Tom Sutcliffe wonders how long a “period of reception really is

THERE ARE THREE potent phrases by which the Forward in Faith element of the Church of England sets great store: “universal church”, “period of reception”, and “two integrities” – or rather “our integrity”, since any alternative is usually described in terms that dismiss the majority integrity as a pseudo-integrity. To Anglicans of every persuasion the first is as familiar as the others are novel.

Anglicans have always – in the same way as Orthodox and Roman Catholics and Lutherans – considered themselves to be part of the universal church. It is, of course, a phrase that can mean all sorts of things to different people. From earliest Christian times some churches have gone their own way. But the anathematised heresies of one age may decline in significance as time passes – though separated churches grow apart. The very word “believe” is a slippery piece of language. The separate (and sometimes sound-proofed) compartments of the universal church contain a gallimaufry of disparate bodies doing Gospel work and holding more or less the same essential beliefs about Bible, Trinity, Incarnation and Resurrection. People obsessed with legalistic definitions of theology are part of the variety of Christianity, and often honoured for their obsessions. Christians have traditionally loved excluding each other, and feeling justified in their exclusiveness.

The way conservative Anglo-Catholics have recently used the concept of “universal church” has been very particular. In the debates about whether or not there should be women priests, they have adopted a reductionist and passive view of the “universal church” which enabled them to say that – because Anglicans were, tenuously and vestigially, part of what they held to be the “universal church” (a combination of the great Western Church and the Orthodox from which Reformation-time schism had unhappily, more or less, separated them) – they could not exercise authority on any fundamental matter of faith and order. Especially on the question of what gender the priesthood should take, Anglicans had to defer to the views of the Roman Catholics and Orthodox. To apply independent responsible discernment, except as part of some surely inconceivable “universal church council”, a creature extinct since the Great Schism of 1054, would be to misuse and damage the previously authentic “gift” of priesthood to which Anglicans had in a sense privileged access after the Reformation (though this demanded some subtle nuancing of Apostolicae Curae).

However, it is surely wrong to regard the fact that Anglicans hold to Tradition in credal and biblical matters as a form of merely passive deference to the past, to Authority as constituted before the Reformation. That indeed was what the Oxford Movement for its own purposes argued. But times change and the criticisms of that model of Anglican ecclesiology, both from Roman Catholic commentators and from elsewhere in the spectrum, suggest that what was a convenient fiction a century ago is so no longer. Rather than demonstrating deference to the past, should not the weighing of Tradition, together with consideration for various manifestations of Authority around the Church, be recognised as properly part of a continuing positive exercise in discernment by all Anglicans today? Is not “dispersed authority” nothing other than the dynamics of the process of reception? Admittedly, the Magisterium of the papacy is still regarded in some quarters as a static buffer infallibly delivering immutable answers and definitions, rather than presiding over an organic process of continuous discernment. That inert view of Authority reflects the aspiration to universality of the phrase “that which has been believed by everybody, everywhere, at all times” – a hoped-for triumph of faith over experience. But I do not believe that in the 21st century Authority will work that way, though antiquarian affection for the certainties of 1870 Infallibility (rather than a modified Vatican II form) will continue to attract adherents.

To say, as conservative Anglicans do, that “The General Synod could do anything” is nonsense – in that due synodical process is only part of the duty Anglican institutions owe to God. All are called to continuing discernment and affirmation based on Scripture, Reason and Tradition. But, in effect, according to conservative Anglicans, those parts of our church which have claimed to be able to make the inclusive change of bringing women into the priesthood and episcopacy have removed themselves from the “universal church” and turned into part of a “protestant sect” – in a process implicitly similar to that whereby (according to the Holy Office) those in defined and perceived “error” effectively excommunicate themselves.

Having thus erected the “universal church” concept into a sort of baulk where the Anglican church was sustained by crumbs of sacramental authenticity on historical sufferance, conservative Anglo-Catholics seized on the idea of a “period of reception” as pronounced by the former Archbishop of York, John Habgood. This was a delightfully gratifying source of further indeterminacy about the discretion misapplied (as they saw and see it) by Anglican provinces acting within their own dispersed authority and choosing to ordain women as priests and bishops. However, the “period of reception” of women priests and bishops in which the Anglican churches obviously now find themselves has two important aspects: how long is the period and who is doing the receiving?

