Recent events in the American Church (which are extensively covered in this edition of New Directions – see Letter from America, page 25; The Shape of Things to Come, page 19, Letter from the Bishop of Pittsburgh, page 31). It would be shortsighted, we believe to see the events in Accokeek, Maryland as either a minor local skirmish or as a peculiarly American phenomenon. They go to the heart of what the Rochester Commission will be considering as it prepares the way for women bishops in the Church of England.
The Bishop of Rochester has been careful to distance himself from the view that women’s ordination is a matter of ‘natural justice; but, as the stand-off between the Vestry of Christ Church Accokeek and Bishop Jane Dixon demonstrates, there is an undeniable match between the status of a bishop as the focus of unity and font of ministry in a diocese and the ethical a priori claims that women ought, of right, to be admitted equally to every order in the Church.
To put the matter bluntly, can the nature and function of episcopal orders ever permit dissent from those orders in the diocese where they are exercised? Jane Dixon clearly thinks not; and she surely has the accumulated wisdom of the Catholic centuries on her side. Fr Edwards. paradoxically, in the name of a wider or deeper Catholicism (he has said that he can accept that Bishop Jane is the ‘ecclesiastical authority’ in the diocese of Washington, but not that she is an ordained successor of the Apostles), thinks that by hook or by crook they can and must.
We must ask ourselves what are the possibilities.
Plainly Jane Dixon could persist in refusing to license Fr Edwards. The parish in Accokeek would then, in all probability, either join the Anglican Mission in America (as others have done) with Fr Edwards as its pastor; or, more likely, it would split into two or more smaller groups, the smallest of which would remain with Bishop Dixon. On the other hand, Jane Dixon could back down, admit that she had made a simple canonical error by not raising her objection in time, and subside into a well-earned retirement, leaving the problem for her (presumably male) successor.
But neither course of events would solve the riddle of this case, or satisfy the principal protagonists.
Jane Dixon thinks she is a bishop; she thinks that women have the inalienable right, equally with men, to be chosen as bishops; and she thinks that those who will not accept that right (and the decision of a local church to uphold it) should either accede or leave. Sam Edwards believes that women have no such inalienable right; that there is that in scripture and the tradition which legitimately
inhibits women from being ordained as priests and bishops, and that he has a duty under God to witness to that belief in the Church of his baptism, which has defected from it.
Both Jane and Sam have a view of the bishop’s office which makes it a very serious matter indeed to deny the validity of the bishop’s orders or to refuse the bishop’s pastoral care and godly admonition.
We wait with bated breath to see how Michael-Nazir Ali and his team will unravel this Gordian entanglement for the benefit of the Church of England. What could not be more certain, however, is that if they do not (and yet proceed to the consecration of women as bishops) England will be littered with
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When the General Synod of the Church of England was persuaded to allow women to be admitted to the priesthood, it did so on the basis that the legislation would be permissive. Many decent Anglicans, assumed, quite mistakenly as it turned out, that parishes that wanted that sort of thing would be free to vote for it and invite women to apply for any subsequent vacant posts.
The reality was somewhat different. Parishes were not asked to opt in, but rather, reluctantly and after much wrangling, allowed to opt out. In practice this meant that those who had lobbied for, and caused a great division in our Church, would never have to argue the case in the parish or sell it to their people.
Orthodox parishes, on the other hand, were expected to go through the wringer of full public consultation with all the parish. Public meetings and church council debates were to be held. Anyone with an axe to grind could turn up and hang it on the peg of the issue. Bullying Archdeacons tried to force their way into parish councils, Bishops summoned wardens of recalcitrant parishes for an hour of emotional blackmail. Whispering campaigns began about the loyalty, sexuality or psychological balance of those whose only crime was to hold fast to the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church from earliest times.
In the face of all that, still more than 1000 parishes have passed A, B or C, in varying degrees objecting to the priesting of women.
In addition to carrying the burden of division created by others, Orthodox parishes and clergy are expected to review their decision every five years.
In 1998 the House of Bishops appointed the Bishop of Blackburn to review the workings of the new two tier Church of England. It turned out to be the longest and most comprehensive consultation and report ever-presented and, for its evenhandedness, was duly vilified and brushed aside by a contemptuous General Synod.
The bishops, however, never keen to miss a trick that may solidify their power base, have revived such elements of it as may be to their advantage and issued Guidelines for good practice emanating from the Report.
Each of the fifteen paragraphs and proposals require detailed and separate analysis, but the briefest of them is the most insidious. It refers simply to an appendix containing “draft guidelines” for the review of a PCC petition (the one that has to be reviewed every five years).
Its proposed timetable and consultation process envisages the equivalent of a six-month election campaign in the parish on the issue, public meetings, a full-blown debate, advertisements on notice-boards, in magazines, writing to every member of the electoral roll, publishing the views of the diocesan bishop, etc., etc., etc . In other words traditionalist parishes are expected to go through the whole bloody and time-consuming process again, reopening old wounds and setting parishioner against parishioner.
Let us be quite clear about four things.
First: Traditionalists are not afraid of the democratic process. Indeed they are the only ones who have ever undertaken it.
Second: The enthusiasm for extended and consultative democracy by the unelected and largely unelectable House of Bishops would be more impressive if it extended to all parishes.
Third: To impose a six-month “election” campaign every five years on parishes displays either complete pastoral ignorance or deliberate mischief making.
Fourth: The Act of Synod itself does not require a parish to do any more than review its decision, every five years, through its democratically elected P.C. C.
That is the rule. It is enough.
Our bishops and priests and people should say so and reject this new imposition forthwith.