I was brought up in an Anglo-Catholic church (St Luke’s, Charlton), became a server there around the age of eleven and was for several years the crucifer (though I really wanted to be the thurifer — frustrated ecclesiastical ambition has dogged me ever since). Today, I have numerous Anglo-Catholic friends in the Church of England, and for a long time I was on the editorial board of New Directions, so I have considerable sympathy with the Anglo-Catholic position on women priests and bishops.
At the same time, however, I have to acknowledge the unavoidable fact that whilst conservative Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics may have something of a common cause in this regard, they do not share not a common case.
At the risk of over-simplifying, the Anglo-Catholic takes the view that a woman could not be a priest or a bishop, whereas the conservative Evangelical holds more broadly that a woman should not be a priest or a bishop.
Underlying this is a difference over whether being ordained confers a change of condition — often referred to as ‘character’ — or essentially an authority to exercise a public ministry (compare Article XXIII, ‘Of ministering in the congregation’). The Anglo-Catholic would hold to the former, whilst the Evangelical Anglican would generally adhere to the latter.
The consecration of women bishops is a particular problem for the Anglo-Catholic since it means that in the course of time there will be increasing uncertainty as to the validity of orders, and therefore of the sacraments, even amongst male Anglican clergy, for if the latter have been ‘ordained’ by a woman who is not (by definition) a bishop, then they also are not priests.
The Evangelical, on the other hand, would not have quite the same problem — any more than there would be a problem over, say, the orders (rather than the authority) of a free church minister from a denomination which cannot claim to stand in the succession of the historic episcopate.
It may be painful to have this spelled out, but it is a reality which has to be faced. It does, however, mean that conservative Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics can (and in some cases must) adopt different strategies in response to what is currently happening in the Church of England. This need not mean going in entirely different directions, but it may well mean taking different paths.
The conservative Evangelical Anglican understanding of orders and ministry means that the debate concerning women priests and bishops is not ultimately about gender but about faithfulness to Scripture.
The conservative Evangelical may thus apply Article XXVI in a way that the Anglo-Catholic cannot, for what the Article says about ‘unworthy’ ministers, the Evangelical may also be willing to apply in principle to women priests and bishops:
... forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by His commission and authority, we may use their ministry both in hearing the Word of God and in the receiving of the sacraments.
(The application of ‘Christ’s commission and authority’, incidentally, must be to the office and nature of the ministry of word and sacrament, not to the person of the minister, since this Article explicitly concerns those who really ought to be deposed.)
The conservative Evangelical would therefore not automatically deny the validity of Holy Communion celebrated by a woman priest, nor maintain that nothing useful could ever be learned from a woman’s teaching. (Indeed, the crucial objection in 1 Timothy 2:12 that a woman should not ‘teach or exercise authority over a man’ rather presumes that a man could, nevertheless, learn in such circumstances.) Equally, the conservative Evangelical need not have a problem with a man ordained by a woman bishop, since the prescriptions of Article XXIII have arguably been met:
... those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men [in the old, ‘generic’, sense] who have public authority given unto them in the congregation to call and send ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.
Since, under any new legislation, a woman bishop would be in receipt of that ‘public authority’, she could lawfully call and send ministers.
Indeed, no less an evangelical than Broughton Knox once wrote,
There is no objection to a woman consecrating a bishop, ordaining clergy, confirming young people, baptizing infants or reading the service of Holy Communion, when these actions are considered in themselves, that is, religious acts apart from the context of the congregation. (‘The Ordination of Women’ in Selected Works, Volume 2: Church and Ministry, Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2003, 205 — though the observation regarding the congregation is crucial to his overall position.)
