Andrew Burnham shares some thoughts with the Catholic Group in Synod
THE QUESTION of women bishops, on the agenda of the General Synod in November 1996, inevitably requires a revisiting, if briefly, of some old arguments. The challenge women bishops would pose to the ecclesiology of the Church of England, however, would be a new circumstance and how traditionalists should respond to this challenge is what mostly concerns us here. This is not a learned paper, still less a piece of polemic. It is intended as a briefing paper for the Catholic Group in General Synod but is made available to the wider readership of New Directions.
An Orthodox Bishop
To indicate something of the radical discontinuity that the ordination of women to the episcopate represents, here is a glimpse of a very solid piece of tradition.
An important aspect of the Orthodox perception of a bishop … is his physical appearance …The bishop has a persona. He is a patriarch, or image of the Father and the incarnate Son and has a beard as an expression (with strong significance for the Orthodox), of the masculinity that goes with the concepts. [Episcopal Ministry, The Report of the Archbishops’ Group on The Episcopate 1990, p 44]
It could be fairly said that, of all the descriptions of episcopacy in the 1990 Report, none is more intrinsically male than this. The bearded bishop as icon of the Father and the Son (the very image of God that John Robinson’s Honest to God a generation ago was concerned to banish) is a Catholic parallel to the scriptural male headship argument developed by conservative evangelicals. Nor is Episcopal Ministry critical of what it is describing – at least not at this point. The ‘otherness’ of the Orthodox bishop ‘does not necessarily mean distance or inapproachability in a Western sense,’ the report goes on to say. `Archdeacons do the administration; bishops are praying, liturgical figures’. (ibid pp 44-45). Well, we could do worse than imitate that model!
Patriarchy and the Modern Age
Insofar as the Christian religion is inevitably patriarchal – whether or not it is, of course, is one of the great theological questions of our times – then its bishops must be male, or so say the `impossibilists’ (those who believe that women cannot be priests or bishops). If bishops are not male, the argument goes on a key sacramental and scriptural image of God the bridegroom is lost, as is the scriptural pattern of male headship. Those who want us to have women bishops know that they are opposing patriarchy. Either they come from a catholic direction and want us to soften, or remove altogether, the notion that the God who is `without body, parts, or passions’ (Article 1) reveals himself nonetheless as Father and Son. They do this by removing masculine pronouns, introducing maternal imagery and calling on God as Mother. Or they come from a charismatic evangelical direction and speak urgently of what God is telling us to do in the times in which we live. The living God is moving the Church on and saying new things to our new secular age, they say.
Between these two principled approaches for the dismantling of the dominance of patriarchal ideas in scriptural revelation – both of which cite Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28 as fundamental texts – there is, of course, a great deal of intellectual quicksand. An example of this is the unexamined application of equal opportunities language to Christian ministry. This explains in part why many people have taken as well to the new reality of 2,000 women priests as earlier they took to women doctors. (It also has to be said in any honest discussion that many women priests are of outstanding quality and their ministry has commanded itself because of its quality. It is the clericalisation of women’s ministry not the development of professional opportunities for women to minister which is being attacked).
The Ecumenical Argument
As well as Anglicans coming from a catholic direction who want to strike a blow against patriarchy by having women priests and bishops, there are those who, from the Catholic movement, believe that women could in theory be priests and bishops but, nonetheless, for the time being at least, they cannot be. It is not open to Anglicans, they gay, to make such a change. This position is often misunderstood: cannot be is read as should not be, as if a change of mind on the part of the Pope, the Patriarch of Constantinople, or an Ecumenical Council would retrospectively validate the orders of Anglican women bishops and priests and vindicate the 1992 decision. One wonders how many Anglicans have realised that, in the hypothetical situation where Rome and the Orthodox
both recognise Anglican Orders and proceed with the ordination of women Anglican clergy would not all be treated alike. Anglican male bishops and priests (ordained by male bishops) would not have to be reordained in any reconciliation of ministries whilst Anglican women bishops and priests and any bishops and priests ordained by women bishops would have to be.