Forward in Faith people do not think that it is up to them to receive these novelties, quite the reverse. Many conservative Anglo-Catholics are clear that reception is impossible, and that even if the Roman Catholic church received the change (under the present drift of the papacy an unlikely development, in spite of recent opinion research showing substantial majorities of the faithful in Ireland and Spain but not in Poland firmly in favour) they would not be bound by such forward-sliding. How long, Lord, how long? Until everybody, the Orthodox included, it is said, has come round to the notion. In other words this is a timescale that could pleasantly last for ever, or for never. It will not end until all have seen the light, including those whose certainties will not change this side of Judgment Day. A new millennialism, indeed!

Anglican churches that have embraced the development see this matter quite differently. The process of discerning how to apply the crucial modern charism of men and women’s shared responsibility for the growth of the kingdom is inevitably gradualist. Not everybody comes to the same mind at the same time. Individual cultures vary. Not all can accept the role of women – in democracy, in the professions, in power. That was one reason why the development approved by a succession of Anglican synodical processes in many cases required a two-thirds majority. Certainly it was wise to obtain overwhelming local endorsement before ordaining women priests. Those for whom Scriptural interpretation is the revisiting of an unchanging, inert, yet patent source cannot regard the development as obviously demanded by Scripture. Those for whom women’s ordination is a legitimate development recognise in the development that inculturation of Scripture and interpretation of the life of the Gospel to which Christians traditionally have considered themselves called. Inevitably, the change is going to be judged by history on the basis of how it is generally accepted by the people, the parishioners themselves, at the grassroots.

The issue was whether to allow something previously untried, not whether to enforce it. Inevitably those who opposed it adopted a mindset of saying it was not allowable, that the sacramental risk was impossible. But with substantial initial endorsement and with the valuable experience in real life that it has permitted, it is both unlikely and virtually inconceivable that the pendulum of discernment will casually swing from two-thirds positively in favour to two-thirds requiring the restoration of the status quo ante (regardless of what fundamentalist Presbyterians in Australia feel called to do). However, since you cannot legislate an instant change in what people believe, and even the writ of early church councils took time to be received, it has surely been both humane and wise to make provision – after initiation of the development – for the conscientious inability of some good faithful people to accept the new ways.

In reality, the reception is not only by the nay-sayers, but by all believers within the Anglican churches. And the period of this process can be expected to last precisely as long as a particular Anglican church’s governing synod wishes – and not a moment longer. To end the period may be inhumane when the time comes. Some good Christians may find themselves forced into a sort of limbo – where they must take the decision to accept not just schism but, effectively, excommunication. However, such an outcome will not be particularly difficult for Forward in Faith people to accept since, in many cases, they have already excommunicated the majority of us Anglicans who support the novelty of women priests and bishops. This was graphically illustrated in St. Paul’s Cathedral at the consecration of Bishop Broadhurst of Fulham, when a large proportion of the congregation did not take communion with the rest – who were “in communion” with Archbishop Carey of Canterbury, the luminary who had presided over the consecration, in conjunction naturally with various other bishops. So much for tainted hands, and a tainted episcopate!

At the point when the majority decide to declare the period of reception over, which may come sooner than some people currently think, members of Forward in Faith who, in good conscience, cannot accept the ordination of women as priests and bishops might be expected to go off and build their own independent extension of the “universal church” if there were room for that – partly a financial question. They might also – and may be well advised to – go into one of the “rooms” in the “Universal Church” that already exist, some of which are very large and quite comfortable. The debate about women bishops is already moving the whole argument to another stage. Many proponents of the ordination of women respect an individual’s conscientious refusal to believe in the authenticity of the change, though they may much regret it. Events, nevertheless, are slowly moving to another point of separation, when the present way of expressing questions of authority and continuity will be overtaken yet again.

