Mary Tanner reflects on living with difference from Lambeth 1988 to Lambeth 1998

My brief is to reflect upon the experience of the Anglican Communion in living with difference over the matter of women’s ordination in the decade since the 1988 Lambeth Conference and in particular to reflect on ‘whether reception has in fact been open?’ Before looking at the last ten years, it is important to recall something of the context in which Resolution 2 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference was formulated and the theological and ecclesiological issues that were raised in the process. (Resolution 2 appended).

The movement to ordain women in the Anglican Communion

2 From 1960 onwards, when Hong Kong first raised the issue of women’s ordination, the matter has never been seen as simply a matter for an individual province of the Anglican Communion to decide. Hong Kong did not claim the right to act unilaterally but first referred the matter to the Lambeth Conference in 1968. That Conference asked each province to study the question and to report back to the newly established Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). The ACC, meeting for the first time in Limuru (1970), with the consultative process unfinished, indeed hardly begun, nevertheless, advised the Bishop of Hong Kong that if his own Synod decided to ordain women, this action would be acceptable to the ACC. The Council would use its own good offices to encourage all provinces to remain ‘in communion’? with him and his church. The understanding of the Church as communion has been central to the discussion ever since. The next Lambeth Conference in 1978 did not make a definitive judgement for the whole Communion on the validity, or otherwise, of ordinations of women. It agreed to respect the positions of both sides. Resolution 21 declared its acceptance of member churches that do ordain and urged respect for those provinces, and vice versa. In consequence, some bishops left the 1978 Lambeth Conference believing the validity of such ordinations settled, others were equally convinced that it had not been settled.

3 By Lambeth 1988 the question had moved to the consideration of women as bishops because in 1985 the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA) expressed the intention not to withhold consent to the election of a bishop on the grounds of gender. But, sensitive to the interdependence of the provinces of the Communion, ECUSA referred the matter to the newly created Primates’ Meeting. The Primates set up a working party to prepare for a discussion at the Lambeth Conference, 1988. It was the thinking of the Grindrod Working Party that was to become formative, not only for the decision taken at Lambeth over women and the episcopate, but also for much of the thinking that subsequently conditioned the debates within the provinces of the Anglican Communion and the work of the Eames’ Commission.1

4 The Grindrod Report teased out both the theological and the practical issues involved in the debate on the consecration of women as bishops. It set before the college of bishops at Lambeth two possible options. The first option was to counsel restraint in the hope that the moral authority inherent in the gathering of the entire episcopate would find its response at provincial level. The second option was to suggest that, if a province were persuaded by compelling doctrinal reasons, by the experience of women in ordained ministry, and by the demands of mission in its region, and if it had the overwhelming support of its dioceses, then such a step should be offered for reception within the whole Anglican Communion and the universal Church. From this point on the notion of reception became fundamental in understanding actions taken by provinces in respect of women’s ordination. In the event the bishops at Lambeth 1988 resolved:

that each province respect the decision and attitude of other provinces in the ordination (or consecration) of women to the episcopate, without such respect necessarily indicating acceptance of the principles involved, maintaining the highest degree of communion with the provinces which differ.2

5 Once again the Lambeth Conference of 1988 made no attempt to state whether it was, or was not, right to ordain women. It did, however, lay great stress on the qualities required of both sides, tolerance, respect and the wish to maintain the highest degree of communion possible. The resolution went on to call on the Archbishop of Canterbury to set up a commission to aid the process of reception.

6 The Eames Commission, since 1988, has produced five reports.3 These reports contain factual information about what is happening in the Communion, theological reflection, and pastoral guidelines on how to live together in the ‘highest degree of communion’ where there exists a diversity of opinion on the matter of women’s ordination. It was clear to the Eames Commission that two distinct views continue to be held with integrity in the Anglican Communion. The notion of ‘reception’?, important in The Grindrod Report became more and more important in interpreting what was going on in the Anglican Communion. If a province were to proceed to ordain women as a result of its own decision making process, that development in the ordering of the ministry of the universal Church was understood as given over to the discernment of the province itself, to the discernment of all the provinces of the Anglican Communion, and offered to the universal Church for discernment. The matter of women’s ordination could not be declared to be settled, beyond any shadow of doubt, until it was received by the whole Church. Anglicans on both sides were urged to go on respecting each other’s deeply held convictions, respecting the integrity of one another, in an open process of discernment, remaining in the highest degree of communion possible. There remained ‘a degree of provisionality’ about the matter. It is important to underline that provisionality related to the development in the ordering of the ministry. It did not refer to the validity of the priesthood of any woman legally ordained in any province.

