Oliver O’Donovan reflects on how a House of Bishops containing both men and women can function as a collegial body

The following is reproduced by kind permission of the author. It is taken from the Preface to the Second Edition of On The Thirty-Nine Articles: Conversations With Tudor Christianity by Oliver O’Donovan. (SCM Press 2011)

How, we are currently asking ourselves, can a House of Bishops containing both men and women function as a collegial body, and how can it even worship together when some male bishops do not believe that their female colleagues are bishops at all, or even priests?

No new thing

Perhaps, instructed by this Article [Article XXVI], those bishops might reason like this: ‘I could never take part in the consecration of a woman, and I should not hide, in public or in private, my belief that a false step has been made. I cannot cease to pray that the Church will recognise its error and withdraw from it. Yet I can see that it was made in good faith, the Church believing (wrongly) that it exercised a power that the Spirit had granted it. The Church which consecrates women intends, in the scholastic phrase, “to do what the church does”, meaning them to be bishops in the sense that the church has always had bishops. So I can, and must, relate to this church as to the church of Jesus Christ – though fallen into error, which is no new thing. I may not forget the promise made to a church that can sometimes err, that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it and that Christ is in its midst.

I can relate to its consenting bishops and pseudo-bishops as to partners in the Gospel who have overreached themselves in their zeal, not as to those who have fallen away from Christ. I shall refuse to receive communion when a woman celebrates – for though these are not the only defective eucharists to be found, these are the ones that demand a public witness from me. But I need not withdraw from receiving communion with the consenting bishops and pseudo-bishops, for they are Christians heeding the Lord’s invitation. I need not refuse the ministry of a male priest who has received ordination in good faith from a woman bishop, though, if he asks it, I should confer conditional ordination on him for his conscience’s sake. I bitterly regret the breaches in church-order which demand these compromises, but a broken church-order must be helped to grow whole again, not broken further. Unity remains the overarching imperative in church order, even in a débacle such as this. My colleagues do not see how their acts damage the unity of the church. Would that excuse me, who do see it, if I damaged it further?’

Cheerful patience

How, on the other hand, might a woman member of the House of Bishops view her position beside those who disbelieve the reality of her consecration? ‘The Holy Spirit led the Church to take this step, and in accepting consecration I have declared it a true discernment of God’s will. I cannot allow that conviction constantly to be brought into question. But that is what I would allow if I were constantly put out of countenance by those who doubt it. I was asked for a courageous discernment to match the courageous discernment of the church. What would my response be worth if it could not cope with ambiguities? I acted in full knowledge that there were bishops who conscientiously opposed the step, and I said that I respected their position. Now I must prove as much by showing cheerful patience. If I fail at this point, I show that I acted without due consideration. Continual wrong-footing of opponents and demands to exercise my rightful powers would simply confirm that I did not believe that my calling was from God. Those in my diocese who cannot bring themselves to receive the sacraments from me have a harder part than I do, since the Church has judged them mistaken. They will need all the sympathy that I and my male assistants can give them in coming to terms with their position. I can prove my episcopal authority only as Jesus proved his, by care and oversight courageously and sacrificially expressed, wherever and in whatever ways are opened to me. If I look for opportunities to be the bishop that I am, I shall not find myself without work. I will know frustrations, as have those male bishops who participated in the ordination of women as priests. In accepting these graciously, they have not lost authority, and neither shall I. We all need time and experience, for the process of reception will only be complete when we turn round and look at one another and wonder what the fuss was about. The best way to help it forward is not to be fretful.’ ND