The Period of Reception
Thus, practically speaking, `impossibilists’ and those who believe `the Ecumenical Argument’, whilst differing theoretically, a – one in their approach to the question of Anglican women priests and bishops. The difference is that one group believes that the outcome of a period of reception will be the realisation by the churches that bishops and priests must after all be male, whereas the other group believes that the outcome of a period of reception will be the acceptance of the idea of women priests and bishops by the ancient denominations and the subsequent re-ordination of those already so ordained.
It has been said that, whilst those who hold to `the Ecumenical Argument’ should have an honoured place in the Church of England, those who are `impossibilists’ really ought to leave. That may be so, but perhaps there is a misunderstanding here and perhaps that misunderstanding is that, in the event of the universal Church moving to having women priests and bishops, the 1992 decision of the, Church of England would be vindicated. . we have seen, those who believe `the Ecumenical Argument’ agree with `impossibilists’ that the 1992 decision, prophetic or otherwise, was a breach with catholicity and apostolicity. Since, presumably, Catholic ‘impossibilists’ would repent of their views were such views discounted by some combination of Pope, Ecumenical Patriarch and Ecumenical Council, it is hard indeed to see why the Church of England should seek to distinguish between `impossibilists’ and those who hold to `the Ecumenical Argument’.
Equal opportunities language (which in whole areas of modern life is unavoidably important) is not entirely rejected by traditionalists in the new circumstance of women bishops. Some traditionalist members of General Synod signed up for Nick Bury’s Private Members Bill to be debated because they believed that a church which opens two of its orders to women could not deny them
the third and highest order without practising sexual discrimination. Here the argument is quite subtle.
The argument goes something like this: though there might be a theological reason for admitting women to some holy orders and not to others, there is no justification in scripture or tradition for admitting women to the presbyterate but not to the episcopate. Whilst scripture and tradition certainly gives us precedent and reason for admitting women to the order of deaconess or woman deacon but not presbyter or bishop, it provides us with neither precedent nor good reason for admitting women to the order of presbyter but not bishop. Though traditionalists who feel this way will probably not be able themselves to vote for women bishops, they will probably take the view that, rather than collude with unjustified sexual discrimination, they should abstain altogether from the lore.
They take the view that, with the abandoning of the criterion of maleness for the order of presbyter, the damage has been done and that no more damage can be done by admitting women to the episcopate.
Voting against women bishops
Sadly, traditionalists in General Synod may find themselves divided on the issue of women bishops. There will be members of the Catholic Group who believe that the difference between the orders of presbyter and bishop is such that, until the Church of England has women diocesan bishops, there has been no irrevocable break with Catholic Order. (A woman suffragan bishop might operate in a circumscribed way – ordaining only women for instance.) Some members of the Catholic Group would say that, until a woman becomes a diocesan bishop, the war j`, not lost. In the meantime they must take every opportunity to vote against uncatholic developments. The argument is quite compelling and we shall return to it.
An Unhistoric Episcopate
Suffice it for the moment to describe the radical new circumstance which women diocesan bishops will create, a circumstance upon which traditionalists can agree, whether they intend to abstain or vote against women bishops. At the moment, in England at least, whether priests are male or female, the bishops who ordain them are male. If one takes the view that women priests are in irregular or invalid orders, one cannot easily infer from that view that the orders of the ordaining bishop are therefore irregular or invalid. But with women bishops it would be the orders of the ordaining bishop that would be irregular or invalid and therefore it will no longer simply be that women’s orders are doubted but also the orders of men ordained by women bishops.
It would be the reverse of the Church of South India situation. Instead of the historic episcopate gradually prevailing, we should have an unhistoric episcopate gradually asserting itself and affecting the orders of the whole of the Anglican Communion. The gradual change would not be because of any notion of `taint’, but simply because those whose orders are not recognised throughout the Anglican Communion would themselves be the intended focus of unity and geographical and historical continuity. The very unity and geographical and historical continuity which a bishop is supposed to symbolise would be destroyed.
