopal power is derived in the case of an alternative bishop being assigned to a parish (essentially it’s the inherent bishoppy-ness, not the delegation from another bishop). The other has caused a lot of hurt feelings all ’round, really.

What follows is my understanding, but I hope it might shed some light on the situation, or perhaps even make a positive contribution to debate.

If I understand it correctly, that second amendment states that the Code of Practice (a binding but not-yet-written document advising on the pastoral care of parishes which object to the ordination/consecration of women) must meet certain conditions. It must say that alternative episcopal oversight needs to be theologically appropriate. That is, it is not enough for these parishes to be served by male priests and bishops; the clergy appointed to care for them must also agree with the theological objection to (or non-recognition of) female clergy.

I don’t claim to understand why this is sensible from the Conservative Evangelical (ConsEvo) standpoint, whose theology speaks of headship, leadership and authority rather than formation, ontology and sacrament. A simplistic interpretation might be “we don’t want to associate with or be controlled by people who disagree with us on this issue.” I think it may be more nuanced than that, but as I have little contact with or experience of the very ConsEvo parts of the C of E, I will leave further interpretation as an exercise for those who have.

The traditional Anglo-Catholic (or TradCath) position might at first seem equally uncooperative. It is tempting to write this off as “doesn’t want to play with the others” and leave it. It does look, on the surface, as if TradCaths believe women have some sort of cooties, as if a bishop who ordains women (or a priest who concelebrates with them) is somehow contaimnated, irrevocably impure and unfit. It looks like a theology of taint.

I would submit that it is not what it looks like. Most TradCaths don’t believe that those who are in favour of the ordination or consecration of women are somehow made dirty or impure by that support; simply mistaken. My understanding is that a bishop who has ordained women is not seen as incurably tainted. Rather he has committed a sin for which he is unrepentant. It is not contagion that is the problem, but that of an unrepentant sinner presiding at Mass, confirming those making commitments to the Christian faith, and so on. Sure, we are all sinners, but clergy are expected to be in a fit state for sacramental ministry, and being an unrepentant sinner is not such a state.

If that’s the case, a sympathetic reader might ask, what is the problem with the bishops’ amendment? Surely proper provision must then include theologically appropriate episcopal visitors? Surely we must make it possible for parishes and bishops to agree on what does and does not constitute a sin?

Not so fast.

The 1998 Lambeth statement, affirmed by General Synod in July 2006, recognized that both those in favour of women bishops and those opposed were loyal Anglicans. This keeps being bandied about by those opposed to the ordination of women, like some sort of invincibility badge. But as far as I can tell it cuts both ways.

That means that those who, like me, wholeheartedly support women in all orders of ministry must accept those who are uncertain, cautious or opposed as full members of the C of E, whose views regarding women’s ministry are theologically valid, no matter how strongly we might disagree. As far as the C of E is concerned, they have done nothing wrong. The converse is also true: my TradCath and ConsEvo sisters and brothers in Christ must recognise that, as far as the C of E is concerned, ordaining women is not a sin. Nor is concelebrating with them, receiving communion from them and so on. People who do these things are still loyal Anglicans, still fully-accepted members in good standing of the Church of England. That is the church of which these people are claiming membership, the church which they presumably attend, the church which trains and ordains their clergy, the church which has (probably) baptised, confirmed or ordained them. That church says that ordaining women is not a sin.

Opposing the ordination of women is also not a sin, and promises were made that those in opposition would continue to have a place in the C of E, so I think we do need to make provision for those who are uncertain, cautious or opposed, whatever their reasons. However, I also believe we do not need to make provision for their views of sin, which go beyond those of the Church of England. I think it is consistent (if deeply uncomfortable) with the 1998 Lambeth statement to agree that on request and in certain circumstances, parishes may be served only by male clergy, whether those be deacons, priests or bishops. I think it is reasonable to assure them that there will be male clergy ordained by male bishops (since to them, a male priest ordained by a female bishop is not, in fact, a priest at all). However, I do not think it is consistent with Lambeth to acquiesce to a view of sin which would mean bishops who have ordained women are considered unsuitable. That goes beyond sacramental assurance to allowing parishes, rather than the wider church, to decide what is and is not sinful.