7 For the Eames Commission, with its understanding of the place of the Anglican Communion as a part of the Catholic Church and its understanding of the process of discernment and reception, it was crucial that those in favour of women’s ordination should go on showing why it is Gospel news that women should be ordained and those against should go on showing why it is contrary to the Gospel message. There were to be no alternative conciliar structures, no separate province for these would lead to two groups defining themselves over against each other with separate badges of identity. If the reception process were indeed to be ‘open’ and provisionality acknowledged, then both sides needed each other’s witness within a single conciliar and synodal life. This would entail the costly way of listening and struggling to understand the position of the other respecting ‘the integrity’? of the other. In the space between testifying and listening, listening and testifying room is made ready for the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all truth. What then has been the experience of the last decade? Has the reception process been ‘open’ in the sense intended?

A decade of living with difference

8 A survey of the experience of living together in the Anglican Communion was prepared as a background paper for the 1998 Lambeth Conference by the Eames Monitoring Group, a group appointed from among the members of the larger Eames Commission.4 The report of the Monitoring Group is probably the most comprehensive review that exists currently of what is happening in the Anglican Communion. There was an impressively high response to the questionnaire sent out by the Monitoring Group. 28 of the then 32 provinces responded. The Monitoring Group comments that:

The extent of the response signifies first of all that there is still a high degree of interest in the issues around women’s ordination particularly to the episcopate. Secondly, it concerns the commitment in the churches of the Anglican Communion to the open process of reception called for by Lambeth 1988. Thirdly, it would seem to indicate that the provinces have a confidence in guidelines such as those developed by the Eames Commission as being helpful to the nurturing of our bonds of communion.

9 The bare facts of the Group’s report show that in 1997 eight provinces did not ordain women; three provinces ordained women to the diaconate only; ten dioceses ordained women to the diaconate and presbyterate but not to the episcopate and seven provinces approved the consecration of women to the episcopate but only three of them had de facto women bishops. These figures do not reflect the substantial minority that remain opposed to women’s ordination in those provinces that do ordain. Nor do the figures reflect the numbers of those in favour in provinces which are opposed. Moreover, in the wider ecumenical context the two largest churches remain opposed and have made no move to change the tradition of the Church. There are those who have left the provinces of the Anglican Communion and have found their spiritual home in either the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. There are, however, those in these churches who espouse the cause of women’s ordination. The situation is a complex one. At the same time two of the Lutheran churches within the Porvoo Communion have ordained women as bishops.

How far is the process
of reception open?

10 How far is the process of reception open? It is not an easy question to answer. The official responses may not reflect very accurately what is actually going on in a province. Similarly, the anecdotal evidence of individuals, whether bishops or not, is unlikely either to give a very accurate picture. There are horror stories on both sides. The Monitoring Group’s report tells of a male deacon ordained by a male bishop in the same service as a woman priest being conditionally re-ordained on transferring to another diocese. The bishop, who has since retired, was pressed by some of his clergy into taking this action. It was also reported on the other hand from the USA that a woman suffragan bishop has been sent to parishes that do not accept the ordination of women to celebrate the eucharist, requiring the participation of clergy and parishioners against their conscience. There are, however, some tentative assessments that can be made about the process of reception.

11 First, the report of the Monitoring Group concludes that most of the provincial responses to the questionnaire talk of respect for those who hold different opinions. Many have been helped by understanding what is happening in the Anglican Communion (and the universal Church) as being within an open process of reception. There are those who value the guidelines laid down by the Eames Commission for living together respecting different positions on the matter. Southern Africa wrote that ‘the principles of reception and openness have helped to guide our approach.’ The Church of the Province of Southern Africa has issued Guidelines to Provide for Conscientious Objections to the Ministry of Women Priests:

These include the clear affirmation that to dissent to the ordination of women is not to be a disloyal Anglican and that there will be no coercion, penalization, or canonical disability for those objecting. No bishop is obliged to ordain, license or institute a woman priest. Placements must also take account of conscientious objection.

12 A number of provinces have also paid attention to the selection of candidates for ministry and to appointments, with a view to protecting the position of those who have conscientious objections, and to the placement of women priests where there is difficulty.