The Anglican Episcopate and the Universal Church It could be argued, and often is, that the Anglican episcopate is already disconnected geographically and historically from the episcopate of the universal Church. Yet Anglican apologetic has always been to deny this. It has indeed been the historic episcopate that Anglicanism has claimed to maintain and, geographically, it has never been conceded that Anglican jurisdiction in England has differed from that of the mediaeval Church with which it is historically continuous. Whether or not this Anglican claim is finally convincing – the claim loses some of its clarity beyond the British Isles – the innovation of women bishops blurs the picture. It blurs it not least because it adds another factor of discontinuity. Anglicanism has a scriptural answer to why (unlike the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox) it has married bishops. It has a jurisdictional and doctrinal answer (an answer not dissimilar to that of the Orthodox) to why its bishops are not in communion with the Bishop of Rome. It has yet to find an answer to the charge that women bishops would be historically and geographically discontinuous.
The new discontinuity could not be justified by scripture (unlike the practice of allowing married men to be bishops). It could not be justified by comparison with the Orthodox (unlike the question of papal jurisdiction). It could be justified only by the argument that the baptismal equality of men and women in Christ requires the replacement of biblical patriarchy and patriarchal symbols of ministry by gender inclusive symbols. The replacement of patriarchy is impossible – indeed patriarchy in a way is strengthened – if the highest order alone is restricted to males.
The Headship Argument There is an evangelical argument, being presently explored in the diocese of Sydney, that, since headship is male and bishops practise headship, it might be all right to have women presbyters who are not rectors, and therefore not in charge, working under male bishops and rectors. That argument is more difficult in the Church of England where all bishops are consecrated or translated at the command of the monarch who, of course, is at the moment female (as was the monarch at the time of the
Elizabethan Settlement 400 years ago). Nonetheless there will be evangelicals (including, one hears, some bishops who have ordained women priests) who will oppose the notion of women bishops on the headship principle. Conservative evangelicals are a powerful force in General Synod and it would be not at all surprising if, as a result, the House of Laity (more Protestant than it was in the 1990-1995 Synod) defeated proposals to raise women to the episcopate.
Forcing a Debate Traditionalists have been attacked for proposing to abstain rather than vote against women bishops. The Bishop of Fulham, for instance, was criticised for signing up for Nick Bury’s Private Members Bill to be debated. Was he trying to cause mischief by egging on the Church of England to follow a radical agenda which would wound it? Or was he, perhaps, hoping to persuade the Church of England to face the consequences of what it voted to do in 1992? It would be a mistake to assume that all who signed up for the Private Member’s Bill to be debated were planning to abstain from voting. Some, perhaps, signed up for the Bill to be debated sensing that a battle won at this stage – the defeat of the Bill would strengthen the traditionalists’ position.
The Traditionalists’ Position There are indeed good reasons to suppose that the war is not lost. The view that women should not, or cannot, be ordained priest or bishop is still well represented at the senior end of the Church of England episcopate. It is even possible that the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be a traditionalist. Amongst the suffragans there are suitable traditionalist candidates for vacant dioceses where traditionalists are strong. Information from Numbers in Ministry (1996) suggests that, far from releasing a great flood of women into the priesthood, the Ordination of Women legislation may have discouraged both men and women from putting themselves forward. Numbers of women candidates are actually declining. The flood is becoming a trickle. The priesting of women may yet prove to be more notable for the destruction of a newly-rediscovered permanent diaconate and the weakening of the stipendiary priesthood than for anything else, the gifts of the women in post now not withstanding.
Sacramental Doubt There is an increasing perception that, by admitting that the ordination of women was a doctrine in process of reception (i.e. eventual acceptance or rejection), the Act
of Synod which set up extended episcopal care for traditionalists introduced self-doubt into some Anglican Orders. In effect it suspended Canon A4 as far as women priests are concerned and introduced one of the things – sacramental doubt – which Catholic Orders are intrinsically supposed to avoid. In other words, though the ministry of women is being received well by sections of the general public, there is a gradual realisation of the cost, and the beginnings of a loss of nerve over paying that cost. The Church of England is discovering that it is only by up-dating itself hermeneutically and by sitting light to tradition – by becoming another liberal Protestant denomination, in fact – that it is able to justify innovation.