Not only would that be inconsistent with Lambeth, it would also elevate this one issue even further. As a run-of-the-mill layperson in the C of E, I don’t have the right to ask my bishop on his views regarding, say, usury before deciding whether it is acceptable for him to confirm me. He is the bishop and I am laity and that is not how episcopal authority works. If I disagree with my parish priest over marrying divorcées I am expected to work it out or find another parish, not to demand a different parish priest on the grounds that mine is an unrepentant sinner. These are hypothetical situations: to my knowledge I have no great gripe with either my parish priest or my bishops about either issue. I chose them because of the amount of attention they are given in the scripture the C of E recognises as holy, and because usury and divorce are serious issues which should be given a high priority, but it would be preposterous to propose that I should be granted pastoral oversight that is in accordance with my views.

In the event, I am not a member of General Synod, so I will not get to decide. I can hope that this blog post is read by relevant people, but that’s a pretty faint hope. So in the mean time, I will pray — for those who oppose the ordination of women or their consecration to the episcopate, for those who support it, for those who would rather see no provision, for those who would rather see more. I will pray for those on all sides of this issue who will stay even though it pains them, for those who will feel abandoned or betrayed by a church they love, for those who will feel it necessary to leave.

And I continue with the work that is set before me on a local level. I will do my best to welcome all, regardless of their theological convictions. And I take heart that the parish where I am privileged to serve is one where people who oppose and people who support the ordination of women regularly act together, for the glory of God and the coming of God’s Kingdom.

There can be room for all of us.

5 thoughts on “A Provisional Note

  1. For those who do regard it as a sin, I think it may be worth pointing to Article XXVI, “Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament.”

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful contribution to the debate.

    I hope one good thing to come out of this – and other recent controversies – might be that those of us who are not members of General Synod – or the House of Bishops – will be encouraged to think about such matters and make our views known.

    It’s really no use sitting back and letting others grapple with difficult issues on our behalf and then complaining afterwards about the decisions that have been made in our name.

  3. Sorry to disagree with what is clearly a thought through postion, but I’ve never met a Traditional Catholic who raised the notion of sin in this matter, the ‘worthiness’ of eucharistic ministers. I can see no good reason why women should not be consecrated as bishops and good reasons why they should be: but those who disagree with me are not sexists. For the vast majority of traditional Catholic’s I’ve met, it’s about sacramental ‘assurance’ of which sinfulness has no part.

    As best I can see, the Bishops’ amendment is seeking to clarify an unpleasant grey area in the currently proposed legislation which would (theoretically) allow a parish to request a male bishop (and a female bishop to propose one) solely on the grounds of his gender. You might think this is what traditional catholics are all about, but far from it. For a TC, the orders of a male bishop consecrated by a woman bishop would be in doubt because the orders of the woman bishop are in doubt, because most of the rest of the widens christian church disagrees: not because women are inferior, or unworthy or tainted. What the Bishops’ amendment is saying is ‘You must not assume that a petitioning parish is simply being sexist and act accordingly. You must accept that there is a theological conviction behind their stance and act accordingly’.

    That surely cannot be a bad thing.

    1. Andy,

      I agree that gender alone is not sufficient for the vast majority of TradCaths (I did mention that a male priest ordained by a female bishop wouldn’t be suitable and we need to make provision for this).

      My understanding is that the 2nd amendment would make it unacceptable for a male bishop who has IN TURN ordained even one female priest, even if he himself ordained and consecrated by males (who were ordained/consecrated by males, etc back to Peter as far as you like), to be assigned to the pastoral care of a parish that opposes the ordination of women. Essentially, the parish in question would be going beyond the assurance of sacramental validity as they see it, and on into “if you don’t agree with us you are wrong and cannot minister to us”. I propose that this view is directly in conflict with Lambeth 1998, whether one uses language of “sin” or language of “impaired communion”.

  4. “What the Bishops’ amendment is saying is ‘You must not assume that a petitioning parish is simply being sexist and act accordingly. You must accept that there is a theological conviction behind their stance and act accordingly’.”
    What does this position say about the church if we substitute the word ‘racist’ or ‘snobbish’ for ‘sexist’? When did we start to legislate for an assumption of integrity?

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