Geoffrey Kirk writes an open letter to Michael Nazir-Ali

Dear Michael,

So you have drawn the short straw. It falls to you to mastermind the document which will make it possible for the Church of England to move to women bishops with a minimum of fuss or disruption. The task is daunting; and the stakes are high. When George retires in 2003 the search will be on for an Archbishop of Canterbury who can represent the ethnic diversity of the Communion. If you get this one right you will be ideally placed.

If not, not.

So what are the pluses and minuses of the operation?

People talk about ‘ecumenical implications’; but you need not worry yourself about them. It has been remarkable, in one sense, how little difference to Anglican / Roman Catholic relations the ordination of women has made. That could be a good sign; or it could simply mean that Rome never thought that ARCIC was going anywhere anyway. Whatever conclusions you draw, you can be sure that talks will ramble amiably on and that there will be no serious loss of face. Rome may even, in one sense, prefer a Victoria Matthews to a Jack Spong (whilst, of course, having no intention whatever of contracting an ecclesial alliance with either). As an ex-Roman Catholic yourself you have probably sensed the atavisitc anti-Catholicism which underlies the liberal veneer of much run-of-the-mill Anglicanism. Anglican self-esteem requires ARCIC; but the doctrinal indifferentism of the majority of Anglicans means that no one really wants it to succeed. So no hearts will be broken there.

Women bishops, on the other hand are a sine qua non of the Methodist talks. People occasionally make disparaging comments about ecumenism with Methodists being a form of necrophilia; but there are still enough of them to make the enterprise attractive. A good deal with the Methodists will allow the ordination of women – which, despite everyone’s best efforts, has come over as divisive, and not quite the pew-filling success that was predicted – to be seen, instead, as a factor promoting unity and harmony. The greater numbers of the United Church will have the advantage of getting the Sunday attendance figures (for a time at least) back above the psychologically important million mark (though of course the size of the resulting whole will be smaller than the sum of its two parts).

Where the Anglican Communion is concerned women bishops are not a problem either. They had a high profile at the last Lambeth Conference, and no one stayed away. The Communion has taken the advent of non-interchangeable orders in its stride, and things have moved on. The rule seems to be that each Conference is dominated by one issue, which it duly fails to address, and which is then settled by unilateral provincial action during the intervening ten years. It was women priests in ’78, women bishops in ’88, lesbigay sex in ’98; it will be the turn of lay celebration in ’08. The ruling principle of the Anglican Communion is ‘cuius regio, eius religio’. The institutional solidarity of the whole enables opposing doctrinal opinions to be enforced in different provinces; and the ‘doctrine of reception’ allows a process which is, in fact, one of divergence to be portrayed as one of convergence. The real problems are nearer home.

It is obvious, in the first place, that a good proportion of the CofE will simply not accept that women are or can be bishops. And whilst that non-acceptance is merely irritating where women priests are concerned, it verges on the impossible with a diocesan bishop. However you add up the figures, something between a tenth and a twelfth of English parishes (and untold individual consciences) will not recognise a female bishop, and many of those will not be able to recognise a male bishop who acts collegially with women bishops either.

The precarious balancing act of the Act of Synod, whereby ‘the bishop remains the ordinary’, and ‘Provincial Episcopal Visitors’ are said to act as extensions of his ministry, will be over. And though it would obviously be possible to appoint the first woman diocesan to a diocese (Carlisle, for instance) where opposition was minimal, even there a rump of dogged dissentients would give the lie to the notion that the bishop is a focus of unity. The grand idea that the bishop’s office unites local Christians with the Church worldwide and contemporary Christians with the wisdom and continuity of the Christian centuries, will simply have evaporated.

On the plus side, however, is the fact that (apart from the PEVs) you will not have any problems with bishops not accepting women bishops. It would be fairly difficult to deal with an Archbishop of York who would not recognise some of his colleagues in the province. But David has graciously agreed to retire (which he does in 2005 anyway), John Hind is another possible fly in the ointment (around until 2010); but he has every reason to be accommodating, and has shown no signs of rigour as yet. Richard Chartres (retires 2012) is a law unto himself; but will, at the worst, affect an urbane indifference to it all. The present Appoinments policy will ensure that all opposition will have been flushed out of the system by 2015 at the latest, in time for a full reconciliation of ministries with the Methodists.

The PEVs, of course are another matter entirely. They are appointed both to pastor and to represent the opposition, which, if the opposition is clearly disposed to reject women bishops and their male colleagues, can hardly be achieved without the ‘flying bishops’ distancing themselves from the very authorities which consecrated them in the first place. It is hard to see how that could mean anything other than the necessity of their consecrating their own successors. Which, whatever the spin you manage to put on it, would be a parallel jurisdiction in all but name. It was always a risky business, creating flying bishops. This new development looks like being their nemesis or apotheosis (depending on how you look at it).

But the practical, pragmatic problems about women bishops, many though they are, pale into insignificance beside the theological and ideological problems.

