Geoffrey Kirk reviews the ecclesiological consequences of women’s ordination

THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND sought to solve its internal crisis over women in the priesthood by legislation which made remarkable – and, some would say, indefensible – concessions to opponents. One of those provisions, the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993, is now up for review, and under attack from the supporters of women priests, some of whom are campaigning for its repeal by 2002. But opponents, who believe their Catholic ecclesiology to be, if anything, more compromised by the concessions than by the ordinations themselves, are also looking for new solutions. What are the issues at stake; and why are those who have been given flying bishops and parochial autonomy still not satisfied?

Let us not (for the moment) rake over the embers of the arguments pre-1992. Let women’s ordination be known, not by its roots but by its fruits. And by ‘fruits’ I do not mean that ‘experience of women’s ministry’, which it was confidently claimed would win every heart – no one has ever doubted the pastoral skills and sensitivity of women. I mean its theological and ecclesiological consequences.

Four things issue from the ordination of women, in the Anglican Communion and in the Church of England, which its Catholic opponents heartily deplore: provincial autonomy; impaired communion; private judgement in the matter of orders; and declared uncertainty in the administration of the sacraments. It would, I think, be perfectly possible to be in favour of women’s ordination and categorically opposed to all these un-catholic novelties; but, alas, no substantial party to the debate has taken that position.

Provincial Autonomy

Provincial Autonomy in the Anglican Communion is, in one sense, endemic. It proceeds from a mismatch between the emerging independent provinces and the Mother Church. The first provinces to emerge, Scotland and the United States, were orphans of the storm, cut off by political circumstances from the Established Church which gave them birth. They had to develop structures of their own to decide matters of discipline and doctrine. Doctrine and discipline meanwhile continued, in England, to be the prerogative of the Crown in Parliament (which had no authority whatever in the new North American Republic, and was aggressively and persecutingly Presbyterian in its other kingdom).

Not until the emergence of modernism did the inherent problems become apparent. There is something almost quaint to the late twentieth century mind about the controversies over the Letter to the Romans and the authorship of the Pentateuch which led a former Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge (J.W. Colenso) to appeal against deposition by his Archbishop (Gray of Cape Town) before the Privy Council. But the event, nevertheless, is emblematic of the confused patterns of authority in world-wide Anglicanism which were coming into being.

In the event, the judgement of the Privy Council was jurisdictional rather than theological; but it was sufficient to ensure that the first Lambeth Conference, an indirect result of the crisis, was denied any defining doctrinal role. The bishops of the wider Church were denied authority in matters of doctrine because the bishops of the Mother Church did not have it at home.

The effect of all this was that Anglicanism came to be governed by a gentleman’s agreement between bishops that a blind-eye would be turned to doctrinal indiscretions and deviations (those of James Pike of California, for example) so long as ‘communion’ was maintained. When all else had come unstuck, the cement of International Anglicanism was to be the mutual acceptability of orders.

It was, of course, only a matter of time before doctrinal deviation issued in a fracture of common order. And it was as no real surprise that the fracture came about in the diocese of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong (now a province in its own right) was then part of no coherent ecclesiastical structure. It was a detached diocese of some 12,000 communicant members in the loosely federated Council of the Church in East Asia, nominally under the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury. (All the other dioceses which were members of the Council were opposed to women’s ordination.)

When the Hong Kong diocesan synod (membership 138) approved the ordination of two women to the priesthood in 1971, Bishop G. Baker notified the recently constituted Anglican Consultative Council (first meeting, Limaru, Kenya, 1971), which assured him, by 24 votes to 22, that it would use its good offices to see that ‘communion would be maintained’ if the diocese went ahead with the innovation. It was a nod and a wink for a free-for-all. It must have seemed to many that permission had been officially given for the tail to wag the dog.

This hint was taken up with alacrity by a small group of retired bishops in the United States who, in 1974, illegally ordained eleven women in Philadelphia. The General Convention, meeting in 1976, retrospectively regularised those ordinations and approved future ordinations of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church by the narrowest of majorities.

