I think we need to grasp, first of all, the seriousness of the situation that is before us. For many Christians women’s ordination attacks and impinges upon the doctrines of God, Christ, Man, and the Church. CS Lewis was not exaggerating when he wrote ‘if all the proposals (to have female priests) were ever carried into effect we should have embarked upon a different religion’.
In the way Lewis developed his argument it is clear that he had learned much from Richard Hooker who, writing in the 1590s, asked ‘how shall men dispense with nature and make them ministers of holy things, seeing this unskillfulness is part of the Grecians impiety, which for the sake of women goddesses have women priests?’ Hooker’s suggestion that any Christian Church that embraced female presbyters was well on the road to apostasy is being borne out before our very eyes as we contemplate Western Anglicanism. I think that we can all agree that ECUSA today and the Church of England tomorrow (unless she alters course) will bear very few recognizable marks of an authentic Christian body.
It is already the case in England that anyone who opposes the unscriptural development of female presbyters will ever be elevated to the house of bishops and it is only a matter of time before no presbyters of similar views will be ordained either.
Rooted and grounded
It is quite true that as Evangelicals contemplate the doctrinal disarray and lawlessness within the Church of England to be harping on about female presbyteral ministry may seem rather like tilting at windmills. But nothing is to be gained by arguing that female presbyteral ministry is only a second order issue. Suppose for a moment that we did. We would then be in the invidious position of having to argue that it is perfectly all right for a Church to be a little bit disobedient to Scripture. If the Church were willing only to be a little bit disobedient to the living and active Word of God that is sharper than any two edged sword, than we as Evangelicals is willing to tolerate this state of affairs and will do absolutely…nothing.
We should be ashamed of ourselves. For the Church has to be grounded and rooted in Scripture.
Article 6 of the Church of England states: ‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby is not to be required of any man.’
Article 20 reads:
‘The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another.’
The whole counsel of God
Moreover, presbyters are asked to be ready ‘with all faithful diligence to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word’. This is serious. Often it is said by Evangelicals that they will stay in the Church of England so long as they are free to preach the gospel. But what is meant by the gospel? Consider Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. There Paul makes a most startling statement. He declares, ‘I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to declare unto you the whole counsel of God’. If we want to be innocent of the blood of all men, we also are to declare the ‘whole counsel of God’. And surely declaration means not only standing up in our pulpits declaring the whole counsel of God but also living it out in our lives. In other words, by distancing ourselves from bishops (and others) who are flouting the authority of Scripture by overturning God’s order in creation and God’s order in the Church by investing women with prebyteral power and authority.
An end to toleration
I think we all need to understand that dissent on this issue will not be tolerated in the long run. This is inevitably the case because what in the Act of Synod effectively does is to undermine one of the cardinal theological and legal sinews of the Church of England.
Canon A4 to which all clergy must assent reads as follows:
‘the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests and Deacons…is not repugnant to the Word of God; and those so made, ordained or consecrated Bishops, Priests, or Deacons, according to the said Ordinal, are lawfully made, ordained or consecrated, and ought to be accounted, both by themselves and others, to be truly Bishops, Priests or Deacons.’
Allow me to quote Calvin. Writing in Book 4 of The Institutes Calvin asserts that ‘the ministry of men, which God employs in governing the Church, is a principal bond by which believers are kept together in one body… [therefore] whoever studies to abolish this order or disparages it as of minor importance, plots the devastation, or rather the ruin and destruction of the Church’.
Little wonder then that since November 11th 1992 no new bishops have been consecrated that hold to the biblical line on this issue apart from the three Flying Bishops and Bishop Wallace Benn, the Suffragan Bishop of Lewes in the orthodox Diocese of Chichester. As the English House of Bishops wrote in their First Report ‘once a province has expressed its mind in favour of women to the priesthood and proceeded so to ordain women it would be anomalous to appoint a bishop who was actively opposed to the mind of the province, and in particular opposed to the common mind of the college of bishops. A common mind on the understanding of the ministry, the bond of communion, is essential within the college of bishops if the unity of the ministry and thus of the Church is to be maintained.’
So what are we to do? I do not think that we can sit back and do nothing. For Evangelicals female presbyteral ordination strikes at the heart of Biblical authority and if the Church of England is prepared, through specious exegesis, to overturn the authority of Scripture on this issue she will also be prepared to overturn the authority of Scripture on other issues as well.
The way forward is clear. By all means let us argue for an extension of the ministry of the Flying Bishops but let us also as Evangelicals begin to start using them. I and my four parishes in Devon all appealed to the Bishop of Exeter to come under the superb and orthodox Episcopal care of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet. And it was just as well we did. For when I left Exeter Diocese, if it had not been for the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, I doubt very much if a Reform-type of Evangelical would have ever replaced me. And I dare say the same is true of you. We need Flying Bishops protect our parishes.
Let me close by quoting from one of Roger Beckwith’s papers written, I think, in late 1992. Roger wrote then:
‘We must not plan negatively, just for breathing space till we die or leave the Church of England, but for a permanent future within the Church of England, and indeed for a campaign to bring the whole Church of England, in time, back to its right mind, on this and many other matters.’
I believe that we who are clergy in Reform must go back to our parishes. We must explain to them that the crisis overtaking the Church is as deep and as momentous as anything since the Reformation and that we are fighting to uphold nothing less and nothing more than the authority of Scripture and the whole counsel of God. We must all then plan to come under the Flying Bishops by passing Resolution C. We will thereby have formed ourselves into a coherent ecclesial body. We will have our bishops, our clergy, our parishes and our people and our money welded together. And from this position we will be in an almost unassailable footing to press for further reform or, should we need to, to press Parliament for a third, non-geographical, province. But we must act quickly. We have window of opportunity before us now. But it will soon be gone. For in order to create female bishops, which is inevitable, all concessions that have been granted us so far will need to be withdrawn.