Women bishops, it seems, are once again in the air, if not on the agenda. When the Archbishop of Canterbury was questioned on the subject by the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament in 1993 he frankly admitted the illogicality of the present position, but refused to speculate on a timescale for women’s consecration:
‘I have no doubt, ‘he said ‘that it [the consecration of women as bishops] will happen one day, but we did not want to build that into the legislation. We have the experience of women in the diaconate, as Mr Broadhurst has said before you already it is illogical to separate the presbyterate from the episcopate but we have chosen to do it this way because we need the experience of women in the ministry. Perhaps one day it will come, perhaps in my lifetime, I simply do not know and there is no point in speculating about it.’
The illogicality and the vagueness of this position have at last proved too much for the former members of MOW, who met recently in St. John’s, Waterloo to reconstitute themselves for the final struggle. Though a few faint hearts at the meeting seemed to be inclined to leave well alone, a majority was for a campaign which will put the old sorority back on the road.
One can but sympathise with them. The future of women’s ministry in the Church of England looks increasingly bleak. As in other provinces, English parishes – even those who favoured the innovation in the daring days of 1992 – now show a reluctance to appoint a woman as Vicar or Rector. The vast number of eager, talented young female ordinands, which the Church was confidently promised, has not come forward. Vocations continue to decline, among women as well as men. Forward in Faith has proved itself to be well-funded, well-supported and pro-active. And the PEVs have established a role which has every appearance of permanence. It is clearly time to do something. But what to do?
The liberal majority in the House of Bishops (which, as Monica Furlong pointed out in the heat of the struggle, has always been a fickle ally) seems to have developed decidedly cold feet. Talk is now of a twenty-five year moratorium before the women bishop question can be taken off the back burner. The sisters must surely suspect one of those patriarchalist conspiracies which feature so largely in their mythology; and they might not, in this case, be far from the truth. For consider what conceivable reason the liberal worthies on the bench episcopal might have for such a delay.
They cannot, surely, claim theological grounds. Bishop Adie, their spokesperson in the great debate, hailed women’s ordination as ‘required by tradition’. He cited (in a rather diffuse and vague manner, it is true) the doctrine of the incarnation as the obliging tradition. But that must certainly, if it is taken as a binding argument at all, require women bishops; for modern scholarship and the testimony of the Fathers uncannily concur in the opinion that episcopal and priestly orders are inextricably intertwined one with another.
Nor can expediency be a serious motive; for expediency, as Bishop Roy Williamson pointed out in a moving contribution to the same debate, obliges no one to anything when justice calls. ‘I feel the weight of the sincerely held conviction of many that because of the threat to the unity of the Church the time may not yet be right,’ he told the Synod, ‘ but as a seeker first of the Kingdom, I feel that if there is injustice to be removed the only time to do it is now.’
Why then, if obliged by their own arguments to go ahead with the consecration of women to the episcopate, do the bishops show such reluctance?
The answer surely is that by the Act of Synod they have painted themselves into a corner. The Act requires that ‘all concerned should endeavour to ensure that …the integrity of differing beliefs and positions concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood should be mutually recognised and respected…’ It also asserts that ‘the bishop of each diocese continues as the ordinary of his diocese’. Now there’s the rub! For what if the bishop of the diocese is herself a woman? How can she remain the ‘ordinary’ of those who believe that she is not a bishop? And how can the Act of Synod reasonably oblige her to recognise and respect their opinions?
The truth is that women bishops would expose, with devastating clarity, the fragile absurdities on which the Act of Synod is based, and in which we have all connived, proponents and opponents alike. For women bishops will show how fundamental and necessary to the unity, life and integrity of the Church is the understanding of ministry expressed in Canon A4. That Canon (for those who do not have daily recourse to the Canons of the Church of England) reads as follows:
‘The Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, annexed to the Book of Common Prayer and commonly known as the Ordinal, is not repugnant to the word of God; and those who are so made, ordained, or consecrated bishops, priests, or deacons, according to the said Ordinal, are lawfully made, ordained, or consecrated, and ought to be accounted both by themselves and others, to be truly bishops, priests, or deacons.’
At each new development in the saga of women priests the question which journalists ask is the same: ‘Does this mean a split?’ So far they have been disappointed by the Church of England’s familiar knack of filibustering its way out of schism. But with women bishops the talking will have to stop, and the divisions, so artfully disguised, will become apparent. Opponents of the ordination of women have a duty to point out the cost of what the Archbishop of Canterbury sees as a logical development. The cost will be coherent and structural division – dioceses and provinces with an ecclesial existence separate from and independent of, those which ordain women to the priesthood and the episcopate.
It is a price which, at present, the liberal bishops are not prepared to pay. But as the pressure increases from MOW and its supporters, and as it becomes clear that Forward in Faith is declining neither in numbers nor in determination, the inexorable process by which Anglican ecclesiology is arrived at will take its course. Pragmatism will degenerate into opportunism, and the bishops will discover (as they did in the case of the Act of Synod) that what they could not stomach is what they always intended.
It is worth reflecting, however, that though this process may well give both sides what they want – women bishops on the one hand and a Third Province on the other – it will not help either side to relate to the House of Bishops. For whilst it is possible and reasonable to establish a working relationship with those who are genuinely convinced that one is wrong, it is virtually impossible and certainly meaningless to strive for the same understanding with those who do not have the courage of their convictions.