Geoffrey Kirk thinks it is time to see and evaluate the legislation which will make women bishops

THE MID TO LATE nineteenth century saw a fight for the soul of the Church of England which both parties – the Evangelicals and the Ritualists – fought with great vigour and with all the resources available to them, including the Civil Law.

The irony of that titanic struggle was that it ended, not in victory for either party, but in a stalemate which spelled defeat for both. The Church of England which emerged from the battle was one which chose, when it was on its best behaviour, to portray itself as broad and tolerant; a church in which one party had its monstrances and the other party poured the leftovers back into the bottle. But it could with equal truth be portrayed as weak and unprincipled – a church with which, to reverse the famous dictum of Margaret Thatcher, it was very difficult to do business.

An anecdote from the height of the ritualist struggle will illustrate the first point; a quotation from Aidan Nichols’ perceptive study ‘The Panther and the Hind’ the latter.

In 1879 a consecrated wafer was taken from the altar of St Benedict’s, Bordesley, Birmingham and introduced as evidence in court for a prosecution under the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874 (sponsored in Parliament by the then Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli). It was marked with pen and ink, and duly filed by the clerk of the court. The Lord’s Most Precious Body (as one party in the case supposed it to be) – or the ‘idolatrous wafer-cake’ (as the other affirmed) then passed from hand to hand in the court, and was ‘exposed’ in the circumstances deemed appropriate to such a trial. After three months of continual clamour about what came to be known as the ‘Bordesley Sacrilege’, the Host was turned over to Archbishop Tait, of Canterbury. The Archbishop treated It with as much reverence as was appropriate to one whose sacramental opinions were more Broad than High, and concluded the matter, to everyone’s satisfaction, by eating It.

In the preface to his short study of the doctrinal nature and texture of Anglicanism, Nichols writes:

“How one sees Anglican pluralism will largely determine one’s expectations of the rôle of the Anglican Church in the Ecumenical Movement. If one sees it positively as comprehensiveness, one may well regard the Anglican Church as the key to the future of ecumenism – the bridge church between Catholicism and Protestantism, an anticipation of the re-united Great Church of the future, committed to the Bible and the creeds of the early councils, episcopal in structure, a single eucharistic communion, yet tolerating a wide range of theological interpretation of the common faith within its peace. If, on the other hand, one regards Anglican pluralism as a euphemism for the self-contradictions of a national church, brought into existence for political ends and preserved as a unity by historical nostalgia, one may feel that Anglicanism is a model of how not to be ecumenical. On this view, one might prefer to see the collapse of Anglicanism into its constituent parties, Evangelical, Catholic, Phil-Orthodox, Liberal and so on, holding that while negotiation is possible with each of these parties, since each has a definite theological consensus, no truly meaningful negotiation is possible with Anglicanism as a whole.”

The ritualist controversy of the late nineteenth century, it appears, (though such was very far from the intention of the protagonists) consigned ever increasing areas of dogma to the arbitration of private judgement. (‘Ritualism is private judgement in gorgeous raiment’, said Henry Manning, former Archdeacon of Chichester and Cardinal-priest of the Roman Church).

But Anglicans on both sides of the doctrinal divide came to describe this as a virtue, even if they sometimes did so through gritted teeth. ‘The National Establishment’, wrote the Reverend Charles Walker in a deposition to the Royal Commission on Ritual, 1867, ‘embraces in its bosom two separate religions.’

The inadequacy of such a model of the Church, thinks Nichols, is now being exposed by the probing finger of modern day ecumenism. Seeking corporate union by theological dialogue (and in those very areas – like eucharistic doctrine – which were long ago consigned to the nineteenth century equivalent of post-modern indifferentism) Ecumenism blows the gaff on Anglican identity. And yet, characteristically impatient of waiting for others to blow the whistle, Anglicans have blown it themselves. By the legislation to ordain women to the priesthood they have intruded private judgement into the realm of Holy Order, and in doing so they have come very close to destroying and confounding their orders and themselves.

That orders were not formerly considered a matter of private judgement – that they should never be part of the ever-expanding Anglican adiaphora – is a cardinal principle of that arcane loose-leaf folder ‘The Canons of the Church of England’. Canon A4, remaining substantially unchanged from the canons of 1603, 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.

But lest anyone should suppose that this clear and concise statement of the obvious is what Anglicans really think and believe, the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure which, as an Act the sovereign Parliament, has a greater claim on Anglican loyalties than a mere Canon, puts matters somewhat differently:

3.1 Subject to the following provisions of this section a parochial church council of a parish may pass either or both of the resolution set out as Resolutions A and B in Schedule 1 of this Measure.

Resolution A That this parochial church council would not accept a woman as the minister who presides at or celebrates the Holy Communion or pronounces the Absolution in the parish.

Resolution B That this parochial church council would not accept a woman as the incumbent or priest-in-charge of the benefice or as a team vicar for the benefice.