13 In England, following the 1992 decision to ordain women to the priesthood, the House of Bishops issued The Manchester Statement acknowledging that the majority of bishops welcomed the Synod’s position and looked forward to the new gifts women would bring. They nevertheless wished to give ‘?every reassurance’ to those who remained opposed. ‘Differing views can be held with integrity’? … ‘All must listen with respect to those from whom they differ and afford a recognition of the value and integrity of each other’s position’ (para. 5). ‘It is no shame to agree both to differ and to live, sometimes fearfully, together in the service of God’.

14 Finally, the bishops said that in accommodating a diversity of convictions:

We are committed to maintaining the overall unity of the Church, including the unity of each diocese under the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop. We believe such unity is essential to the overall effectiveness of the Church’s mission to bring the Gospel of Christ to all people (para. 8).

We intend to ensure that provision continues to be made by the diocesan bishop for the care and oversight of everyone in his diocese (para. 9).

15 The bishops quoted Resolution 72 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference on ‘episcopal responsibilities and diocesan boundaries’. That resolution had re-affirmed ‘the historical position of respect for diocesan boundaries and the authority of bishops within these boundaries’ and ‘deemed as inappropriate behaviour for any bishop or priest … to exercise episcopal or pastoral ministry within another diocese without first obtaining the permission and invitation of the ecclesial authority concerned’?.

16 Each diocesan bishop would continue to accept full responsibility for episcopal oversight and pastoral care in his diocese. ‘Wherever necessary he will extend this care in appropriate ways’ (para. 10).

In making such provision we do not and we cannot accept the theological reasoning behind the view that in some way those bishops and priests who participate in the ordination of women to the priesthood, therefore invalidate their sacramental ministry. Further, we envisage that any bishop appointed to assist us in making any extended sacramental provision, will remain in full communion with all members of the House of Bishops irrespective of whether or not such members have ordained women priests (para. 11).

17 It was in this context that the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod was framed. How would those who remain opposed be cared for? First, each diocesan bishop, as ordinary, was responsible for the care and oversight of everyone in his diocese and, wherever possible, he would make arrangements within his diocese. Secondly, if this were not possible, he would seek to extend his episcopal care by inviting a bishop from outside who remained opposed to share his care. There should be regional solutions. Bishops meeting regionally would nominate bishops who were suitable. These would be approved by the Archbishop to carry out episcopal duties on behalf of a diocesan. However, the oath of allegiance of all clergy would still be made to the diocesan. Diocesan and regional arrangements for episcopal care were to be prior. ‘To supplement the diocesan and regional arrangements, the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed to appoint up to two additional suffragans for his dioceses and the Archbishop of York one suffragan bishop for his dioceses, to undertake duties across the province on a similar basis to the bishops appointed to act regionally’. These Provincial Episcopal Visitors would be nominated by the Archbishops after consultation with those bishops directly concerned with the Visitors Ministry.

18 The Provincial Episcopal Visitors were to work with the diocesan bishop concerned in enabling extended pastoral care and sacramental ministry. They were also to act as a spokesman and advisor for those who are opposed to women’s ordination and to assist the Archbishops in maintaining the arrangements made for them.

19 The Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod was not only about Provincial Episcopal Visitors. It was concerned to provide episcopal care for those who remained opposed to women’s ordination first by internal diocesan arrangements. If this proved impossible then regional arrangements were to be put in place. Only to supplement that system were Provincial Episcopal Visitors to be considered.

20 The Act of Synod has helped in England to ensure that the process of reception is an open one. But there are difficulties not least of all a lack of understanding of the Act itself and of the theological and ecclesiological issues on which it is based. After five years a group has been set up to review the Act’s working.

21 Other provinces have other provisions to enable an open process of reception. Wales has appointed an episcopal assistant to the Archbishop. The assistant bishop ministers to parishes and clergy throughout the province who remain opposed. In ECUSA, following the decision in 1976 to ordain women to the priesthood, a conscience clause was agreed to protect the integrity of bishops who in all conscience could not ordain women. Furthermore, the canon concerning the ordination of women was understood by those opposed as permissive rather than mandatory and five dioceses declined to ordain women. In 1994 this judgement was questioned and in 1997 the General Convention accepted that the 1976 resolution in fact applied to all dioceses. This has been perceived by many to be contrary to an open process of reception. And yet, it might be thought that to have a ‘mixed economy’ in every diocese is in fact required for an open reception, particularly as the canon does not require a bishop to ordain a woman priest. Further, while there is no formal system of provincial episcopal visitors, informal visiting arrangements have been developed. Neighbouring diocesans, or retired bishops, on either side, are used in some dioceses.

