For those, such as WATCH (Women and the Church), advocating the Manchester Report’s ‘Single Clause, Code of Practice’ option as the way ahead on the consecration of women bishops, there is just one question that should be asked: “Do you accept that men opposed to women’s ordination will continue to be consecrated as bishops in the Church of England?”
The answer must surely be “No.” Indeed, given the tiny handful of such consecrations which have taken place in the last few years, despite the 1993 Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod, any other answer would have to be seen as reflecting either self-delusion or the intention to delude others.
That Act established that “no person or body shall discriminate against candidates ... for appointment to senior office in the Church of England on the grounds of their views or positions about the ordination of women to the priesthood.” Yet there is no doubt that it has been consciously and deliberately ignored. The ‘stained glass ceiling’ for ordained women has been as nothing compared with the cast iron version for traditionalists in the last decade.
That being the case, the abolition of the Act of Synod, and the other legislation established in the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure, must spell the end of an episcopate which includes the ‘two integrities’ established by the Act. And that, it must be recognized, would entirely change the nature of the Church of England. In CS Lewis’s words, the body which resulted would be “much more rational ‘but not near so much like a Church.’”
A key feature of a Church is surely that no one should be excluded whose views are consistent with its understanding of the faith. And in the Church of England, this has hitherto been defined as a faith consistent with Scripture — consistent in the sense that nothing which contradicts Scripture is required to be believed or practised.
As is well known, however, opponents of women’s ordination generally believe that this indeed contradicts, or at least bends close to acceptable limits, our understanding and application of Scripture. Equally, though, there are those who, whilst holding identical views on Scripture’s authority, do not find the same difficulties. That this is recognized is part of what it means to acknowledge two ‘integrities’.
That being the case, however, it should be obvious that, at very least, the Church should continue to include people of both integrities at every level. But as C S Lewis warned, it should also have urged greater caution over the ordination of women when this was considered in the 1990s. Writing in 1948, he said this:
To take such a revolutionary step at the present moment, to cut ourselves off from the Christian past and to widen the divisions between ourselves and other Churches by establishing an order of priestesses in our midst, would be an almost wanton degree of imprudence. And the Church of England herself would be torn in shreds by the operation.
Those who dislike Lewis’s use of the term “priestesses” may still acknowledge that he was at every point correct. Thus we are indeed cutting ourselves off from the past. Resolution J6, for example, passed at the 1977 National Evangelical Anglican Congress, whilst acknowledging the failure to give women “their rightful place as partners in mission with men” nevertheless continued,
Leadership in the Church should be plural and mixed, ultimate responsibility normally singular and male.
Thirty years later, such a view would be held by a minority even within Evangelicalism. Yet this change seems to have been driven by sociological rather than theological considerations. Indeed, the letter written by WATCH and others, and signed by several hundred women clergy, speaks explicitly of the need to eliminate ‘discrimination’ against women. Yet when pressed, it is clear that advocates of this approach are deeply uncomfortable with the Bible’s own language and with its traditional understanding and application. Our alienation from the past is thus clear, both in practice and in the accompanying justifications.
Again, the divisions between the Church of England and other Churches are indeed being widened. But for those who respond that this has not previously been a problem (for example, during the Reformation), it should be pointed out that, in the process, those other Churches are not being subjected to the same analysis as the Church of England. Hence whilst the Church of England ‘must’ have women bishops because to do otherwise would be to perpetuate discrimination and render our mission to the nation hopeless, few voices are (yet) being raised saying the Church of Rome must do the same if it is to be taken seriously.
As a result of this intellectual ‘schizophrenia’, we treat those other Churches as being subject to different standards than our own. In fact, we demean them (as we demean those of other races) by requiring less of them than we do of ourselves, and at the same time, we betray our moral cowardice in refusing to confront them as we confront those we consider more like ourselves. We are thus divided now not just by what we believe and do, but by a sense of cultural ‘otherness’ which puts those Churches in an entirely different category (along with Muslims, who similarly are not expected to behave as ‘well’ as we do).
And, of course, the Church of England has been torn by the ordination of women and will be further torn by their consecration as bishops.
A degree of tearing is inevitable because ordination is not an opinion but an action, and a Church which tries to accommodate those acting in mutually incompatible ways is always bound to experience some tension. Nevertheless, the one advantage of the traditional Anglican ‘fudge’ is that a remarkable degree of co-existence has hitherto been achieved. As the Manchester Report itself points out, however, the ‘Single Clause’ approach would spell the end of such accommodation, at least in this regard:
The Church of England that emerged at the end of the process might possibly be more cohesive. It would undoubtedly be less theologically diverse.
As we saw at the outset, however, a key feature of that lack of diversity would be the inevitable absence of episcopal representation by those who continue to hold the traditional, historical and (in their understanding) biblical view of the Church’s leadership. And an episcopal church which excludes from the episcopate those who hold certain views has thereby enshrined opposition to those same views.