It might be presumed that all this ought to make things easier for conservative Evangelicals. Indeed, there will be some reading this who will be asking if this is the case what all the fuss is about. Why don’t conservative Evangelicals just accept women priests and bishops and get on with their own ministries? And indeed, in the ‘extremis’ position for themselves resulting from decisions currently being taken by the Church of England, conservative Evangelicals may decide that a certain amount of such leeway is necessary. Knox, again, writes,
The New Testament does not consider the anomaly when Christian men are incompetent, ill-prepared or unwilling to discharge the teaching ministry. In this anomalous situation it may well be that what is normal must give place to what is beneficial! (‘Ministry of Women’, ibid, 245)
He would presumably also have said that the New Testament made no allowance for the ‘anomaly’ of a denomination having legally ordained women clergy. But perhaps he may nevertheless have suggested that, on the same principle, what is beneficial must sometimes give place to what it legal.
All this is not to say, however, that conservative Evangelicals should be indifferent to the issue of women bishops. But because the ultimate issue is not gender but faithfulness, it is on faithfulness that we can and should focus.
Indeed, because it is an issue of faithfulness, we can even have fellowship with those with whom we to an extent disagree. Some people will, for example, quite reasonably ask how, if our convictions are so different, conservative Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics can find any common cause whatsoever. My answer is that we can do so because we share a common Anglican heritage, so long as we take seriously those things we affirm in the Declaration of Assent — the Scriptures as supreme, along with the Creeds, the Prayer Book, the Thirty-nine Articles and the Ordinal.
Others may observe that this surely creates problems for the Anglo-Catholic when it comes to conformity to the Anglican ‘formularies’. And no doubt it does. But that is for them to resolve, and whilst they are willing to work on it, I would be personally willing to work with them.
Yet others, though, may ask why the same cannot apply to Liberals, to which my reply is basically the same. Provided they take the Declaration of Assent seriously, we have something in common from which we can begin to work. My home church of St Luke’s also gave me an early taste of Liberal theology — nice enough people, shame about the faith. However, where Liberalism is seen as providing a theological carte blanche, and the Declaration of Assent is cynically regarded as a mere nod to the past rather than a commitment in the present, then Liberalism becomes a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ which is not only an imposter itself, but which will push out the other inhabitants.
This is largely because if this particular form of Liberalism is tolerated then it introduces into the Church a fundamental ethos of dishonesty. And, unfortunately, in the Church of England we have indeed (and somewhat bizarrely) cultivated an ethos of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ where it matters most for a community of faith, namely what we actually believe! If anyone thinks the Church of England is ‘two-faced’ in its institutional attitude to homosexuality, they would be horrified when it comes to the basics of doctrine. By all means let a Liberal say, “That I can’t believe!” But dishonesty in the church, as in business or in politics, introduces a corruption which spreads through the whole and influences everyone.
The question conservative Evangelicals need to confront, however, is this: “If you had your own way, and were running the Church of England, what would you do that would transform it from what it is to what you think it ought to be?” And the answer cannot be (to put it extremely crudely), ‘get rid of the women and the gays’.
We may need to remind ourselves that the Church of England had no women priests before 1993, yet it wasn’t exactly thriving back then. What it lacked was not men, but faithfulness to the gospel and integrity regarding its own outward standards of faith and practice.
By the same token then, and according to the arguments I have advanced above, the advent of women bishops need not be the ‘end of the world’ that some are gloomily predicting. It is possible to be ‘salt and light’ even in a Church where, as Article XXVI puts it, “the evil have chief authority in the ministration of the word and sacraments.” And even the Church of England is not there yet!
It will, however, require faithfulness of its own, as well as courage, fortitude, imagination, dedication and a willingness to suffer for the sake of the gospel.
What we must look for from our evangelical leaders in the next few weeks is not threats (or, as our opponents would regard them, offers) to depart, but coherent and practical proposals to achieve what our bishops are called to do in the Ordinal, namely, “to teach and exhort with wholesome Doctrine, and to withstand and convince the gainsayers” and “with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same.” And this applies, of course, not just to the ordination of women or other ‘hot button’ issues, but to the ‘whole counsel of God’.
We face an uphill struggle, but whoever said it would be easy?
John P 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.
12 July 2010
12 July 2010