IT IS COMMON knowledge that Evangelical Anglicans have long been divided over the ordination of women as priests. Some (especially the so-called “open” Evangelicals) have welcomed and indeed campaigned for it, conservative Evangelicals have generally opposed it, while many have been indifferent to the issue – either because they regard ministerial order as of no great consequence in itself, or because they have rejected the terms of the debate, which they perceive as being about a sacerdotal view of presbyteral ministry to which they have never subscribed.

But even among those Evangelicals who have opposed the priestly ordination of women (usually because they see it as incompatible with the Pauline teaching on the headship of men), there has been clear reluctance to seek the ministry of flying bishops. In the Church of England there are Evangelical parishes which have passed resolution B (because a female incumbent would breach the headship principle), there are somewhat fewer which have also passed resolution A (because they rightly perceive that to preside at the Lord’s Table is in itself an expression of headship), but even fewer seem to have passed resolution C (to seek the oversight of a Provincial Episcopal Visitor).

From the Catholic side the principle which has led to the consecration of the PEVs and the alternative oversight they provide has been that of communion: it is essential for a catholic-minded priest or layman to be in communion with (and consequently under the oversight of) a bishop of indubitable and uncompromised apostolicity, and apostolicity is damaged by acts (such as ordaining women) not sanctioned by the Universal Church.

But this argument has never had the same force among Evangelicals because their understanding of communion (and the ecclesiology which underlies it) is different. Most Evangelicals would regard themselves as being in communion with all who confess the sovereign Lordship of Christ and have come to put their faith in him as the incarnate Son of God, crucified and risen for Man’s salvation. Faith is perceived as the essential bond which unites a man with Christ, and therefore through him with all others who share such faith. Such an emphasis will magnify the spiritual nature of the church as the community of all such believers, who are known to God; and the outward and visible aspects of the church will tend to be viewed as secondary or even (at worst) treated in a rather cavalier fashion.

But undesirable extrapolations from this ecclesiology should not be allowed to obscure the strength inherent in such a mystical view of the church. It is entirely of a piece with Ignatius of Antioch’s statement (Smyrneans VIII.2), “wherever Jesus Christ may be, there is the catholic church” (though candour compels us to recognise that Ignatius juxtaposes this statement with others insisting on the authority of the bishop for valid sacramental acts!)

It is consistent with this Christocentric ecclesiology that Evangelical Anglicans have often been happy to participate in interdenominational and indeed overtly nonconformist Communion services. They may (especially if their instincts are those of strong churchmen) regret the poverty of the liturgical form employed and the sometimes imprecise ministerial standing of those who preside; but they will tend to regard the withholding of fellowship involved in not sharing in the sacrament at, say, interdenominational conferences and conventions, as more to be deplored than these inadequacies. To join in such worship has never meant that disagreements between Christian believers are necessarily unimportant; it is simply to assert and recognise that there is an essential relatedness to Christ established by repentance and faith which is the privilege of all bona fide believers, and that this fundamental unity should be expressed in sacramental communion. A classic historical instance of this was the participation of two Evangelical bishops in what we would call an ecumenical eucharist at a missionary conference at the Church of Scotland mission station at Kikuyu in 1913, a participation to which Bishop Frank Weston of Zanzibar (with its UMCA connections) so vehemently objected in what came to be known as the Kikuyu Controversy. It is the same basic understanding of communion in its widest sense which led a friend of mine to remark recently that though he was opposed to the priesting of women, he did not think that this should become a test cf fellowship.

Is there, therefore, any theological principle which should lead Evangelical opponents of the admission of women to the presbyterate to desire and seek the ministry of a Provincial Episcopal Visitor (or for us here in Wales, the Provincial Assistant Bishop)? I believe there is. It arises not so much from any principle of communion (or of degrees of communion) as from that of witness to the truth.

The church and the individual Christian are called to bear witness to the truth of God (as indeed was our incarnate Lord – John 13:37). It is to be hoped that we seek to do this day by day in multifarious ways.

But a moment’s thought will show that witness, if it is to be credible, must take an appropriate form. Doctrinal error, for example, must be combated by witness in the doctrinal sphere, namely by writing, speaking, and preaching the corrective truth of God. Moral errors must be combated by the witness intrinsic to an appropriate church discipline, e.g. with respect to marriage and divorce. Thus, opposing multiple marriages from the pulpit while happily solemnising them at the chancel step would lack credibility: witness to the truth must be in the appropriate sphere.

The same principle holds in respect of women’s ordination. Given that the admission of women to the priesthood is error in the sphere of the church’s structure and organisation, witness to the truth must find. structural expression. It will lack credibility to teach New Testament doctrine about the proper relationship of men and women within the church and the family if the church’s organisation and her worshipping and sacramental life blatantly and visibly contradict that teaching. New Testament doctrine requires a structure consistent with it; and for Anglicans as Episcopalians, that can only mean some form of alternative episcopal oversight.

By embracing such oversight, we are not cutting ourselves off from fellowship with those with whom we disagree over this question. But we are visibly distancing ourselves from what we believe to be an unscriptural and unorthodox development – which is precisely what we must do if we are to bear witness to the truth. And to be brutally pragmatic, an alternative ecclesiastical structure such as is offered by alternative episcopal oversight is probably the only way that our witness in respect of this issue will survive more than half a generation.

Peter Jones is the Vicar of Conwy, North Wales, and Credo Cymru Representative in the Diocese of Bangor.