6. Without prejudice to section 19 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, nothing in Part II of that Act shall render unlawful sex discrimination against a woman in respect of –

a) her ordination to the office of priest in the Church of England;

b) the giving to her of a licence or permission to serve or officiate as such a priest;

c) her appointment as dean, incumbent, priest-in-charge, team vicar or assistant curate.

And the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993, which, though its legal status is doubtful is considered to carry a considerable ‘moral force’, is even more explicit:

3. (a) all concerned should endeavour to ensure that-

i) discernment of the rightness or otherwise of the decision to ordain women to the priesthood should be as open a process as possible;

ii) the highest possible degree of communion should be maintained within each diocese; and

iii) the integrity of differing beliefs and positions concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood should be mutually recognised and respected;

(b) the practical pastoral arrangements contained in this Act of Synod should have effect in each diocese.

Now it is hereby declared as follows:

Ordinations and Appointments

1. There will be no discrimination against candidates either for ordination or for appointment to senior office in the Church of England on the grounds of their views about the ordination of women to the priesthood.

If it is true that the opposing parties in the ritualist controversy both thought (or said they thought) that they represented the authentic voice of the Church of England, the same is certainly true of the controversy over the ordination of women to the priesthood. Those in favour made extravagant claims in the Synod. Women’s ordination, they said ,was ‘consonant with scripture and required by tradition’ (though without providing much corroborating evidence). They claimed, in other words, that there must be something un-Christian, and therefore un-Anglican, about not ordaining women. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in a moment of unguarded honesty, used the language of heresy. And for the other side, the Reverend Paul Williamson (with a naive intensity not unlike that of Dr. Carey) sought to prove in the High Court that the Coronation Oath itself had been broached.

The outcome of the women priests argument, however, has proved the same as that of the ritualist debacle: neither side has entered the Citadel, in which private judgement reigns the more securely. It only remains to be seen whether either, or both sides can rest content with this ironic stalemate.

The Private Members Motion which I have placed before the Synod is intended to pose, and perhaps resolve, that very question. It has been accused, on both sides, of being cynical and destructive. But it cannot properly be accused of being either. For it asks the Synod to decide in the only way such a body can, upon a matter of theological principle: Can the orders of the Church properly remain a matter of private judgement? Have Anglicans stumbled upon a new and exciting theological possibility, or have they sleep-walked up a blind alley? Can legislation be envisaged which provides for women bishops and at the same time respects the ‘two integrities’? We can reasonably suppose that those who drafted the Act of Synod also considered how its provisions might obtain in that changed, but inevitable situation (it would have been very foolish indeed not to have done so); and yet we can equally reasonably doubt that they came to any very serious conclusions.

John Hapgood, in his role of Synodical Svengali, produced, it is true, a formula which was carried by greater majorities than the legislation which necessitated it. But that does not mean, democracy being what it is, that his formula was the right one, or that the hearts of the majority were truly in it. Perhaps it was passed out of a mixture of exhaustion, shock and shame. The alleged tears of the Manchester meeting of the House of Bishops which affirmed it certainly do not argue that it was conceived in a sober and rational frame of mind. And the pressure of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament should not be forgotten.

It is time to see whether that Act was principled, permanent and theologically defensible; or whether it was merely a product of that easy-going pragmatism which so often gives Anglicanism a bad name.

I believe that the time has come to test the resolve of both sides – of those who set forward the Act of Synod as a gesture of compromise and generosity, and of those who gratefully accepted it as a modus vivendi in a Church suddenly become inhospitable. Did either sufficiently consult their reason, or pay due heed to theological necessity?

I believe, moreover, that by leaving the business of November 11, 1992 half done (and therefore, in terms of the pressing argument from natural justice, undone), the General Synod is being profoundly irresponsible. Lateral drift, with the passage of time, into an anomalous theological position – that Holy Orders are legitimately a matter of private judgement (which is arguably more ecumenically damaging than women’s ordination itself) – has, in my view, nothing to commend it .

I have placed before the Synod the following motion:

This Synod, recognising that women bishops are a necessary and inevitable consequence of the ordination of women to the priesthood, and affirming the respect for individual conscience in the matter of women’s ordination expressed in the Bishops’ statement The Bonds of Peace and in the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993, requests the Standing Committee to bring forward, without delay, proposals for legislation which would permit the consecration of women as bishops and make all appropriate provisions for those opposed.

I am commending that motion – no more and no less. To commend the motion does not oblige me to vote for any legislation which might eventually emerge as a result, just as the mere act of signing the Private Member’s Paper obliges no one to vote for the motion should it be put. I simply want to see and evaluate the legislation which will be needed if we are both to consecrate women as bishops and maintain the principles of openness and tolerance expressed in the Act of Synod.

I believe we owe it to each other, to our ecumenical partners and to those brave souls who are still offering themselves for ordination in the present cold climate, to say what sort of church we are and intend to be.

I remain implacably opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate, and genuinely perplexed that those who favour both are not yet ready vigorously to pursue the latter.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St. Stephen’s Lewisham, in the diocese of Southwark.