Via another website, I came across this article written by Nigel Atkinson and published in Churchman in 2001.In it, he pointed out how the ordination of women would inevitably lead not only to the consecration of women bishops but to the effective exclusion from the Church of England of those who did not accept them.
I take a different attitude to Nigel on the issue of whether women can be presbyters, in the sense that they can be recognised as ‘elders’ in the congregation. Indeed, I regard the PCC as ‘elders’ in this sense. Moreover, I do not believe that the acceptance of women in the Anglican priesthood, with its imposition of congregational authority, is always the result of anti-Scriptural thinking. Although I do believe it is unscriptural, I recognise there are those who are persuaded Scripture does not forbid it, though I find their exegesis unconvincing.
But the ordination of women took place within an institution and an atmosphere that was, and is, often decidedly indifferent to Scripture (contrary, as Atkinson points out, to the foundational principles of Anglicanism). As a result, the authority of Scripture was diminished overall by the decision. And therefore what Atkinson warned against is coming to pass, despite there being supporters of women’s ordination within the Church who personally remain faithful on this issue.
Even for many of them, however, and certainly for those who believe that Scripture can and must be overridden at times, women’s ordination is, as Atkinson observes, “a first order issue” of justice, “similar to the abolition of slavery.” And as he adds, “for those who persist in advocating slavery there is no other recourse apart from sending in the gunboats once and for all.”
Hence driving out opposition to (and, if necessary, the opponents of) women’s ordination is nothing short of a moral crusade.
That much is becoming clear as events unfold and the House of Bishops spearheads a move to abolish the legal provisions set up in 1993. Atkinson argues, however, that it was never really intended that these should be permanent. On the contrary,
... the framers of the legislation realised that to have a continuation of bishops would also mean a continuation of priests and to have a continuation of priests would also mean to have a continuation of parishes. [Thus] the Synod’s intention never to have a continuation of orthodox bishops contradicted the doctrine of ‘theological reception’ — the very notion on which the legislation itself was predicated.
Why, then, did the General Synod at the time, under the guidance of the bishops, put such safeguards in place? Atkinson refers to the report of the Synod’s Revisions Committee, GS 830 Y, which concluded that “the necessary majority in [the legislation’s] favour would indicate that a common mind on the issue had in fact been achieved within the Church of England,” and therefore that all the safeguards intended to achieve was to “give opponents an opportunity to plan their future,” or in other words, their exit-strategy.
Thus he quotes a member of that committee who, in presenting the legislation in 1989, said,
We must never lose sight of the basic fact that the various safeguards are unusual and exceptional. They are exceptional provisions given by the majority to the minority with very strong views [...] so that the minority may have space to assess the reality of the ordination of women as it takes place in our provinces. However, because the provisions are exceptional they must in the end be seen as temporary. [Emphasis added]
Thus, almost eight years ago, Atkinson warned that “dissent on this issue will not be tolerated in the long run.” And as evidence of this, he pointed to overseas experience, just as the recent petition from women clergy also pointed overseas to argue precisely for the removal of existing provisions, in line with his predictions:
We should be humble and wise enough to learn from the experience of those churches overseas who have experimented with female presbyteral ordination and, after a short period of grace extended to the opponents, have very quickly moved to abolish all conscience clauses and to demand full compliance. [Emphasis added]
Reading Atkinson's article today, I find myself embarrassed at the lack of attention I paid to the women’s ordination debate in the early 1990s and the clear signs of what the future would hold for those who remained traditional evangelicals. The only mitigation is that, like many, I thought the provisions the Synod made would be enough, and that they were an indication of future good will. And that is surely not a bad basis for a decision not even to consider leaving. However, in the light of what has happened since and is threatened now, I find the assurance of WATCH and others that continued provision will be made for people like me on the basis of “trustful relationships” leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Where I feel no personal embarrassment, and can haul on my own ‘Told You So’ tee-shirt, is with Atkinson’s observations about Conservative Evangelicals and Resolution C (remember, this was published seven years ago):
The way forward then is clear. By all means let us argue for an extension of the ministry of the Flying Bishops but let us also as evangelicals begin to start using them. I and my four parishes in Devon all appealed to the Bishop of Exeter to come under the superb and orthodox Episcopal care of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet. And it was just as well we did. For when I left Exeter Diocese, if it had not been for the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, I doubt very much if a Reform type of evangelical would have ever replaced me. I dare say the same is true of others. Should others be brought to glory tonight or in the near future what will happen to their parishes? Again I doubt very much whether the powers that be would welcome Reform evangelicals. In short we need the Flying Bishops in order to protect our parishes. [Emphasis original]
Atkinson also warns against the ‘overseas import’ solution to the problem, to which many Conservatives still look:
To go down any other road is to turn our backs on the Church of England and not to live up to our calling to reform it. For example, if we were to fly in two or three bishops from overseas in order to ordain reform evangelicals one thing is certain: those men so ordained would have to be issued with their letters of orders. As soon as they tried to obtain a parish within the Church of England they would be turned down flat as their letters of orders would betray their irregular ordinations. To go down this route is, in effect, to abandon the Church of England and it is a counsel of despair.
Thus the way ahead is clear:
We must all plan to come under the Flying Bishops by passing Resolution C. Let us give ourselves two years. Let us all work towards securing Flying Bishops for three hundred, four hundred, five hundred Reform parishes by October, 2002.
Yet here we are in 2008, and there are probably no more than ten Reform Resolution C parishes in the entire country. Those who fear a ‘conservative conspiracy’, please take note!
Indeed, at last year’s Reform Conference in London, the question was put to me what good passing Resolution C could possibly achieve. I will let Nigel Atkinson — surely a prophet without honour — have the last word:
What will we have then achieved? We will have formed ourselves into a coherent ecclesial body. We will have our bishops, our clergy, our parishes, our people and our money welded together. From this position we will be on an almost unassailable footing to press for further reform or, should we need to, to press Parliament for a third, non-geographical, province. But we must act quickly. We have a window of opportunity before us now, but it will soon be gone. For in order to create female bishops, which is inevitable, all concessions that have been granted us so far will need to be withdrawn.
Now read my own Why Conservative Evangelicals should pass Resolution C.
Revd John P Richardson
18 June 2008