That these events had brought about a significant change in the ecclesiology of Anglicanism no one could doubt: what had been the possession of all was now at the disposition of a few. But who could dispose what? Was it to be provincial autonomy or diocesan autonomy? No one really knew; and so different provinces exercised their new-found rights in order to determine the precise nature of the autonomy which they supposed themselves to have gained. In Australia and South Africa the principle of diocesan autonomy was clearly enunciated. In Canada and New Zealand provincial autonomy was rigorously imposed. In the United Sates, after a period of grudging diocesan autonomy, the decision was taken to suppress local dissent in favour of national uniformity.

The emerging common factor proved to be autonomy at the level of the province or national church. It came to be (tacitly) agreed that every province of the Communion had the right independently to decide what were the orders which Anglicans were said to have received ‘from the Apostles’ time’, and who could be admitted to any of them. Some hoped that restraint might be shown over women bishops (generally thought to be more difficult and divisive than women priests). But when the North American bishops came to Lambeth 1988, as one observer remarked, ‘with women bishops in their knapsacks’ it was clear that that would not be the case.

Impaired Communion

The idea that there are, and ought to be, degrees of eucharistic communion was to a large extent the creation of the ordination of women (and of the provincial autonomy in matters of orders which was established to facilitate it). It is an idea which affects relations within provinces; relations between provinces; and relations between the Anglican Communion as a whole (or relevant parts of it) and other churches.

Unilateral action in ordaining women in a diocese or province, obviously acknowledged and expected that those orders will be unacceptable in provinces or dioceses which have not similarly acted. This frank expectation creates a not inconsiderable difficulty. Heretofore the assumption had always been that a relationship of ‘full communion’ (such as the Churches of the Anglican Communion had uniquely agreed with the Union of Utrecht in Bonn, 1931) involved full mutual recognition of orders and sacraments. But now there is not even full and mutual recognition of orders and sacraments within Anglican provinces or between them. The change in the ecclesial coherence of the Communion clearly required a new understanding of ‘communion’, and a reassessment of ecumenical aims and objectives.

The new understanding of communion which emerged was one which was long on the baptismal covenant and short on the mutual recognition of orders. Someone suggested that it was incumbent upon everyone, in changed circumstances, to maintain the ‘highest possible degree of communion’. The phrase stuck and was often repeated; without anyone being entirely sure what it meant. All that was clear was that it moved the concept of ‘communion’ from the realm of the objective to the realm of the subjective.

The necessary reassessment of ecumenical aims and objectives was undertaken covertly, as these things tend to be. Though it was obvious that Anglicans could not ask to share with other Christians a degree of communion which they no longer had with each other, it was not quite so clear what were the ultimate implications of the truism. Nor was it necessarily thought opportune to state them publicly and with any clarity.

There seemed to be two possibilities. The first was to carry on regardless with pan-Anglican negotiations with Churches for whom ‘impaired communion’ was anathema (for example the Roman Catholic Church) – probably in the hope that the process would take so long that things might be resolved within Anglicanism before the ecumenical endeavour bore positive fruit. The second was to use the new concept creatively in local ecumenical agreements where a degree of confusion and obfuscation might lead to what could not implausibly be claimed as exciting new developments.

Both possibilities have been deployed side by side. International ARCIC has come up with a remarkable and predictably controversial paper on authority; ECUSA has (unsuccessfully) negotiated one form of local concordat with one group of Lutherans; and the Anglican provinces of the British Isles have concluded the Porvoo Agreement with another group of Lutherans (upon quite different principles).

The Porvoo Agreement, in particular, has dealt imaginatively with the new idea of ‘impaired communion’. In the case, for example, of relations between the Church of England and the Church of Norway it has allowed the ‘fullest possible degree of communion’ to be established, whilst embracing (on the Norwegian part) women bishops, presbyteral ordinations and lay celebration. The new arrangements obviously augur well for forthcoming talks with the Methodist Church; but are unlikely, for the same reasons, to be cordially received at the Phanar or in the Vatican.

