Edwin Barnes attempts to understand the impairment of Communion stemming from the ordination of women

FROM THE OUTSET, it has been apparent that the ordination of women to the priesthood was and would remain a disputed matter. Because of this, the Eames Commission recognised that within the Anglican Communion “interdependence and communion thereby suffer some restriction”. It is the extent of this restriction within the Church of England itself, and particularly its expression in the decision by some clergy and lay people not to receive Holy Communion on some occasions, which I mean to examine.

Certainly such non-communicating attendance has caused comment from time to time. Yet the Eames Commission clearly makes a distinction between such an action and being “out of communion”. Non-reception of communion does not make us ‘out of communion’. Indeed, Eames insists that “Anglicans ought not to suggest that such restrictions result in their being ‘out of communion’ with one another”. It goes on to say that “To take the step of declaring that communion is broken, or to describe the position as no longer being ‘in communion’, would be to do less than justice to the concept of communion as we now understand and experience it”. What is more, Eames asserts, “A real degree of authentic communion is entailed from the common recognition of baptism … if follows that no Province or individual bishop still less priest or lay person, can meaningfully declare themselves to be categorically out of communion with another Province or bishop”.

Non-communicating attendance at the Eucharist has been a frequent practice within the Church of England, both before and after the Reformation. Although the authors of the first English Prayer Books clearly hoped that attendance at Communion would also involve reception of Communion, this was a vain hope. Many refrained from receiving the sacrament. Sometimes this was because they perceived themselves not to be in “love and charity with their neighbours” , sometimes because they had not received the benefit of absolution, or could not be assured they were in a state of grace. Alternatively they simply ceased attending the Sacrament, instead choosing to worship at non-eucharistic services. That this is perfectly proper behaviour for members of the Church of England is apparent from the rubric which simply says that ‘every Parishioner shall communicate at the least three times in the year, of which Easter to be one’.

Non-communicating attendance at Holy Communion is no novelty in our church. The question remains, why is it that some of us feel it is appropriate from time to time not to receive Communion from those who have ordained women to the priesthood, or who have assisted at such ordinations?

First, because with the ordination of women there has come a diminishment of the degree of communion. Eames admits this and quotes the Lambeth Conference which says terminology such as “‘impairment’ may be used, or other language such as ‘restricted’ or ‘incomplete communion'”. At all events, it agrees, “communion is less full than it was.” At a later meeting of the Eames Commission, this was further underlined: “We are not ‘out of communion’ but share a very real degree of communion, even when …? it is not manifested in eucharistic communion.” Attendance at celebrations of Holy Communion without receiving Communion seems to some of us an authentic way of showing the actual situation – our communion with those who have made the innovation of ordaining women to the priesthood is ‘less full than it was’.

Then again, to refrain from women’s celebrations of the eucharist but not from communicating with those who ordain them would be discriminatory and sexist. Our argument is not with these women whose orders we doubt, but with the action of those who have breached the unity of the church by choosing to ordain them contrary to the formerly invariable practice of the church.

None of us wants to use the Eucharist as an occasion for demonstration. It can, though, be one of the few occasions left to us when we worship together, and a time when we can offer others “an opportunity … to enter into our pain”. What is more such an action can actually be a witness to “the communion that exists”. It is one of the “anomalies” we must be “prepared to accept for the sake of unity” Just as between Provinces which disagree, so between those within the Church of England who hold different positions ‘with integrity’, simply being present with one another at a celebration of the Eucharist is a positive sign: “‘presence’ is indicative of a degree of communion”. Were the House of Bishops to require all bishops participating in, for instance, a Consecration, to receive Communion, then the effect might be to drive some from those events altogether, and further diminish the already impaired communion which we share.

For some reason, the position of us who refrain from communicating at certain times has been attributed to some theology of “taint”. The Eames Commission’s fifth meeting addressed this. “Some Anglicans”, they asserted, “hold the view that subsequent sacramental acts of a bishop who ordains women to the priesthood are thereby rendered invalid” . Many of us (for instance, in New Directions, the journal of Forward in Faith) have expressly dissociated our-selves from such a view, and no useful purpose it served by parodying another’s position. It is not for such reasons that we refrain from communion. Indeed, it is because we have no doubt about the efficacy of the eucharist celebrated by bishops who have ordained women that we attend such celebrations, even if for other reasons we feel it is proper to refrain from receiving communion. Indeed it is because we have no doubt about the efficacy of sacraments celebrated by bishops who have ordained women, and because the C of E, in its legislation, has chosen to separate the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood from their possible consecration to the episcopate, that we find ourselves in the (arguably) anomalous position of accepting consecration at the hands of bishops with whom, and with whose college of priests, there already exists a degree of impairment of communion.