Talking to the press about the task that lies ahead, you spoke, as people tend to, about ‘justice’. (And, predictably, you claimed to have been misrepresented.) But, whatever you say, it was an issue which you could not avoid. The best arguments – the knockdown arguments – in favour of women’s ordination are the ethical a priori arguments. And ethical arguments of that kind demand a certain rigour. The idea that women’s ordination is a ‘justice issue’ lies at the very heart of the problems with which your working party will be wrestling. How can justice be done and at the same time the views and opinions of those who are deemed unjust be honoured? That is the conundrum.

Nothing, it must be admitted, could be more logical, more rigorous or more problematical than to incarnate those ethical arguments in a bishop. For a bishop is the focus of a diocese and so the head of a particular church ‘in which and from which’ [Code of Canon Law, CND 368] the Church Universal exists. ‘Individual bishops are the visible source and foundation of unity in their own particular churches’. Lumen Gentium, 23] (The ‘higher’ the doctrine of episcopacy, you will observe, the more neatly it fits the ethical a priori arguments for women’s ordination.) There can, moreover, be only one bishop in one place [Canon VIII of Nicea I]. So she has every right (and a positive theological duty) to run the opposition out of town. That, as you know, is what has happened in the diocese of Washington, State of Maryland, where Bishop Jane Dixon has refused to license a priest because she claims that his refusal to accept her as a bishop renders him unsuitable. Dixon’s refusal is probably questionable in Canon Law; but, from her point of view, it has both logic and morality on its side. Try substituting ‘black bishop’ for ‘woman bishop’ and you will see precisely why.

Anglicans, however, view such exercises of naked principle with instinctive suspicion. In particular they suspect a combination of raw egalitarianism and catholic hierarchialism. Your working party can discuss whether the episcopate is a special case of the presbyterate or the presbyterate a delegation of the epsicopate for as long as you like (and judging from some of the names on your list they will probably enjoy that ); but if they do not also address the impending stand-off between doctrinaire proponents and entrenched opponents they will have been wasting their time. If the final result is a series of clashes of the Dixon variety, in English canon law. between bishops and parishes, then the cause of the Church (and of women’s ministry within it ) will surely be the sad loser.

At the moment Anglicans deal with the problems of tolerance and co-existence in a piecemeal and illogical way. They have developed an ecclesiology and a geography of tolerance. What is tolerable on another continent and in another church is held to be intolerable in the Home Counties and the Church of England. What is admissible in negotiation with Ted Yarnold is damnable from the lips of a member of one’s own deanery synod. This is no way, as anyone can see, to deal with an ethical a priori imperative. But it may have within it the seeds of a way forward.

It is obvious that the need to accommodate within the one church those who accept and those who reject the episcopal ministry of women will demand a further development of the concept of episcopacy itself. Anglicans, surely, are in a unique position to offer such a development for reception in the wider church; and indeed such a process is already well advanced.

The 1998 Lambeth Conference, at which women bishops and those who reject their orders conferred amicably together, was a landmark event. It is safe to say that the decisions and recommendations of that conference were no less respected and observed than those of previous conferences, where the orders of all present were disputed by none. Why can what the bishops have achieved internationally not be realized locally?

What the recent Lambeth Conference showed was that all bishops are prepared to respect all other bishops as the chief executives of the diocese in which they operate, and to acknowledge those dioceses as accredited subsidiaries or franchises of the Anglican corporate identity in the area in which they operate – irrespective of orders, and in some cases, doctrine. This is a posture which you, Michael, will know from experience is radically at variance with that of the Catholic Church. But no one can go back on it now. The practical question for your working party on women bishops (a question which the Eames Commission studiously avoided, but which is part of the remit of the Sykes Theological Commission) is whether a dual franchise in any particular area is either permissible or advantageous.

Here, surely, practical considerations take precedence over mere dogma. It is obvious that a dogmatic approach to the problem, like that of Jane Dixon, can, in the long run, achieve its objective . But at what cost, you must ask yourself? Her achievement will almost certainly involve the demise of the (pre-Revolutionary) parish against which she is struggling, and which, after all, only wants to remain where it was. Is that wise, or even Christian? Jane is worried that Sam Edwards will lead Christ Church Accokeek out of the Episcopal Church. That, of course. is a legitimate concern for any bishop. But only Jane can tell you why the ethical a priori aims of women’s ordination are better served, in the present ecumenical climate, by having opponents of her position outside rather than inside.

The answer which your working party must come up with, Michael, is surely one of inclusion and not exclusion. You have to find a formula which will ensure that what you eventually (and, of course, reservedly) endorse will not effect a sudden and significant reduction in communicant figures or a diminution of real income. And you have to demonstrate that your solution can be seem to be Anglican, in the broadest, and so the best, sense.

You can probably do that. And Forward in Faith will lend you every assistance short of recognising the orders of ordained women.

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