22 These are examples of attempts to make an ‘open process’ of reception possible. There are different assessments about how successful these attempts have been by those on both sides. There is evidence that not all provinces understand reception in the same way. Some provinces seem to believe that reception means an inevitable acceptance of the matter, although this was clearly not the understanding of either the Grindrod or the Eames Reports. The very fact that neither Resolution 21 of the 1978 Lambeth Conference on the ordination of women to the priesthood, nor Resolution 2 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference on women in the episcopate, determined the issue of women’s ordination, supports the view that open reception cannot mean automatic acceptance. The present period of reception entails further discernment on the issue itself. In that process of discernment the validity of women ordained is not at issue. Provisionality applies, as the Eames Commission emphasized, to the development in the ordering of the ministry itself and not to the orders of particular women.

23 It is for this reason that some have challenged the right of a province to foreclose the matter. The Anglican Church of Canada rescinded its 1975 conscience clause in 1986 subject to its continued applicability only to those who had already availed themselves of it. The Anglican Church of Canada would maintain that there is no remaining opposition to the ordination of women to the priesthood and therefore no need for a continuing conscience clause in that province.

After Lambeth 1998

24 Perhaps the most important question in this area is for the bishops at Lambeth 1998, having received the work of the Eames Commission and the Report of the Eames Monitoring Group, to consider now how best the open process of reception is to be maintained in the next decade. There is some urgency about this if calls for the formation of a separate non-geographical province of those opposed are to be resisted. It was always the conviction of the Eames Commission that relations between those of differing opinions should be maintained and that neither side should say ‘I have no need of you’. This meant that while ministerial communion is restricted, some would say broken and the full interchangeability of ministers no longer possible, the other bonds of communion should be more highly cherished and carefully maintained, not least of all the collegial and conciliar bonds of communion. The Eames Commission, in which representatives of both positions took part, was convinced that there should be no creation of a province on the basis of opposition of women to the priesthood. To create a province on the basis of opposition to women priests would not only prevent an open process of reception, but might be considered as to imply the putting oneself out of communion.

25 If an open process of reception is to continue in the next decade then there is first a major task of explaining to a new generation the story of the movement to ordain women, the theological and ecclesiological issues involved, the nature of the decision making process within a divided Christendom and the cost of living within an open process of reception. Every bishop has a duty to explain this to his/her diocese which ever position he/she holds. Every college of bishops has a responsibility to see that it has a common mind on the subject of living in an open process of reception and a will to maintain an open process of reception.

26 Secondly, the guidelines developed by the Eames Commission need to be reviewed in the light of experience and the situation in the provinces monitored for another decade.

27 Thirdly, the discussion and exchange of experience needs to continue both within the Anglican Communion and with ecumenical partners, for the ministry about which Anglicans are concerned is the ministry of the universal Church.

28 If open reception is to continue then Anglicans must learn to live as a Communion in dialogue, committed to discern the truth together. There must be courtesy, tolerance, mutual respect, prayer for one another, a desire to know one another and be with one another. The danger is that where ecclesial communion is impaired, communities define themselves over against each other and develop apart from one another. No one can doubt the seriousness of being divided on the ministry of the universal Church, the seriousness of the lack of interchangeability of ministries, the seriousness of real doubts that some faithful Christians have about the efficacy of the sacramental life of the Church. Nevertheless, the faith that unites, the task of mission and evangelism that remains, makes living within an open process of reception an authentic way of costly obedience. The words of Elizabeth Templeton to the 1988 Lambeth Conference are worth recording ten years later:

The world is used to unity of all sorts, to solidarity in campaigns, unity in resistance, communities of party, creed, interest. But it is not used to such possibilities as this: at, for example, those who find the exclusion of women from the priesthood an intolerable apartheid and those who find their inclusion a violation of God’s will should enter one another’s suffering. Somewhere in there authority lies.

1. Women and the Episcopate. The Grindrod Report. ACC 1988
2. The Truth Shall Make You Free. The Lambeth Conference 1988 CHP, p 201
3. The Eames Commission, Official Reports ACC 1984 (a further volume to be published in 1998)

The Eames Monitoring Group Report, August 1997, see documentation file for the Lambeth Conference

5. Ibid., para 24

6. Ibid., para 27

Mary Tanner was until recently Secretary of the Council for Christian Unity of the General Synod of the Church of England.