Thus, whilst the Church of England undoubtedly includes many who are essentially ‘Baptists’ on the issue of infant baptism, it would be unlikely to consecrate an anti-paedobaptist to the episcopate. Being a covert (or even overt) Baptist does not exclude one from the Anglican Church, but this is an issue on which the Church has decided views.
Adopting the ‘Single Clause’ option would put women’s ordination on a par with infant baptism. We might instructively contrast this, however, with things which evidently do not exclude one from being a candidate for the ministry: sitting light to the physical resurrection of Jesus, reserving or adoring the sacrament, being in a non-celibate same-sex relationship, being divorced and remarried, cohabitation, attributing salvation to other religions, and so on. All of these are things which, though varying in moral and theological significance, are either contrary to Scripture or to the Church’s Articles and Formularies. Yet all are held or practised by people currently in ordained ministry.
By contrast, not agreeing to the ordination of women will join the relatively select list of Anglican ‘anathemas’.
The difference, of course, is that with respect to the foregoing list of functional ‘adiophora’ the Church either remains formally committed to the alternative view or at least does not exclude those who hold it. Thus a person may believe that remarriage after divorce is forbidden in the Bible (indeed, given the words of both Jesus and the Apostle Paul it is hard to see how they could think otherwise), despite the Church of England’s recent officially libertarian stance and frequent turning of a ‘blind eye’. But they would know that whilst they might be deemed ‘old fashioned’ or ‘hardline’, they would not at all be formally excluded from the episcopal ministry.
By contrast, disagreement with the ordination and consecration of women will, henceforth, mean being increasingly limited to the margins of the Church. Thus, on a matter on which tradition is unequivocal and Scripture at best open to interpretation, the Church of England will, remarkably, have found the rare ability to narrow its theological views to the rare point of exclusivity.
The fallout, in every sense, is to some extent unpredictable. Certainly, as the Manchester Report acknowledges, the Church of England will be much less like its old self. The following, though, at least seems likely.
First, and perhaps most importantly, adherence to Scripture will have been deemed a secondary consideration in determining fundamental policy and practice. Not all supporters of women’s ordination sit light to what the Bible has to say, but many undoubtedly do, and their views will have been privileged. That they will regard themselves as having won the day must have clear implications for the future development of the Church of England.
Secondly, those who continue to hold the traditional view, whether Catholic or Evangelical, will have to decide a course of action. Resolution C parishes and clergy will be faced with the prospect of losing their current bishops — something many will undoubtedly regard as unacceptable. It is likely that, just as many clergywomen have apparently said they would rather not have women bishops than pay too high a price by way of compromise, there are those who will regard losing their existing bishops as too great a demand for their compliance with new legislation.
This will then lead, thirdly, to the internecine wrangling and warfare that history shows high handed and ill-conceived actions inevitably produce, not least amongst religious communities who, it must be admitted, are somewhat prone to disagreement. A Church which is already in the doldrums will thus find itself holed below the waterline in terms of evangelistic effectiveness for the next decade or so. Instead of getting on with mission, its members will inevitably get on with arguing and tearing one another apart.
Fourthly, in the rump which remains, a counter-Scriptural, egalitarian feminist agenda will have gained the centre-ground. Those Evangelical supporters (and, perhaps, opponents) of women’s ordination who endorse or accept the new arrangements will find themselves faced with a triumphant Liberalism whose next aim will undoubtedly be the inclusion of same-sex relationships and the modification of our concept of God (the latter is clearly stated on the WATCH website). Any attempt to meet this with a robust application of biblical teaching and ecclesiological discipline will be frustrated by the wave of support at the grass roots (where theology counts for little) which will already have helped drive through the ‘Single Clause’ solution.
In order to counter these two pressures, the remaining theological Conservatives would have to adopt a rigorous biblical hermeneutic and develop a united political front to oppose the newly-strengthened Liberalism. Given that they themselves will just have used a much looser hermeneutic and alliances with those they now need to oppose in order to see off the traditionalists, such an attempted switch of fronts, tactics and allegiances is likely to end in chaos or paralysis. There will, moreover, be little enthusiasm for another round of battles.
The most likely result for Evangelicals, therefore, is compromise and assimilation, theologically and functionally. With ‘hard line’ Conservatives no longer coming forward for ordination, the Evangelical leadership in the middle ground will broaden even further. Many who were previously unpersuaded about homosexuality will soften their opposition, whilst some of their continuing traditionalist friends seek to maintain fellowship with them and others drift further apart. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of women appointed as bishops, very few of whom will be recognisably Evangelical, will understandably make the necessary changes in policy and appointments to reflect their own theological dispositions.
Ultimately, the ethos of Anglicanism will have shifted decisively, not just because of what was decided, but because of how it was decided, by excluding people from the episcopate on the grounds of their faithfulness to Scripture, whilst allowing those who are demonstrably less faithful to Scripture and the Church’s Articles and Formularies to continue unchallenged. As a consequence, we may in the future wonder if the Church of England will be not merely less like a Church, but less like a Christian body at all.
Revd John P Richardson
31 May 2008
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