Geoffrey Kirk concludes that the Doctrine of Reception makes no practical political sense and suggests that the time has come to discuss a less fanciful alternative

THE JULY 2000 MEETING of the General Synod of the Church of England will see a full scale debate on Archdeacon Judith Rose’s motion on women bishops. Rose is asking, not for the immediate preparation of legislation (as I did in a motion which singularly failed earlier in the session), but for a discussion of the theological implications of such an action. Hers is a measured and cautious approach to an issue which is likely to raise many of the problems and passions which were aroused in the debate on women in the priesthood.

The Catholic Group in the Synod has put down a series of amendments (none of them wrecking amendments) which are designed to test the mind of the Synod during the course of the debate. The motion (howsoever amended, or unamended) will certainly pass, and the House of Bishops will thereby be obliged to produce a paper setting out its own theological understandings of an eventuality which it knows it cannot indefinitely resist.

Loosely based on the reports of the Eames Commission, the ‘official line’ on women’s ordination and consecration has hitherto been one of ‘open reception’. We are said to be in a period of experiment and discernment. Only at the end of that process will it be possible to affirm that the development was of God. Dear old Gamaliel (whose importance in the earlier debates eclipsed that of his better known pupil, St Paul) is having another extended outing.

‘Open Reception’ is a notion (it has to be admitted) which has not had a good press within the traditionalist constituency. It has felt too much like ‘terminal care’ to be taken seriously. Beyond the concept of ‘reception’ have lurked two further notions: those of ‘reversibility’ and of an emerging consensus. Both ideas have been regarded with a similar suspicion. If an ‘open period or reception’ involves the ‘reversibility’ of the innovation and the reaching of a ‘general consensus’ in the ‘Church Universal’ (or even in the Church of England) then most opponents have concluded that it is not in the realm of political reality, and will not be concluded before the Greek Kalends.

But few could deny that, in the light of impending developments, the issues of ‘reversibility’ and ‘consensus’ demand more a careful consideration.

The Reversibility of Women’s Ordination: Three Modes.

Both the ordination of women as priests and bishops, and the Act of Synod which guarantees provision within the Church of those who opposed it, have been said to be reversible. ‘Reversibility’ it is claimed, could operate in one of a number of ways.

In the first place, of course, it is obvious that what Parliament has done, Parliament can undo. The doctrine and order of the Church of England are determined by the Crown in Parliament. Secondly it is clear (on a much longer time-scale) that the development could simply wither away; or the opponents come to embrace it wholeheartedly. It is even possible, on a third level, that ecumenical developments might overtake and overwhelm it. Rome and Orthodoxy might undergo a change of heart (leaving the objections of Catholic Anglicans hopelessly at variance with the consensus of the Church Universal). Or dramatic steps on the way to the Coming Great Church might persuade proponents to abandon their current enthusiasm in the cause of immediate and achievable corporate reunion.

Women bishops will inevitably resurrect the whole question of ‘reversibility’. For, to put it quite simply, the advent of women bishops will create a great deal more which will need to be reversed. We will need to ask again whether ‘reversibility’ is a useful (or even a reasonable) concept.

The Status of the Question.

Behind what I have called the ‘official line’ on Reception and ‘reversibility’ there lies a tangled history of debate about what has been called ‘the status of the question’.

Is women’s ordination a ‘first order issue’ – involving, for example, the doctrines of God and of salvation in Christ (which everyone seemed at one stage to agree were beyond the competence of a local synod); or is it a ‘second order issue’ – like the language of the liturgy or the clerical celibacy, which national or local churches can decide? Proponents (who had to deal, in Anglican Communion terms, with decision-making at diocesan level in some provinces – like Australia and Southern Africa) tended, at first, to take the second option. But in the progress of the debate the stakes were gradually raised.

Bishop Ronald Bowlby upped them decisively when he told the Synod, in 1982, that to ordain women was the ‘only way to defend the doctrine of God in our generation’. The House of Bishops’ Second Report on the Ordination of Women (GS829) addressed the problem of the status of the question directly, in 1988:

“we have come to doubt whether in this context such a distinction is useful. This for two reasons:

(a) For many of those who favour the ordination of women, as well as for many of those who do not, the question is not one of comparative doctrinal indifference. It is seen as closely bound up with what is believed about the nature of God, about Christ and about the Church and about creation. It is thus intimately related to the ‘centre’ of the faith.

(b) The distinction is also unhelpful insofar as it may appear to imply a distinction between matters of faith as primary and matters of order as secondary. But it is an article of faith that the Church is a communion of saints. The ordained ministry is a principal instrument given by God for the maintenance of true communion. In this way questions of church order touch upon matters of faith.”