Women Bishops: Vote Against or Abstain?
The Catholic Group is faced, it seems, with two tactics. One tactic is to oppose women bishops on the grounds that Scripture and Tradition do not permit women to be consecrated bishop. If the Group does this it will be part of a minority in the House of Clergy. It will contribute possibly to a majority vote of the House of Laity and the bill would then fail on a division by houses. The Catholic Group in General Synod will once again be a group which says ‘no’ and a demonstrably smaller group at that. This tactic would probably succeed in helping the bishops to postpone the question of women bishops for five years (by which time the four or five people who have already been identified as the first women bishops in the Church of England will be experienced enough) but would this tactic be a principled approach?
The second tactic is to abstain from the vote. It has been very noticeable in the last four years how often the Catholic Group has simply not participated in the debate and the voting. The message has been clear to General Synod and there has had to be a considerable amount of episcopal intervention in debates to safeguard positions which previously were safeguarded by a large Synod Catholic Group. (The 1990-1995 Catholic Group, prior to November 1992, was twice as large as the present one).
The tactic of abstention is a highly principled one. In this instance it would be a loud message from `impossibilists’ that, though the Christian priest (like the Father, Son, husband, and bridegroom he symbolically represents) is male, they do not support sexual discrimination in employment or in the life and work of the Church. Those who believe `the Ecumenical Argument’, equally, would be reminding the Synod that, having taken the uncatholic step of unilaterally ordaining women to the priesthood, it could cause no further damage by admitting women to the Anglican episcopate. Once you have picked up the ball and ran, you don’t ask a
soccer player what the rules of play are henceforward.
Anglo-Catholics have no wish to collude with others in limiting women’s career prospects and employment opportunities. They have been accused in the past of chauvinism and misogyny (and indeed some of them have been chauvinists and misogynists) but they have no wish once more to be the scapegoat sent off into the wilderness.
Living with Women Bishops There is no doubt that the 1992 vote was an Anglo-Catholic’s nightmare. Stories have emerged of nervous breakdown, illness and death, and all of us who lived through 1992 faced a collapse of meaning which, for many, has persisted. Women bishops would not be another nightmare because Anglo-Catholics, having to some extent disinvested in the Church of England, will not be emotionally re-investing. Trust has largely disappeared and the Catholic Faith is being practised provisionally in the Church of England in a way quite unlike when, ten or fifteen years ago, the theological talk was of the provisional nature of Anglicanism. `Provisional’ then meant something like ‘waiting upon ARCIC’. `Provisional’ now means ‘keeping going for the time being’.
Women bishops would bring certain changes. Some of these changes would be after battles were fought. Others would be negotiated or conceded. The Act of Synod would disappear, as would the jurisdiction of diocesan bishops over parishes that did not wish to accept that jurisdiction. Traditionalist parishes would look to their own plenipotentiary bishops who would have jurisdiction as well as a ministry of encouragement. Including a disproportionately large number of inner city and housing estate churches, traditionalist parishes would minister mostly to the poor and, like the poor, hope that the rich would be generous to them. Relationships between the British traditionalist province and the Anglican Communion in these islands would be cordial and godly until the Church universal agrees on a way obedient to scripture and tradition properly to use the gifts of women in ministry. No one is doubting that there has been a male and priestly monopoly of power in the Church. `Impossibilists’ believe, perhaps, that the male Catholic priesthood will be revealed to be but one charism in the church, a sacramental sign rather than a centre of power. Those who believe `the Ecumenical Argument’ believe, perhaps, that, though power will remain with the clergy, men and women will be admitted in time equally to holy orders in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Andrew Burnham is a member of the executive of the Catholic Group in General Synod.