This anomaly is not the result of any action or conclusion on our part. It stems from the separation of the orders of bishops and priest which was an essential part of the ’93 Measure – a separation which we are not alone in finding it difficult to defend and justify. Our position is the very reverse of Donatist (a charge sometimes flung at us). Far from dwelling on what divides us, we have seized on this doubtful separation of the orders of bishop and priest as a means of sustaining communion at the highest possible level. We are all too well aware (as the House of Bishops must also know) that the anomaly, and the degree of communion it makes possible for us, would necessarily come to an end if women were to be consecrated as bishops.

Towards the end of the Eames report, there are some matters which will need pursuing further. For most of its length, Eames describes a very static view of the relations between churches, and within them. It is not prepared, for instance, even to countenance the idea of “parallel episcopates”. Yet since by 1829 at latest [the Roman Catholic Relief Act], it has been apparent that there is a parallel episcopate functioning in England. More recently the Orthodox too have established dioceses in this country. What is more, in ecumenical conversations we have often accepted that others, for instance Methodists, exercise episcope even without naming those who do so ‘bishop’. Now Eames says, quite rightly, that “Bishops do not exercise a sacramental ministry or hold office as individuals but in the communion of the episcopate through the ages”. Just as it is conceivable that the Church of England, post-Poorvoo, can recognise some ministries which we had previously reckoned lacked some element of apostolic succession, so too the situation has changed in relation to Rome and Orthodoxy. It is perhaps in recognition of this change that Eames admits we might have done better. “While in the matter of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate account has been taken of what ecumenical partners said on this matter, we might have provided for more formal opportunities to listen to the wisdom and views of our ecumenical partners” . We might indeed! And are we providing these opportunities concerning women and the episcopate?

Yet while there has a notable cooling in ecumenical relations towards most of the Church of England, some of us who have resisted women’s ordination have continued to find a warm understanding from other episcopal churches. So, whereas unofficially Anglican priests had been invited to concelebrate Mass in many continental churches before 1993, that provision generally ceased after women were ordained priest. As the position of those of us who call ourselves “traditionalists” has become more widely understood in continental Europe, so the atmosphere towards us has become much more welcoming – for instance in recent pilgrimages to Portugal and elsewhere.

At present, we are able to remain in the church of our baptism because of the provisions of the Act of Synod which, in accordance with Eames, encourages ‘respect’ and ‘courtesy’. We are encouraged to know that the process of reception of women in the priesthood (the process of discernment of the will of God in this matter) is “likely to last a very long time”, and the outcome is not a foregone conclusion for “there is no pre-determined result”. We are glad that Eames’ encouragement for providing Episcopal Visitors has not gone unheeded in England, though it has in many other parts of the Anglican Communion. We welcome every opportunity to express our position, which we try to do in the spirit of Eames “sensitively and clearly” and enter into a full dialogue.

Were there to be a change in the way the Church of England regarded us however, were this open-ness of reception to cease, and the principles of Eames and of a series of Lambeth conferences to be ignored, then we should need to look for that “communion of the episcopate through the ages” in some other seat than Canterbury. That would equally be the outcome were the Church of England to proceed to the consecration of women to the episcopate, against the express advice of our episcopal ecumenical partners. In such circumstances, it might be then that the re-alignment of Christendom which the late Archbishop of Westminster foresaw would become visible. Everything is in the hands of the Lord, and no failing in one part of the church can permanently frustrate his purposes.

Meanwhile, we remain Anglicans and pray that we may be allowed to continue so, in a church which does not claim infallible judgement, a church which gives great respect to Synodical decisions, yet says that Synods may err, and cannot by themselves determine matters of faith, since their decisions must wait until a “consensus of opinion one way or the other has been achieved.” We are yet in communion with the See of Canterbury, that test of being an Anglican, even though that communion has “suffered some restriction” . Meanwhile, we urge those who agree with us to exercise that “highest degree of communion possible” consistent with a regard for truth, and in all things to act with charity, attributing the best motives to those who disagree with us. Moreover we welcome participation in engaging, with the advocates of women’s ordination, in that theological task of “exploring the relationship between communion and truth” which Eames encourages. But the occasions when we do, or do not, receive Communion should not be a matter of note or comment.

Edwin Barnes is Bishop of Richborough