Geoffrey Kirk reflects on the Network and FiF North America
‘These hands have ordained women and I am comfortable with that’, Bishop Peter Beckwith told delegates to the Forward in Faith North America National Assembly in Bedford, Texas.
It was an unfortunate way of putting things. Unfortunate because it was a scarcely veiled allusion to the so-called ‘Doctrine of Taint’, of which Forward in Faith has often been accused, but which it has never held. And unfortunate in the way in which it seemed to belittle the importance of the very issue which had brought the delegates of that conference together.
‘The Network’, whatever it stands for (and that is by no means clear), has drawn its line at the consecration of Gene Robinson, and so, by implication, declared other contemporary innovations in the life of the Episcopal Church to be secondary or subsidiary. It is therefore important to ask: Why this line in the sand and no other?
It has to be said, with frankness, that it does not appear to be a very tenable line. What, after all, is wrong with the ordination of Gene Robinson?
Is it that he is a practising gay bishop? But he was a practising gay priest before he was a practising gay bishop. Why is now so much worse than then?
Is it that, as a bishop, he exercises a teaching role in matters of doctrine, which as a cathedral canon he did not exercise? Then why did those who object to the consecration of Gene Robinson not seek the deposition of Jack Spong (whose doctrinal defections were at least as flagrant as Bishop Robinson’s?)
Is it that Gene Robinson has separated from his wife to embrace a life style excoriated by the scriptures? Certainly he has; but is it clear (Article XXVI and all) that his sacramental acts are defective and that his ministry should therefore be shunned? Frankly, a man’s bedroom activities are an uncertain foundation on which to build an ecclesiology – especially those of a man as uncertain in his mores as Bishop Robinson. He has already forsaken a gay lifestyle for matrimony and deserted matrimony for a gay lifestyle. Who is to say that he will not change his mind again and confound his critics with repentance?
Is it because a majority of ECUSA bishops consented to his consecration, so signalling their departure from scriptural fidelity and the constraints of the tradition? They did so, of course. But the challenge is to say why this is a defining moment. Does anyone believe that a majority of ECUSA bishops was faithful to scripture and the tradition up to the moment of the Robinson consecration?
Those in the Episcopal Church who have opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate for the last thirty years (and have been marginalized in that church as a result of their principled stand) have earned the right to ask these questions and more.
Forward in Faith maintains that the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate is contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, and is repeatedly and unreservedly condemned in the tradition. We hold that the exegetical sleights of hand which allow women’s ordination to be portrayed as consonant with scripture are precisely those which are now being employed in condoning homosexual practice. We believe, moreover, that the two matters are related, not only by the exegetical methods used to uphold them, but by a doctrine of personal rights and freedoms which is itself unevidenced in scripture and inimical to orthodox Christianity.
It will be seen that an alliance with those who oppose the homosexualist agenda is one which Forward in Faith can undertake with enthusiasm. It will be equally clear that we cannot do so in terms which will in any way compromise our stand on what is, in our view, the clearest and most fundamental ecclesiological issue in the present debate.
We believe that matters of sexual ethics, especially when they set aside (or seek to trivialize or compromise) the marriage bond, seriously affect the integrity of the church as the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5.22–33) and the Household of Faith (Galatians 6.10; Ephesians 2.19). These are matters of great importance. The Apostle Paul, more than once, links sexual license with idolatry (Romans 1.18–24; Galatians 5.19–20; Colossians 3:5).
But the ordination of women (setting aside, as it does, the free, gracious and sovereign action of the Lord in his choice of male apostles (Matthew 4.18–22; Mark 1.16–20); the deliberate continuation of that choice by the Apostles themselves (Acts 1:15–26); and the specific and clear prohibitions of Paul in his apostolic charge to those who were to succeed him (1 Timothy 2.11–15)) is graver still.
The ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate is for us a salvation issue. By this we mean that it calls into question the apostolicity, continuity and reliability of those sacraments upon which eternal life and salvation depend. (‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day’ (John 6.53–54)). We do not mean by this, as some have perversely misconstrued, that those who have ordained women or have received their ministry are damned: simply that their actions endanger the salvation and spiritual well-being of others.
Women’s ordination is also a primary ecclesiological issue, since it is the vocation and purpose of the church to guard the authenticity of the sacraments of the Lord, until the Lord himself comes and all sacraments are done away. The church does not authorize the sacraments; in Christ the sacraments constitute and authorize the church.
Because of the ecclesiological implications of the ordination of women it has been the consistent aim of Forward in Faith to establish a free and independent province of the Anglican Communion in North America which would continue the priesthood and episcopate of the catholic church as the Episcopal Church received them. Such a province would, as a matter of course, uphold the church’s teaching on the sanctity and indissolubility of the marriage bond, and other dependent issues in human sexuality.
It is not presently clear what the ultimate ecclesial aims of the Network are. We are grateful for the generosity of those who have assured a secure and respected place within it for those opposed to women bishops and priests. But such assurances do not diminish our aims and objectives. Ours is the majority opinion in the communion and in the wider church. It would be foolish, therefore, to allow impaired communion with those within the Network to dictate for us the nature and extent of our fraternal relations with fellow Anglicans opposed to women’s ordination – and our ecumenical opportunities with respect to the great churches of East and West.
Geoffrey Kirk is National Secretary of Forward in Faith UK.