In the final debate in 1992, Bishop Bowlby’s successor, Roy Williamson took another line altogether. It was one which had deep resonances among those who had long campaigned for women’s ordination.

‘At the end of the day [Williamson was, indeed, speaking close to the end of the debate], and having tried to balance all the nuances of the theological and ecclesiological arguments on both sides, I am compelled by what I perceive to be the cause of justice…I speak only for myself when I say that I cannot with any degree of integrity challenge the injustices of society and turn a blind eye to the apparent injustice within the Church which prevents women from testing their vocation to the priesthood…I feel that if there is injustice to be removed, the only time to do it is now…’

Williamson’s ethical a priori assertion is a ‘first order issue’ with a vengeance! With its allusion to comparisons often drawn earlier in the debate with racism and slavery, it effortlessly trumps Michael Adie’s ‘consonant with scripture and required by tradition’ (itself a theologically extravagant claim). The justice issue, for the majority of proponents, is the ‘first order issue’. As such it has had an important place throughout the whole debate. It was as a justice issue that women’s ordination was imposed upon an unwilling Swedish Church by the Swedish Parliament in 1958; and it was as a justice issue that the English Parliament debated and approved it in 1993.

The current position of opponents of women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church of the United States is a powerful and poignant testimony to the a priori (first order) status of the question among important proponents. In that province latitude is extended to those who deny the divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ; but not to those who deny that women can be ordained to the sacred ministry.

Is an a priori position reversible?

We need urgently to ask whether such an ethical a priori view is, in any realistic sense, reversible. Daphne Hampson, a veteran of the original campaign, writes movingly of her own feelings and experiences:

‘I was in an ambiguous position. The ordination of women was something for which I was supposed to argue. Yet as far as I was concerned it was an a priori matter that the church should not discriminate. To be forced to argue that one is a full human being of equal dignity (for that is what it felt like) is quite extraordinarily undermining’.

That large numbers of ordained women (and those who support them) share Hampson’s sentiments cannot be doubted. Williamson’s appeal to basic justice struck a chord which resonated for many in the church and many beyond it. That women as well as men should be able ‘to test their vocation to the priesthood’ is for many people a self-evident truth. And the proclamation of a self-evident truth has the character of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Short of a social cataclysm changing the whole outlook of the ambient society, it will prove difficult, if not impossible, for those who have adopted such a position to go into reverse.

The Three Modes revisited.

So far as I can see, none of the three ‘modes of reversibility’ which I have outlined above is, in these circumstances, practically operational.

Whilst it is true that Parliament, self-embarrassed by its role as the ultimate arbiter of Anglican doctrine, found it relatively easy (on its own human rights terms) to approve women’s ordination, it is extremely unlikely that MPs would now be enthusiastic to reverse the legislation and so act contrary to the whole drift of UK and European legislation.

The ethical a priori position of the proponents, moreover, has raised the temperature on both sides of the debate. Analogies with racism and slavery (quite common in the relevant literature) have made agreement or reconciliation unlikely. Ours is a society which does not accommodate racists and slave owners, but legislates against them. And, in any case, those who suppose their legitimate theological position to have been scandalously traduced are unlikely to be enthusiasts for compromise.

Things do not look much better on the ecumenical front. Our foremost ecumenical partners take firm opposing positions. Rome has pronounced women’s ordination to be beyond its competence. Only believers in the infallibility of the next Pope but one can hope for significant change in that quarter. The Methodists, on the other hand, have made it clear that they will not consider embracing an episcopacy which does not include women.

It does not take a diplomatic genius to see which way the Church of England is likely to move, post-Porvoo. One of the least attractive aspects of the women priests debate was the anti-Roman Catholic feeling which it exacerbated. Talk of ‘an open period of reception in the universal church’ seems, on the face of it to be merely ecu-speak for a deepening of the already existing Reformation divide.

The Reversibility of the Act of Synod: Three Problems.

The repeal of the Act of Synod (the declared political aim of more than one grouping within the Church) does not, on the face of it seem more achievable than the reversal of the substantive legislation. That, of course, is because the Act of Synod is dependent upon the legislation itself.

Impatient to achieve their end (and so, perhaps, carelessly indifferent as to the means) the campaigners for women priests opted for legislation which effectively suspended the Church of England’s Canon A4 and permitted parishes and individuals to refuse to receive or recognise the ministry of priests who have been canonically ordained. But it is the necessary and essential nature of priesthood that it should be everywhere and by everyone, recognized and received. It follows, then, that the legislation to ordain women contained within itself clauses directly inimical to its own purpose and intention. It is the legislation, and not the Act of Synod which is dysfunctional, and which supporters of women priests must repeal, if they are to achieve their aim of a priesthood for women strictly equivalent to that of men.

