While most of the work concerns planning for a future structural solution, John Pitchford reminds us of one aspect of the current solution, a cruel anomaly that has only worsened with the passage of time
For generations, or if you go back to emergence of the parish system a thousand years, Anglicans of this country have been able to worship God in any parish of their choice. Until 1992, that is, when General Synod decided to ordain women as priests. Since that date, this is no longer true for many, because their conscience will not let them do this, or they simply feel out of communion with the priest.
In England in the twenty-first century, Jews, Muslims and others are free (and rightly so!) to gather together and worship God according to the traditions of their religion. They can meet in people’s homes, purchase or hire an appropriate building, obtain planning permission for a change of use of the building, and then invite the faithful to come and worship. This is not the case for those who hold on to traditional Christian beliefs, because of the existing system of parishes which cover the whole of the country.
Scattered across the length and breadth of the country there are a number of people who are no longer able to worship God in their parish church. They have been unchurched by the women’s ordination legislation. In many areas, there is often no traditional or orthodox church within reasonable distance, and thus they are deprived of the freedom (legal right?) which members of other world religions all freely enjoy in this country.
Some parishes have failed to achieve the required majority to pass Resolutions A,B and C. The arrival of a woman priest in that parish therefore means in effect that some members of the congregation will simply stop going to church. They cannot accept the validity of the woman priest’s ministry and sacraments. Surely this fact (among others) is not unconnected with the great decline in the number of worshippers in the last twelve years.
Many of these people have worshipped and served God faithfully in their parish church, and supported it financially with sacrificial giving through the years. Many have been baptized, confirmed and married there, and their loved ones buried in the churchyard. It is natural to become attached to one’s accustomed place of worship. With the advent of women priests, they can no longer worship there.
Priests had the opportunity to receive financial compensation for losing their homes and their jobs, and this enabled them to move elsewhere. But this is not possible for lay people. What is far worse, there is often no alternative place where orthodox Christians can worship, unless they are able to travel long distances.
Who looks after the lost?
The very act of having to take a vote at a PCC meeting about women priests is in itself a provocative act. It forces people to take one side or another in a small community. It can cause much antagonism. It is by the sincerity of their catholic and biblically founded beliefs that many are unchurched by current legislation. There is no obligation under the legislation to provide an alternative place of worship for these individuals. It is only by chance they might live in an area where an orthodox church is available. Who is responsible for the spiritual welfare and the eternal souls of those people who are unchurched in this way?
Dr John Hapgood, when introducing women’s ordination to General Synod, spoke of the desirability of having at least one parish church in each deanery. Sadly, this never happened. Justice and the rights of women were loudly proclaimed in the period up to 11 November 1992. Now the situation is reversed. Despite the Human Rights Act of 1998, there are vast areas of the country where there is no opportunity for orthodox Christians to worship in the way of their choice. Is this what the British Parliament intended, when it allowed the women’s ordination legislation to come on to the statutes book?
The needs of the minority
Discrimination cuts both ways. The present legislation is weighted heavily in favour of ordained women. Do not minorities have rights too, as well as majorities? The rights of the minority have to be balanced against the rights of the majority. There is no mechanism for protecting the rights of parishioners who are in the minority.
Who is ultimately responsible for the spiritual welfare of those who are unchurched under the present legislation? How can the spiritual needs of the minority be provided for in the present circumstances? Their greatest need is to be able to receive Holy Communion regularly, with (according to the tradition) a male priest celebrating the sacraments, and one who is in communion with a bishop who maintains the same orthodox truths as he does. There is a tradition in the Church of England that one priest does not operate or interfere in the parish of another priest. In view of the shortcomings of the present legislation, this situation should be changed, and hopefully with the goodwill of the diocesan bishops.
While we wait for decisions to be made about the (possible) creation of a new province, it would be helpful to have alternative places of worship for those who are unchurched. Possibilities include a cell or house church, chapels in alms houses, redundant churches, private estates or schools. Retired priests could be called upon to help in this situation.
Work to be done
How ironic it is, that it is now possible for a parish church to be used for regular worship by a church of another Christian denomination, and yet there is no place for those who have been faithful communicants over the years, and whose only fault is that they cannot accept women priests.
In the last twelve years or so, we have been thinking much about survival and what is going to happen in the future. During this period, much more thought has been given to the case against the ordination of women. This case is now very much stronger that it was a few years ago. Unless there is an ecumenical agreement accepting women priests, which seems unlikely, then there will be doubts about the validity of women’s ordination, and these doubts will last to the end of time. Meanwhile, could something be done to help us in this unfortunate situation?