Rodney Schofield muses on reception, women bishops and what the future holds

IN THE RECENT ROUND of consultations about the possibilities of a Free Province there was much talk of the inevitability of women bishops. Such language is only to be expected in liberal circles, but for Forward in Faith to follow suit seems to me both irresponsible and defeatist. I suggest the idea needs knocking on its head before it grows into an accepted cliché. Too much talk of that sort becomes too readily a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is perfectly proper to remind the Church of England what will be the consequences of having women bishops, and on that score I have no doubt at all that something like a Free Province will become inevitable if any such consecrations take place. But the development itself must be challenged every step of the way, and the orthodox integrity should lose no opportunity of reminding the Church about the true meaning of Reception, which is the key underlying issue.

I am not predicting, of course, that our voice will be heeded. Making a realistic, political assessment, it may in fact be probable that women bishops will sooner or later come about. For the time being it would seem that the House of Bishops wants to avoid further bloodshed, and the unseemly spectacle of division in its own ranks. But such a position will clearly not last for ever. So we need to be more pro-active in the debate. Believing as I do that there is widespread ignorance across the country as to what has already been agreed about the provisional nature of the 1992 decision, we surely need to campaign far more actively in spelling out that reception – the strongest card we hold – is not at all the same thing as the acceptability of women priests within the confines of our own church. It is the endorsement or otherwise of the world-wide church that counts, and that is where we must take our stand. If we fail to make this clear, it becomes more likely that the Church of England will compound its existing error, and introduce provisionality into the ranks of the episcopate as well as the priesthood, with far more divisive results. If this were to happen and were eventually acknowledged to be a mistake, the prospect of unscrambling the mess beggars belief. Better by far to proceed cautiously and patiently now, with proper ecumenical courtesy. Our mission is to save the Church we love, not to allow it to destroy itself so that out of the shattered pieces we can salvage a little more freedom than we enjoy at present.

Given the demise of church history in many of the theological courses and colleges, it is unsurprising that lessons have not been learnt from the past. Liberals want to stampede the church into precipitous and hasty action, whereas reception almost always seems to have been a lengthy and complex process, lasting decades if not centuries. The most obvious example is the Christological debate that embraced Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 38l and Chalcedon in 451. Again, it is clear that the possibility of critical Bible Study took at least a century to catch on in more modern times, and we can note with some pride that Anglicans helped to pioneer liturgy in the vernacular long before it was accepted in Rome. But a more recent illustration is of topical interest and shows how hard church people find it to be of one mind even when there is no serious difference about the facts or the need to change.

I refer here to the scientific study of time, and the epoch-making change of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. He ought to be one of the heroes of millennium celebrations, because without the papal bull he issued late in February that year (after already aeons of observation, calculation and debate) it remains doubtful whether the world would even yet agree on dates. 1582 was the year when the calendar jumped ten days. There was no 5th October, and indeed the 4th was followed immediately by the 15th. There ensued commercial confusion and liturgical mayhem, principally because only staunchly catholic countries, Italy, Spain and Portugal, carried out the reform at the specified times. Protestant countries were furious, but could not deny the rational and scientific basis for the Pope’s edict. It took well over a century before the old Julian calendar was replaced in Germany and Denmark, and over three centuries before eastern orthodox countries took the plunge. In every case, the cogency of the argument and the accuracy of astronomical observations were not in dispute. Change was delayed because of antipathy to Rome and because of much popular prejudice and misunderstanding.

This was precisely so in England as well. A Cambridge mathematician John Dee was charged by Elizabeth I to study the Gregorian proposals. Broadly he was in favour, but suggested that the ten days should be omitted by shortening four of the months in 1583 at times avoiding significant festivals. Lord Burghley and the Queen’s counsellors approved: all that remained was the consent of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal. He procrastinated masterfully. “We love not to deale with or in any wise admit it, before mature and deliberate consultation had, not only with our principal assembly of the clergy and convocation of this realm, but also with other reformed churches which profess the same religion as we do, without whose consent if we should herein proceed we should offer just occasion of schism.” As he well knew. there was no immediate prospect of any general council of Churches, so with attention beginning to turn to the threat of Spanish invasion any further consideration of reform quietly dissipated. It was left to the Earl of Chesterfield, following a meeting of the Royal Society in 1750 to mount a new and this time successful campaign, with now eleven days being omitted from the English calendar in 1752. Since then we have kept in time, if not necessarily also in step, with Rome.

This illustration shows a papal initiative being followed here in England 170 years later: we were among those who could not adjust to Rome then being right. That seems to me the kind of timescale over which momentous change is likely to be accepted or thrown out. It is far too early for us to know whether women’s priesthood is a legitimate development of Christian tradition, although the signs are not presently auspicious. His Holiness the Pope has pronounced definitively against the move and ARCIC 2 has abandoned the idea of an agreed joint statement. Even the ordination of women to the Roman Catholic Diaconate looks unlikely, according to Cardinal Castrillon, prefect of the Congregation for the clergy. And this takes no account of the firm position of the Orthodox, not to mention some of our own Anglican provinces elsewhere in the world. It is unrealistic to think that a consensus, which is the object of reception, will be achieved in but a few years.

The present Archbishop of Canterbury was quite right when he spoke in South Carolina earlier this year. Decision making, he said, can be “agonisingly slow”. But he also argued, if the Church is to be true to the unity of the Gospel, there is no alternative. Perhaps his thinking has changed since 1992! Remarks such as those do add considerable weight to the need for proper debate and evaluation to go on taking place, certainly calling in question any ideas about the “inevitability” of further change. The Archbishop has condemned unilateral action by provinces when that impairs the life of wider communion. His words must give heart to those who care sufficiently about the catholicity of the Church for us to let reception continue at its own, inevitably slow pace. Should he be made an honorary member now of Forward in Faith?

Where Professor Henry Chadwick addressed the inaugural gathering of General Synod in 1990 (in his sermon in Westminster Abbey), he urged that a prime historical function of synod was to slow down the pace of change, not of course in any reactionary spirit but to allow new measures to be thoroughly tested. Forward in Faith must not now collude with further change whatever seeming benefits might accrue to us. It is our role to make people think ecumenically about the consequences of any proposed actions.

Rodney Schofield is a Proctor in Convocation for the diocese of Bath and Wells