Monday, 21 May 2007

Time to decide on women priests

The ongoing discussions about the situation at Wycliffe Hall theological college show it is high time the Church of England made up its mind on women priests.

Not that it should decide whether or not it is going to have women priests. But it really should decided whether or not it is still in the so-called 'period of reception', when those who disagree with women being in the priesthood are still regarded as full members of the Church.

Like it or not - and many people on both sides of the argument do not - the reality is that the Church of England was able to introduce the ordination of women to the priesthood on the basis that it was not entirely a 'done deal'. Instead, there was to be a period during which the Church would discern the rightness, or otherwise, of taking this step.

As a recent General Synod document indicates, this is a subtly nuanced idea:

"It does not mean the process by which the ministry of women is accepted in the Church. Instead it is used to refer to the process in which the Church of England reflects with the universal Church on the authenticity of its decision to ordain women." (Women Bishops in the Church of England: A report of the House of Bishops’ Working Party on Women in the Episcopate, 2004)

Nevertheless, underlying this language is a simple principle - albeit one that is often forgotten by those whose minds are made up - that the Church of England officially recognizes both that there are quite different views on this subject and that both are allowable in it ranks.

There is therefore to be no discrimination in the process of recruitment, appointment or preferment of clergy. Moreover, special provision has been made both for individual clergy and for collective congregations where there is an objection to a woman acting in a priestly or presbyteral role, via the provisions of an Act of Synod.

What needs to be stated clearly is that it matters not one whit whether some people find this objectionable. The reality is that these provisions were made to ease the introduction of the ordination of women, and they have not been repealed.

However, the sad reality is that whilst they have not been repealed, they are frequently being reneged on. Speaking from the position of a parish which has passed Resolution C (the petition for 'extended episcopal oversight' to be provided by Provincial Episcopal Visitor), I know that whilst we have simply, and very carefully, done what the Church of England officially allows us to do, we have been treated as if we have somehow behaved like 'rotters'. At one stage the phrase 'leaving us' was even used about our relationship with our Diocese!

This same attitude is also being revealed in discussions about Wycliffe Hall. It seems, for example, that Revd Simon Vibert, recently appointed as Vice-Principal, has contributed to a Latimer House paper which states, amongst other things, that "because of the teaching of 1 Tim. 2:11-15, we [the authors] contend that it is inappropriate for a woman to be a congregational leader in a solo capacity or head of a team ministry".

This is a conclusion with which not everyone agrees. Within the Church of England, however, it is not a statement with which everyone disagrees. More importantly, it is a sentiment which the Church of England officially says is legitimate - unlike, we might observe, the assertion that sex between people of the same gender is allowable. Simon Vibert's views - at least in this regard - are true to Anglicanism.

Clearly, there are many people who are deeply unhappy about this - both that people should be allowed to disagree with the ordination of women to the priesthood (and, by extension, their consecration to the episcopate) and that same-gender sexual acts are not endorsed for laypeople or permitted for clergy.

But that is the way it is. The Church of England has a position on women's ordination. Arguably it is wrong (though that cuts both ways). But what cannot be disputed is that the present position simply is the case. It is those who react to Vibert's position as if it were somehow not legitimate who are currently acting in an un-Anglican fashion.

Meanwhile, if we are to act fairly, and above all honestly - and honesty is surely a Christian virtue - we should make up our minds to abide by the spirit of the present position and make the appropriate practical applications.

Revd John P Richardson
21 May 2007

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