Geoffrey Kirk argues that an additional province is still the best solution for all concerned

The Manchester Report dismisses in summary fashion the idea of an additional province for those opposed to women bishops. ‘For many’, it reads [para. 82], ‘the fundamental difficulty with such a proposal remains the perception that creating an additional province would create greater structural barriers within the Church of England than are strictly necessary to meet the needs of those unable to receive the ministry of women bishops.’

Elsewhere it criticizes Consecrated Women? (‘a new province of this kind would arguably give it some of the characteristics of the 39th province of the Anglican Communion rather than an additional province within the Church of England’). One can, of course, see why the authors of the report took this line. But, examined carefully, alongside proposals which they are more inclined to favour, their dismissal of the provincial solution seems illogical and short-sighted.

To evaluate the merits of the various proposals, it is necessary first to consider what Holy Orders are, and what they are for. This is well summarized in the Cameron Report on the episcopate (1990). There it is said that bishops operate on three different levels or planes: two horizontal, one vertical.
On the horizontal level, bishops express and effect communion between dioceses – so that the mutual recognition of bishops in different dioceses and their collegiality makes plain the unity and universality of the Church. Also on the horizontal level, bishops are the focus of unity within their dioceses, such that all ministry of word and sacrament is authorized by them and performed on their behalf. Vertically, in the succession to their sees and by their consecration at the hands of other bishops, they express the continuity of teaching and of the sacramental life through the ages. They are, in that way, an assurance of apostolic doctrine and praxis.

If this description of episcopal function and purpose is accurate, then it will easily be seen that the ordination of women, first to the priesthood and then to the episcopate, brought about a fundamental change. On the horizontal levels, neither within nor between dioceses was unity expressed in the person of the bishop. Some could not receive the orders of others in his college of priests, or receive the bishop’s ministry. The bishop of one diocese did not necessarily recognize the orders of the bishop of another. Vertically, by doing in the present what had never previously been done, the continuity of the succession was broken.

The mechanism by which women’s ordination was achieved was provincial autonomy. What had been thought to be both universal and given was now said to be contingent and at the disposal of individual local churches by democratic decision. But there was a problem. At what level did these supposed democratic rights practically operate? Who now had the authority to pronounce on the nature of orders? If they were not given and unchangeable, who could change them?

In an interesting variation on receptionism, conscience clauses in some provinces implied that who was or was not in Holy Orders was down to the individual Christian. In the Church of England the 1992 legislation and the 1993 Act of Synod put the decision firmly in the hands of the local parish. PCCs could even vote (albeit by special majorities) to reject women’s orders and to come under the sacramental and pastoral care of a bishop other than the diocesan. In at least two provinces the decision was left to the diocesan synod, which was obliged to ratify, or not, the decision of a higher synod or convention.

In the face of these variations, it is difficult not to have sympathy with those who advocate, in the event of a decision about women bishops in the Church of England, the adoption of a single clause measure with a non-statutory code of practice to deal with dissent. Anything less than that would seem to be a scandalous denial of the very nature and function of the episcopate, and a disastrous recognition of private judgement. It is a ‘Catholic’ sentiment which seems wittily to steal the clothes of the opponents.

But a ‘Catholic’ argument for the consecration of women, alas, is not available. There is now no way in which Orders can be rendered universally acceptable across the Communion (and that will probably prove to be the case in other areas of doctrine and practice: human sexuality, the admission of the unbaptized to the Eucharist, lay celebration).

Provincial autonomy is the best that can be achieved. Acceptance of women in Holy Orders over the whole Anglican Communion is a long way off, if it can be achieved at all. And even that provincial acceptance proves problematic where whole dioceses or large numbers of dissentients exist within a single province. But if the most that can be salvaged from the Cameron Report’s understanding of the episcopate is the mutual recognition of orders within a province and mutual acceptance of provincial differences between them, it follows that the only course of action is to consolidate opponents into existing or new provinces. Then, and only then, can the principle behind the often cited Canon A4 come into operation.

Let the opponents at least take advantage of the very mechanism from which they dissent! To do so would not be to innovate (creating ‘structural barriers’, which is what the Manchester Group seems to fear). It would be merely to accept the ecclesiology which women’s ordination has created and to use it, in turn, creatively. The result could not be the free interchangeability of orders which a Catholic ecclesiology demands; but it would be better than the creation of new ecclesial entities (‘complementary bishops’ and the like) which could serve nothing but Protestant individualism and private judgement.

An additional province of the Church of England for opponents would secure for the supporters of women priests and bishops as much of the unqualified recognition of their orders as their chosen ecclesiology will allow; and for opponents enough space to live out their own destiny. Neither side in this acrimonious debate would have got what they wanted. Both would have to accept that this is no longer possible. But there would be to both their positions a coherence (in terms of Anglican polity) which could be reached by no other means.