Geoffrey Kirk says that it is time to jettison the “Doctrine of Reception” in favour of something less tortuous and more practical

IN A BREATHLESS two years a working party of the House of Bishops is committed to reporting on the theological implications of the ordination of women to the episcopate. That, at least, is what Archdeacon Judith Rose’s motion asked of them; though usually reliable sources are already openly stating that, in a matter so sensitive, procrastination may yet prove the better part of episcopal valour.

Now that a group, under the patronage of Baroness Ruth (‘I will show you a mystery’) Rendell, has launched itself in the House of Lords, with the aim of reversing the Act of Synod, the time has obviously come to talk turkey.

Three things are clear.

The first is that the General Synod of the Church of England can only enact (or rescind) what will be obeyed. Everybody knows (but nobody will say) that the reason why the Scott-Joynt Report on the remarriage of divorcees effectively resigns the problem to the decision of the individual incumbent is because the House of Bishops dare not risk the rejection of its authority which would undoubtedly result if it insisted upon anything else. In the same way, no reasonable person could possibly suppose that the bishops, clergy and people who are presently served by the Act of Synod would be spontaneously obedient to a Synodical vote for its removal.

The second is that the Act of Synod is not a stand alone. It is a development from and of the 1992 Measure. That Measure (as parliament received and approved it) allowed the ordination of women to the priesthood under certain restricted conditions. Various bodies corporate (and some individuals) could, by its provisions refuse to receive the ministry of those it permitted to be ordained.

The Act of Synod (largely, as a matter of fact, an internal agreement within the House of Bishops) sought to ensure that the rights of those opposed were everywhere respected, and that the rights of ordained women were extended (beyond the strict provisions of the Act) in every diocese of the Church of England.

The third thing is that the impending ordination of women to the episcopate will necessarily and inevitably affect the nature and status of the Act of Synod. The Act is based upon two principles: the first that opponents and proponents of women’s ordination should receive equal treatment; the second that the bishop should remain, in every circumstance, the ordinary. When the bishop is a woman those two principles can obviously no longer coinhere.

Bishops being busy men, I feel called to offer them modest assistance, in the demanding task which lies ahead. And since one can be certain that an area which they will be bound to revisit is that darling of the Eames Commission, the Doctrine of Reception, I shall start with that.

It only takes a moment’s reflection to see that the idea of ‘an open period of reception’, applied to Holy Orders, is richly problematical.

The Apostolic Ministry, as the Church of England has received it, exists to assure the faithful of the validity and authenticity of the sacraments: to affirm, in other words that what the church does (and its ministers do severally) is what the Lord himself ordained should be done.

It is the ministry of bishops to personate this assurance: by their continuity with past ages through the laying on of hands; by their vigorous defence of apostolic doctrine; and by their unimpaired fellowship (koinonia) with their episcopal contemporaries throughout the world. It is the ministry of presbyters to express that assurance by the interchangeability of priestly ministry within the college of priests of the bishop whose vicars they are.

To introduce into the world-wide college of bishops, by the questionable mechanism of Provincial Autonomy, those whom many of its members cannot respect and receive as bishops (and furthermore to intrude, into the college of priests of any diocese those whose orders are not freely interchangeable within it) is clearly to subvert, at a fundamental level, the very purpose of Apostolic Order. It does not help that this intrusion is said to have ‘a degree of provisionality’. Indeed, to say so is to affirm its destructive potential rather than to mitigate its effect.

It might be said – it has been said – that considering the present divisions of Christendom all orders are, in a certain sense ‘provisional’. But consider first ‘Saepius Officio’ (the response of the bishops of the Church of England to the papal denunciation of Anglican Orders ‘Apostolicae Curae’), and then consider Canon A4 (surviving from the Canons of 1603). Together they eloquently affirm the classic catholic position. It has never been the view of the Church of England that its orders are, in any sense, ‘provisional’ – and there is no reason why that position should be adopted now – especially since ‘provisional’ or second-class orders are precisely what ordained women do not want.

The idea of the ‘reception’ of orders, then, is something very close to an oxymoron (as the bishops will soon discover when they seek to combine their notion that the orders of women bishops are being ‘received’ with their bold assertion in the 1993 Act of Synod that ‘the diocesan bishop remains the ordinary’).

But that is not all. A further problem is that the notion of reception is incompatible, not only with the nature and purpose of orders themselves, but also with the arguments generally used by the proponents of women’s ordination. Those arguments can, for convenience, be described as ethical a priori arguments – they relate directly, that is, to those inalienable human rights which the American Founding Fathers characterised as ‘self evident truths’. As we were constantly reminded in the debate, upholding the necessity of an all male priesthood is, for the proponents of women’s ordination, as morally reprehensible as upholding slavery or racism. Women’s ordination is seen as an issue of fundamental justice. And to speak of an ‘open period of reception’ for what is a matter of basic justice is to come very close to talking nonsense.

The way to deal with slavery, as Wilberforce’s Parliamentary supporters were not slow to point out, is to send gun-boats. (Which, in the thin disguise of a ‘Investigatory Commission’, is what the American General Convention has just agreed should be done with those dioceses which continue their resistance.)

A third problem relates to the notion of ‘process’. We are engaged, it is claimed, in ‘an open process of reception in the universal Church’. But how, we need to ask, do we know that it is a ‘process’? Might it not equally well be a ‘stasis’?

Neither of our main ecumenical partners, after all, understands the situation in ‘process’ terms. The Pope, indeed, has roundly declared that the Roman Church has no authority to make such a change. He has declared, in other words, not only there is no ‘process’, but that in the nature of the case there could not be. It is less than ecumenically tactful (indeed the height of rudeness!) for Anglicans to imply that the Roman Church is involved with them in a ‘process’ which its Magisterium cannot recognise and which it supposes, in any case, to be impossible

Nor does ‘process’ seem adequately to describe the situation within the Church of England. For, after thirty years of intensive debate, there remains a sizeable minority opposed to the innovation. That minority is tenacious and well-organised. What is more, through its ability to foster ordinands, it is securing its own future.

A ‘process’ presupposes an end. But what if the end is so protracted that it is unforeseeable? What if present divisions, like those of the Protestant reformation, beget others. What if, instead of a narrowing gap, there proves to be a widening chasm?

You do not need to be Jack Spong to see how the consistent extension of the human rights agenda of ‘self-evident truths’ into other areas (marital discipline, and human sexuality, for example) might have just that effect. In that case, surely, it is of no practical use to continue talking in terms of ‘process’.

My advice to the Bishops’ Working Party, then, in the matter of the ‘Doctrine of Reception’, is that it is a fond thing, vainly invented and that they should cut their losses and abandon the notion now, before it gets them into further trouble. They should think, not in terms of ‘reception’, with its inevitable teleological dimension, but in terms of ‘co-existence’, with its pragmatic concentration on the here and now.

What structures and institutions might ensure the amicable co-inherence in one church of those who are at variance over the admissibility of the orders of some of its bishops? That is the question. It is a question which no one has yet answered – and to which, indeed, there may not be an answer. But it is the conundrum which the bishops have set themselves. And the rest of us must just hold our breaths, anxious to see if those who have so assiduously painted themselves into a corner can find their way out of it.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark. This piece originally appeared in The Church Times for October 27. 2000