When I first heard a few years ago the proposal advanced at our Diocesan Synod in Chelmsford that the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 should be abolished, I genuinely felt a cold chill. This was not because it presaged the arrival of women as bishops. Rather, it was because it heralded the potential end of the Church of England as I knew, and loved, it.
I argued then, and I am convinced now, that such a move would give the Church of England the character of a sect, by introducing preciseness of belief and practice in this one area, in a way comparable to nothing else that has recently been discussed or debated.
This was brought home to me by the recent experience of a friend who is being interviewed for possible ordination. One of his interviewers asked him what he thought about women bishops. My friend answered that personally he disagreed with it, but that the Church of England allowed for different points of view.
“Oh no,” said the interviewer, “That only applies to people who were ordained in the past. Everyone coming in now will have to accept women bishops. There will be no provision for those who don’t.”
Now this is interesting, and it relates directly to the question of what sort of church the Church of England is — or intends to be.
As the Manchester Report observed, the introduction of women bishops without acceptable provision for those who cannot agree with this (acceptable, that is, to those with the reservations) would change the very nature of the Church by narrowing its membership where previously it had maintained some breadth.
Now there is, perhaps, something to be said for narrowing, if not the membership of the Church of England, certainly the range of those admitted to its ministry. Is it acceptable, for example, to have clergy who doubt the physical resurrection of Jesus, who reject the Virgin birth, or dispute the ‘reality’ of God? Such do exist, though one hopes that these days they would not get past the selection process.
But are there not other areas where, whilst the Church has standards, it also, rightly, has flexibility? The heart of the Church of England’s official doctrinal position is admirable, at least from a Protestant perspective:
The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree anything against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation. (Article XX)
Yes, the Church of England can declare a position on a controverted issue of Christian belief. But it has disqualified itself from doing so in any way that is either directly contradictory to the Bible, or which relies on artificially setting one part of the Bible against another. And it cannot therefore require people to go against biblical teaching.
Now of course the problem on women’s ordination is that there are, until now, loyal Anglicans who believe that Scripture stands in the way of consecrating women as bishops. Moreover, the Church of England has not, as far as I am aware, decided that the issue is settled against them. That is to say, it has not declared that their take on the Bible is a misunderstanding (remember that we are still, officially, in the ‘period of reception’ on this issue).
However, it does seem now prepared to say that, nevertheless, you can only be a full member of the Church of England, eligible for its ministry, if you take one view on this and not the other.
In other words, it is prepared to narrow its membership not at a point of settled biblical doctrine, but at a point of hitherto-disputed practice.
Moreover, it is choosing a slightly bizarre point at which to do this. My friend, for example, is a committed ‘Thirty-nine Articles’ Anglican. He is an enthusiast for parish work, and is entirely positive about the structures that this entails, up to and including recognizing the office of the bishop. That is actually why this matters to him!
But what if he, and his like, are unacceptable for Anglican ministry? If that is the case, then in future, the key definition of a ‘full’ Anglican will be that you accept women bishops. That will become our litmus test, for you will apparently be able to accept all the former definitions of Anglicanism, but if you will not accept this then you will not henceforth be as welcome.
To me —and this was my worry all those years ago —this no longer looks like what I have tried to maintain that the Church of England should be: the Church, of England, as close as we can possibly maintain it to the ideal of the one, undivided, Church Christ intends.
Imposing women bishops without due provision for opponents will, undoubtedly, divide the Church of England. All sides, I think, recognize this. Moreover, it will divide it at a point which will, henceforth, become definitive, and yet which the proponents do not argue is the settled sense of Scripture. When people ask, in future years (as they ask me now about differences between denominations) what is it that divides the Church of England from whatever offshoot body this creates, will we have to answer, “Well, it’s really just about women bishops”? And will that make us proud?
For the sake of preventing that situation, I think the present moves ought to be resisted.
Revd John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
15 February 2010
15 February 2010