Private Judgement

The legislation which secured the ordination of women to the priesthood in England was different in a number of significant ways from that in other provinces. It was, in the first place, of course, state legislation enacted by the national Parliament. It was also legislation which made remarkable allowance for dissenting opinion. Clause 2a of the Measure made clear that no provision was being made for women bishops, and Schedules A and B allowed parishes to reject the ministry of women either as celebrants of the Holy Communion or as Incumbent.

It is hard, at this remove, to determine or even to speculate upon, what heart-searching there might have been among the supporters of women priests before it was agreed that they should vote in favour of legislation so fundamentally inimical to their basic principles and common interest. But vote they did. I have not heard of a single supporter of women’s ordination in the Synod who passed through the ‘No’ lobby. And when the Act of Synod amplified and elaborated the very parts of the Measure to which they might have taken legitimate exception, they voted for it again.

It is just possible that the significant majority voting for the Measure and the overwhelming majority voting for the Act were, in both cases, uncertain what it was they were voting for. But it is equally possible that they voted, cynically and unscrupulously, for what they knew to be contrary to their policy and programme, with the express intention of revoking the concessions at the earliest opportunity, when the pressure was off.

It is as well to be reminded what they voted for. They voted, in the first instance, for a second class priesthood (one from which preferment to the episcopate was impossible); and for private judgement in the matter of orders (every parish in the land was obliged, at an interregnum, to consider whether or not it would receive the ordained ministry of women). In the case of the Act of Synod, they were voting for the right of parishes to reject the ministry of their own diocesan, and to opt for the pastoral and sacramental care of a bishop specially consecrated for the purpose.

It as well, also, to be reminded that the legislation for which they voted was, in both cases, drawn up with little or no consultation with opponents.

It can surprise no one, therefore, that provisions so flagrantly contrary both to the Catholic ecclesiology of the opponents and the human rights and natural justice principles of the proponents, should now be in dispute. Five years on from the settlement, the settlement itself is at the heart of the argument. It is ironic that a Church and Communion which has insisted so vocally, in its ecumenical relations, on the importance and necessity of the Apostolic ministry should have been prepared to mutilate it in this unseemly way. Ecumenical partners in both directions will no doubt have taken note.

Sacramental Uncertainty

Part of the intellectual undergirding (if it can be so dignified) of the Act of Synod and of the Eames Commission Reports, was the ‘doctrine of reception’ and the notion of ‘provisionality’ . The priesthood and episcopate of women was said to be in ‘an open period of reception’, which would only be foreclosed by a free consensus of the Church Universal. Until that time there was to their orders ‘a degree of provisionality’.

Perhaps there has never been a more quintessentially Anglican notion than that of ‘degrees of provisionality’. It is an idea wholly comprehensible only to those who are strangers to certainty.

The irony here is that ‘provisionality’ and a ‘period of reception’ were ideas adopted in order, it was thought, to accommodate the Catholic-minded. There was even talk of the ‘reversibility’ of the legislation, which was thought to offer some encouragement to opponents!

Now it is, of course, true that one of the defects of the Synodical system as it has been adopted in the Anglican Communion and in the Church of England is that is thoughtlessly modelled on Parliamentary principles. And of course it is the case that what Parliament has enacted, Parliament can as well revoke. But the matter of Apostolic Order clearly demonstrates the inappropriateness of such a model of synodical authority. Orders are given, not willed: they exist to offer the assurance that the sacraments they minister are in every sense rooted and grounded in the dominical commission. A Church which can conscientiously proclaim that it may at some future stage deny the validity of sacraments at present being authentically celebrated by its authority is not a Catholic Church, and arguably not a Church at all.

As the women priests (now well over a thousand of them) campaign to rescind the Act of Synod, ground the flying bishops and clear the air for women in the episcopate, another campaign is taking shape: for a Free and Independent Anglican Province within the British Isles comprising those who cannot receive the new ministry and who repudiate the ecclesiology which goes with it. The hope is to salvage from the wreckage of provincial autonomy; impaired communion; private judgement; and uncertain sacraments something which, though recognisably Anglican, is defensibly Catholic. Can it be done? – only time will tell. Is it worth doing? – only the encouragement and sympathy of other Catholic Christians will make that apparent.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark. This article first appeared in ‘The Tablet’.