The Rt Revd Paul Hewett SSC reports on the discussions at GAFCON and the ongoing importance of the women’s ordination issue, and emphasizes the need for a study of this subject to be undertaken
Archbishop Peter Akinola called the Global Anglican Futures Conference ‘a godly instrument to reshape, reform, renew and reclaim a true Anglican Biblical orthodox Christianity that is firmly anchored in historic faith and ancient formularies…’ The new Primates’ Council would open up enough structure, like a giant umbrella, under which we can be enthusiastic about what we have in common, and then go on in due course to deal with secondary issues, the largest of which some consider to be the ordination of women.
Others would hint at a deeper significance for women’s ordination, as when Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali referred to the patristic consensus of the undivided Church as our foundation as Anglicans, and now, the basis for dialogue with Rome and Orthodoxy. And others would suggest that women’s ordination is a first order issue, as when Bishop John Rodg-ers noted ‘the serious degree of impaired communion…around this matter’, and the need for a proper study such as the one conducted by the Anglican Mission in America.
And so at GAFCON there was a considerable majority that would understand Holy Orders in terms of Scripture and Tradition, and a sizeable minority that began ordaining women during the last 32 years, with no prolonged scriptural and theological reflection on the matter. The former would say that our crisis began in earnest in 1976 in Minneapolis. What happened then was like Jeremiah smashing the ‘potter’s earthen bottle’ [Jer. 19]. Jerusalem, and God’s people, were broken right then and there, when the pot hit the ground, not in 576 bc when the Babylonians sacked the city. The minority at GAFCON cite 2003 in New Hampshire as the breaking point. But even in their ranks one could hear a probing question about where the cancer began. Must we not take care to get all the cancer? What if there is more than appears on the surface?
Until we lift the lid all the way on this, GAFCON has enjoined two integrities, during a period of reception. Here is one place to see the hand of God. The two integrities are showing respect and for-
bearance to a remarkable degree, on this, and all the issues that need to be resolved. Dignity and restraint prevail. The minority need not fear that they will be treated as many in the majority so often were, in 32 years of persecution. The majority will be Christian gentlemen, and the minority will find their feet ‘set in a large room [Ps. 31.9]. Anglicans in North America were given a green light to create a province with two integrities, with the same safeguards for the orthodox that a third province would require in the Church of England: assured integrity of our holy orders, our own synods, our own theological education and our own ecumenical relations.
But it is recognized that, ‘Can two walk together, except they be agreed?’ [Amos 3.3]. We recall the tragic consequences of the American Constitutional Congress of 1787 not mustering enough political courage to deal with slavery at that time. Honour requires a study of the women’s ordination issue, because a study was promised in the US some years ago, and those elsewhere who have yet to do a study should not delay, (i) We owe it to our Lord to get this right, (ii) The presenting issues (divorce, abortion, family life, ordination of women and homosexuality) are interrelated. One thing leads to another, eventually, if we do not sort the whole lot out now. (iii) The Holy Spirit is powerfully at work to reveal the unity of the Body. We cannot sustain a claim to be Catholic if we have a form of ministry at variance with the vast majority of Christians, (iv) God will increasingly use the onslaught of Islam to judge and correct us until we get it right.
The crisis of Western culture is the meltdown of gracious, kenotic patriarchy, of Christian manliness. GK. Chesterton predicted, over 80 years ago, that by the end of the twentieth century, the
most radical thing in the world would be Christian fatherhood. The whole of Scripture is about the redemption of patriarchy, modelled in the self-emptying of the Son of God, who reveals the Father as the ultimate gracious Patriarch. Increasing numbers of women are seeing this and, like Sarah Mowbray [April 2008], are asking that the tables in the house of the Lord have men at their heads. Boys must have this if they are to be men-in-Christ. The crisis in masculinity and family life in the West will metastasize in Africa if we do not embrace the fullness of Catholic faith and order, which is what is ultimately radical in every culture.
These kinds of things were discussed quietly and behind the scenes at GAFCON. The question was asked whether women’s ordination is becoming perceived as a failed system, and is now perhaps where communism was in the Soviet Union in 1985. And the point was made that when a study is done, it will include the view that holy orders is all one thing: the episcopate. The presbyter-ate and diaconate derive from the Apostles and their successors. And GAFCON has already indicated that only men can be bishops.
Behind the scenes it was also recognized that the ‘majority’ need to magnify what women can do scripturally in the Church, as teachers, catechists, deaconesses, Church Army workers, nuns and above all, as wives and mothers. Holy Scripture gives us a vibrant sense of the all-important role of the Christian wife and mother. The Church is always called to preach, teach and live this, to live what St Paul said in 2 Timothy 3.16. Those leading the way are the Africans, with their magnificent Mother’s Unions.
GAFCON’s stance on the ordination of women may remind one of the old adage, ‘first light the wick, then trim it.’ Get some fire started. Then make the necessary adjustments for the brightest flame. The task before us is staggering, as it was before Nehemiah and the Jews returning from exile. Nehemiah told them ‘of the hand of my God which was good upon me…and they said, Let us rise up and build. So