Jonathan Redvers Harris asks how the ‘open process of reception’ is progressing.

IN THE DEBATE and reports about the ordination of women to the priesthood some use was made of the principle of `reception’: the notion that for a doctrinal definition to become part of the life of the church it needs to be discerned by the Christian faithful as consonant with apostolic faith. Indeed, part of the legislative framework which made this change possible within the Church of England expressly mentions an “open process of discernment” (Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993, preamble)

Reception’s theological basis, put very simply, is found in the baptismal doctrine of “incorporation” into Christ. The flock, indwelt by the Spirit, can recognise and discern the Shepherd’s voice. All members of the Christian faithful have an appreciation of the faith (sensus fidelium) and the corporate exercise of this instinct of faith (consensus fidelium) is an important part in the process of reception. A biblical example is the reception of the decision of the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15. Of course, that was not a self-conscious application of the doctrine of reception; such an understanding was not to be found until the twelfth century canonist Gratian, who himself traced its origin to the seventh century. Reception has an ancient and honourable place in canonical thought and tradition.

Reception does not strictly give validity to a doctrinal definition issued by a church’s law-making body. It does, however, recognise that the promulgation of a law is not an isolated juridic act, but occurs within a social context. An enacted law is like a newly born creature: the result of a complete and contained act, yet in need of a good and healthy environment if it is to prosper in life. And so, alongside the elements of completeness in a doctrinal definition, there are also elements of provisionality. Some might see a parallel with baptism (a complete rite) and confirmation (which nonetheless `completes’ the baptism).

When the Lambeth Conference in 1988 drew on the principle of reception, it realised that this was not to be confused with another sort of reception which has become popular in recent times: the ecumenical sense of reception, which describes the way in which churches gradually accept those matters in which there has been true convergence or substantial agreement. No, Lambeth was talking about the ancient and venerable canonical doctrine of reception, which involved the whole church – indeed, which involved the entire body of believers within the church. The Christian faithful, Lambeth said, had a critical judgment and its exercise, in testing whether a doctrinal definition was consonant with Scripture and tradition, could result in rejection – even after initial acceptance. As such, any decision-making carried a necessary provisionality. These were themes taken up by the Eames Commission and by the two reports of the House of Bishops (especially the second Bishops’ Report which speaks of the possibility of a decision, after testing in an open process of reception, coming to “wither and die”).

Unfortunately the initial and primary legislation which emerged, the Measure enabling the ordination of women as priests, expressed a rather cynical view of reception in the sense of predetermined bias (“Oh they’ll come round to it in the end; give them time and they’ll accept it”). Only those bishops, it will be recalled (in provisions now presumably the subject of an episcopal concordat not to be used but which remain on the statute book), who were in office at the time the canons were promulged could make the declaration under the Measure excluding women’s priestly ministry. And, had the legislation ended with that Measure, the game would have been up; women’s ordination would truly have become a touchstone of orthodoxy, something “necessary to salvation”, and that would have been a departure for the Church of England from her title deeds. But the Act of Synod – merely persuasive and morally-binding though its status as subsidiary legislation may be – has changed all that. And the assurances given to Parliament’s Ecclesiastical Committee, which resulted in this Act, were the means by which the main Measure itself was able to complete its legislative passage.

It was as if the Church of England had gone to the cliff-edge, and even hovered over the brink, but now has inched her way back, still balancing precariously. The coach-and-four has not finally been driven through the Elizabethan Settlement. This is because the Act of Synod takes reception seriously – evidenced in the language of “integrities”, the provision for “flying” bishops and the redefining of the episcopacy (in which a bishop is purportedly still the Ordinary but has “extended” pastoral care and sacramental ministry to another).

Reception, the Act is saying, is no longer a matter of cynical, predetermined acceptance. It is to be a genuinely open process of discernment. The General Synod, in that Act of Synod, has said, “We do not know whether the Church has made the right decision or not”; and if we needed an expression of the provisionality of the innovation of women’s priestly orders, that does it nicely. We are back with the ancient doctrine of reception to which the most recent Lambeth Conference referred.

So what happens next? How will the open process be monitored and helped? How are the Christian faithful in this land to discern the rightness or otherwise? And who discerns the discerners? In this we are helped by the main report of the Eames Commission in 1989. It poses question which may be used to discern the authenticity of a particular “development”, and these questions include:

Does it enhance the fidelity of that particular church to the Gospel; does it enable that church to fulfil its mission more faithfully in its own cultural context? Does the development affect holiness of life, both for individuals and communities? Does the church continue to be seen as the Body of Christ, where the Gospel is proclaimed and believers are nurtured in fellowship and in truth? Are there necessary elements of continuity with the Church in other ages and different cultures? (Eames, para.34)

We are approaching half a decade since the “decision” of 11th November 1992 and all of us – priests and people alike – need to play our part in this discerning exercise. Women’s priestly ordination was going to bring a fresh release of creative new energy. Is this reflected in high clergy morale, confident proclamation of the Gospel, and an abundant supply of new ordinands? It was going to make the church and the message more “credible”; those held back by patriarchal structures which were not consonant with scripture nor required by tradition would now be able to enter into the Church’s life. Have, then, our churches’ lych-gates burst forth with hundreds of thousands of people, hitherto excluded, now joyously entering into the worshipping life of the Church? Or consider holiness and purity of living: does the ordination of woman bring a new respect for the sanctity of marriage and for the unborn, or has it possibly encouraged increased demands from those wanting other alternative lifestyles to be “affirmed”? And the life of prayer: has there been a renewed deal for the daily office? We could go on…May God grant to all of us his Spirit of discernment!

Jonathan Redvers Harris is Vicar of Houghton Regis. His studies in canon law include a Master’s dissertation on the Doctrine of Reception.