The repeal of the Act of Synod would not affect this fundamental structural problem. The Act merely seeks to regulate (in so far as the Church of England can regulate) the free ecclesial association of those who have availed themselves of the provisions made for them by the 1993 Measure.

The Act of Synod, of course, is seen by many of the most vocal supporters of women priests as extending the rights given to opponents by the Measure. But in that they are almost certainly mistaken. The Act is better understood as a means of social control, whereby the leaders a dissentient party are appointed by those who have the interests of the majority at heart. What Prime Minister would not give his right arm to appoint the shadow cabinet? From the point of view of women priests and their supporters, the alternatives would almost certainly be worse.

But the irreversibility of the Act of Synod does not only spring from its intimate relationship with the 1993 legislation. It also derives from the religious freedoms of those who operate and live within it. A State Church, in a society which permits and protects religious pluralism, cannot be prescriptive about doctrine. Nor is it easy to conduct ecumenical dialogue whilst persecuting in one’s own Church opinions firmly upheld and clearly re-stated by close ecumenical partners.

The last and most important factor is that the Church of England is a voluntary organization which can govern itself only with the consent of the governed. It has few sanctions against those who repudiate its Synodical decisions. It would in all probability loose a degree of public support and approbation were it to attempt to use any of them. The Act of Synod is practically irreversible for the simple reason that those who presently operate under it – bishops, parish priests and PCCs could simply ignore its repeal.

A growing consensus?

If it is the case, as I have sought to demonstrate, that neither the ordination of women itself, nor the Act of Synod which proceeded from it, is in any practical and realistic sense reversible, then it follows that the second underlying principal of the doctrine of reception (the idea of an emerging consensus) must also be re-examined.

An open process of reception, it is often pointed out, has more than one possible conclusion: it can issue in the acceptance or rejection of the doctrine or practice being ‘received’. Opponents of women’s ordination are wrong, it is said, to see it as a period during which they are being encouraged (or coerced) into acquiescence.

But an ‘open period of reception’ does, nevertheless, presume that there will be some kind of conclusion; that at some stage in the historical process (sooner or later, and probably sooner) a consensus on the matter will emerge. But what if it does not? Or what if the historical process is so protracted that consensus comes to be unforeseeable and even unimaginable?

The divisions among Christians which have their origins in the Reformation began with particular doctrinal disagreements (about the doctrine of justification, for example). But those particular disagreements about doctrine probed a fissure altogether wider and deeper. Even when agreement on an individual issue can now be reached (as between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, recently, on justification) there remain other less tangible divisions, extending all the way from what the theologians call the doctrine of authority to what the women’s magazines call ‘lifestyle’.

Or a widening fissure?

What if women’s ordination (as many of us have come to suppose) probes a fissure as wide and deep as that? And what if it entails or enables other innovations equally unacceptable to opponents – argued on similar a priori principles of justice and equality, (for example, the blessing of same sex unions); or extending its underlying ecclesiology to other areas (provincial autonomy in credal revision, for example)?

It is a paradox that many of the most ardent supporters of women’s ordination have also been enthusiastic ecumenists. The result of this remarkable state of affairs is that they are in denial about the serious ecumenical consequences of what they have done. And because they cannot bring themselves to admit that they have wounded the Body of Christ, deepening existing divisions and creating division where there was none, they find it difficult to face up to the necessity for structural and organisational expression of the division they have created.

The ‘doctrine of reception’, as it has come to be applied to the case of the ordination of women is part of that denial. One of its prevailing axioms is that ‘the highest possible degree of communion’ should be maintained, whilst the open process moves to its conclusion. But what is ‘the highest possible degree of communion’? And equally importantly, who decides what it is? Justice (and logic) demands that the decision should not be left solely in the hands of the innovators.

On the reasonable assumption (based on past experience of reception in the Church universal) that ‘an open period of reception’ of the ordination of women as priests and bishops will take centuries rather than decades, the Church of England needs now to be discussing what structures and institutions are needed to express the degree of impairment which has been brought about (and which, at one and the same time, will enable us to ‘maintain the highest possible degree of communion’ – for they are one and the same thing!).

There are no signs at present that the Archbishop of Canterbury or the House of Bishops are eager or even willing to inaugurate such discussions with representatives of those opposed. That they will have to undertake such discussions at some stage is obvious to any dispassionate observer. That the sooner they are begun the less acrimonious they will prove is equally apparent.

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