It is sheer self-delusion to imagine that this process of reception is going to stop with the priesting of women, that the legitimation in the Church of England of women bishops will be indefinitely postponed to help tender consciences. Whether one is weighing the argument on headship or on sacramental grounds, if women can be priests they can certainly be bishops. But the Forward in Faith plan seems to be to exploit the coming advance of women into the episcopate as a chance to fight the whole battle over women in ministry again, and carry from the field the entirely impossible notion of a “third province” as a kind of consolation prize.

The truth is that a province which rejects the orders of most of the rest of Anglicanism is not a province but another separate church. This needs repeating loudly. And what Mr. Tony Higton has been saying recently about unity and oversight in the context of Reform also needs to be heard. Provision for institutional divorce is certainly not what the idea of “two integrities” is meant to introduce, any more than the administrative lunacy and unhistorical nonsense of “parallel jurisdiction”. But women bishops will certainly make it much harder for the Forward in Faith “cathedral of mirrors” or “priory of cards” to function. The threats of divorce being uttered now will then be expected to be carried out. No doubt some unhappy parishes will prefer to be incorporated into other churches rather than struggle on as part of an Anglican traditionalist rump. Many whose integrity could not stomach women priests have already left Anglicanism behind them.

Yet those who remain should, I believe, be encouraged to recognise that most Anglicans who accept women priests will remain perfectly content for those who reject them to continue to have available Provincial Episcopal Visitors, since the PEVs are so necessary to their comfort of mind. But it must be clearly understood that there is a difference between the two integrities, which stems from the different status of an individual’s personal “conscientious objection” and the authentic popular will. Precisely how that will is expressed is crucial, but it is a vital exercise of responsibility which should surely be recognised as central to the Christian vocation. “It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit,” is the principle involved, as we were reminded during the debate in November 1992. Who is to say what the Holy Spirit finds good? Any development, refinement or affirmation of what constitutes that which is institutionally normative must be properly determined on the basis of a legitimate consultative process. Those who reject due synodical process must explain how else the mind of a church can be known. The consultation and informed electoral colleges that make up the Church of England’s synodical system, balancing hierarchy and theological expertise with the mind of the people of God, are surely part of that revival of earliest Christian practice which has been a mark of the 20th century – and arguably a great deal more authentic than the limited and authoritarian conciliar structure that survives in the Roman Catholic church. The structure applied in this case must qualify our understanding of the integrities. On the one hand there is the discernment duly and properly formed of the institution known as the Church of England (or other Anglican province); on the other hand there is a shared resistance – to that discernment through due democratic and legal process – by various assorted individuals. The integrity of the individual conscience is a different creature from the integrity of a functioning institution.

The PEVs are the Church of England’s guarantee for Forward in Faith people of communion with the Archbishops whose suffragans the three PEVs are. Not that the “flying bishops” go on as if their purpose were to maintain the connection. Mostly the PEVs, once consecrated, seem to regard themselves as episcopi vagantes – in effect the terminus of the sacramental chain. But, in the end, a minority like Forward in Faith is always dependent on the majority – unless it chooses to go into a state of “civil war”. If that happens, all bets will be off.

Bishop Edwin Barnes has been thinking of the future and visiting those he hopes can be “with him” all around the world. He writes warlike words, full of threat. He is probably uncertain whether the introduction of women bishops (the final stage in the process of giving “present-day liberal fads more importance than the imperatives of the Gospel”) will represent a glorious opportunity for him or a terrible disaster for the Church whose name he claims to cherish more authentically than the majority of its members. The period of reception will probably be sustained for a long time after memories have faded of Bishop Barnes’s reference to the “great army of Christians” in which he sees himself now as a general. But his intemperate language may make it harder for Anglicans who appreciate the initiative our churches have taken over women’s orders to live with those who are uncomfortable with those initiatives. The campaign for this development was a campaign to allow something to happen which previously could not happen. Bishop Barnes is determined to condemn the fruits of the harvest without ever tasting them.

Tom Sutcliffe is a lay member of the General Synod from Southwark diocese, and opera critic of the London Evening Standard. His book Believing In Opera, on controversies of theatrical interpretation, has just been published by Faber & Faber and Princeton University Press. Last year he was elected to the executive committee of Affirming Catholicism.