Geoffrey Kirk on possible ways forward

As the Church of England moves towards the formal debate about women in the episcopate there are a number of options for the way forward. This month we examine the possibility of limiting women to suffragan sees.

The road to women’s ordination has been paved with compromises. The schedules of the Measure suspended Canon A4 and required every PCC to make up its own mind on the acceptability or otherwise of ordained women. Private judgement in the matter of orders was precisely what those who argued the case for women’s ordination on grounds of justice and equality did not want; but it was, in practical terms, a concession which had to be made. It fatally undermined, moreover, the very nature and function of orders, which witness to the unity of the Church by their mutual acceptability and interchangeability.

What sweetened the pill in the short term, however, was the unspoken understanding that all the talk about ‘open periods of reception’ was just so much flannel. Reception was, for the proponents, a one way street. Opponents would either die out or be driven out.

The idea that women who could never become diocesans might be ordained as suffragan bishops is another instance of unprincipled compromise. It would raise, moreover, in an acute way, the problem of defining what a bishop actually is.

The idea, of course, is that parishes opposed to the ordination of women as priests and bishops would still be able to relate to the diocesan bishop (who would be male), whilst women would nevertheless have been admitted to the order of bishops and so their present offensive exclusion would have been brought to an end. The glass ceiling would have been upped a peg or two. But in what sense would those women truly be ‘bishops’? When is a bishop not a bishop? And what, in any case, is meant by ‘suffragan’ in this context?

Do ‘area bishops’ count? London, for example, is, to all intents and purposes, an Archdiocese with a team of diocesans (the Area Bishops) working under an Archbishop (the Bishop of London). Southwark is much the same, except that, like the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Bishop of Southwark has no territory of his own. Here are patterns of subordination linked to jurisdiction which are hard to categorize.

But even if it is allowed that ‘area bishops’ are a special case, it is still not clear what a ‘suffragan’ is. Would not the creation of a new kind of suffragan – one who could never be preferred as a diocesan – undermine the very episcopal character of the office? Is a bishop who has no jurisdiction, and who cannot in principle be given it, a bishop at all? Would not the lady in question better be described as a special sort of presbyter, rather than as an odd kind of bishop? And (as she observed her male colleagues being preferred to ancient sees and the fullness of episcopal office) would that be what she wanted?

Just as the 1993 Measure undermined the nature and integrity of the presbyteral office, so legislation to create this novel ministry would undermine the nature and integrity of the office of bishop – which exists precisely to unite the pastoral, the sacramental and the juridical in one person – the bridegroom of his particular church, and the paterfamilias of the local household of faith.

Nor are the supposed advantages of the scheme what at first they seem. Opponents would be no more able to submit to a male diocesan with a female suffragan than to a female diocesan. However curtailed their prospects and anomalous their role, the women so ordained would be bishops of the Church of England, and members of its college of bishops. Simple principles of logic, justice and fairness would render it impossible for conscientious opponents of the development to discriminate against them and in favour of their male colleagues. All, in the eyes of the Church of England, would be equally bishops and all should be equally treated by opponents.

Few things, it has to be said, reveal the gulf between the opponents and proponents of women’s ordination more clearly, than do the ham-fisted and misdirected attempts of the proponents to cater for the opposition. The proponents sincerely, though misguidedly, think that opponents are simply misogynistic. They consequently assume that as long as a male priest or bishop is available, opponents will be mollified. They fail to grasp that the concern of opponents is for the continuity, nature, function and divine purpose of Holy Orders. Attempts to provide for the opposition which compromise the very orders to which women are purportedly being admitted are of no avail. They are indeed, worse than no provision at all, since they compound the original offence.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, in the Diocese of Southwark and the Woolwich Episcopal Area.