A second open letter from Geoffrey Kirk to Michael Nazir-Ali

Dear Michael,

I am just back from the Brisbane meeting of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia (where the Women Bishops legislation came well short of the required majorities), and I have been reflecting on the implications for your Commission of the recent Australian experience.

The Australian debate (as Bishop Forsyth of North Sydney pointed out on the floor of the chamber) has served to emphasise the deep divisions and polarities which now exist over and around this issue. Forsyth even openly questioned whether either side would any longer find itself able to abide by a definitive decision even if one could be reached. One wonders, in consequence to whom the conclusions of your Commission’s deliberation will be addressed. Who will be persuaded by them? Indeed, who remains to be persuaded?

Three groups emerged in the course of the Australian debate.

The first group (the Liberal Revisionists) was represented by the indefatigable Dr Muriel Porter, the proposer of the motion. She based her arguments on natural justice and necessary equality. She was no longer open to theological arguments. They had been settled long ago, she claimed, by the Synod vote that there are ‘no theological objections’ to the ordination of women as priests and bishops. She appealed to that vote as decisive and definitive – which for anyone who supposes that theological questions can be settled by majority votes in Synods, it presumably is. Your Commission would have the greatest difficulty, I suspect, in persuading Muriel and her friends of the need to revisit the theological arguments. Theological arguments are in any case largely irrelevant to the case they are making.

The second group (the Conservative Evangelicals – a powerful party which is practically extinct in England) was represented by Dr Ann Young, the opposer of the motion (and, from the floor of the chamber by Dr Robert Doyle and Canon Bruce Ballantine-Jones). These people are convinced that a plain reading of scripture renders the innovation a non-starter. Fidelity to scripture, in their opinion, trumps both the a priori ethical arguments and all ecclesiological considerations. Your Commission would not get very far with them either.

The third group (the Traditional Catholics) represented in Brisbane by Bishops David Silk and David Farrer, agree with the Conservative Evangelicals about the decisive evidence of Scripture (which it reinforces with an appeal to the unvarying two-thousand year tradition.) They add, by way of a clincher, that Anglican Provinces (or in the mad ecclesiology of the Australian Church, dioceses) have no more authority to make unilateral changes in the apostolic ministry than they have to vary the canon of scripture or to alter the Catholic Creeds. So not much ground for theological persuasion there either!

It may be that a fourth group exists, one which took a low profile in Brisbane – the Procrastination Lobby. Their spokesman in Australia, until he rose to (?) higher things was Peter Hollingworth, former Archbishop of Brisbane. This group is persuaded that the consecration of women is either desirable or inevitable, but that it will be achieved less painfully and divisively if it is delayed until the opposition has dwindled somewhat. I can see that your Commission might furnish this group with useful ammunition. But would you want to? Can a Commission which was appointed for its ‘theological expertise’ set about prostituting theological principle to political expediency? Only the members of the Commission themselves can decide.

So what, one is bound to ask, can your Commission hope to achieve? What issues remain open? What questions remain unanswered? There are, I think, two major questions, arising from the debates in Brisbane, to which you might put your collective mind:

i) When an Anglican Province ordains women as bishops, what are they bishops of?

ii) Can there be such a thing as a ‘provisional’ bishop?

In the case of male bishops, the answer to the first question has traditionally been that they are, in order of geographical extent, bishops of the Catholic Church, bishops of the Anglican Communion, and bishops of the Church of England (Anglican Church of Australia, Episcopal Church of the USA etc etc) But, in the case of women bishops, none of these traditional assertions seems to hold good.

It does not seem that a woman bishop can, with any degree of credibility be described as a ‘bishop of the Church Catholic’. Whatever line one takes about the on-going arguments in Apostolicae Curae and Saepius Officio, it is clear that 1992 effected a momentous change. The letters of Pope John Paul, the Ecumenical Patriarch and Cardinal Willebrands to Archbishop Robert Runcie made absolutely clear that the Roman and Orthodox Churches do not regard themselves as authorized to make the change which the Church of England was proposing. That change seriously affected the prospects of the reconciliation of orders. The Roman Church has since expanded on the position expressed in those letters, and in Inter Insigniores, with what appears to be a definitive statement.

It is one thing to argue about the efficacy of rites and about sufficiency of intention. It is quite another for a Church body claiming to share the orders of the undivided church to make changes in those orders which breach the unbroken tradition of twenty centuries and are plainly unacceptable to the great churches of East and West. It must be a serious question whether such a Church can continue to claim that its orders are those of the whole Church – clearly they are not so historically and cannot reasonably be argued to be so presently. To claim otherwise might fairly be accused of lending credence to the popular definition of ‘theological’ as meaning ‘arcane, abstruse and irrelevant’.

Nor can women bishops with any accuracy, I think, be described as ‘bishops of the Anglican Communion’.

In its ecumenical dealings with other Churches the Church of England has consistently declared its goal to be ‘full visible unity’, which the Fetter Lane Agreement with English Moravians takes to include ‘the service of a reconciled common ministry’. It is obvious, however that such a common ministry no longer exists among Anglicans themselves. They have, instead, a recently unreconciled ministry. There are priests and bishops in some provinces who are not accepted as priests and bishops in others. These include women priests, women bishops, male priests ordained by women bishops and male bishops consecrated by women bishops.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, by the curious expedient of operating in different provinces according to the canons of those provinces and not of his own (by what authority, one might reasonably ask, in a fellowship of equal and autonomous provinces?), manages to give the appearance of being a unifying factor. But, of course, were the Archbishop of Canterbury to be a woman that would no longer be the case.

It must surely be a question whether this loose association of independent churches can still usefully be called a ‘Communion’. To call someone a ‘bishop of the Anglican Communion’ would surely be to make claims about the mutual recognition of orders within such a koinionia which the observable facts will no longer sustain.

All this, of course, was made abundantly clear to those of us in Brisbane, in the case of the Australian Anglican Church, whose Constitution allows what amounts to diocesan autonomy in both orders and doctrine. So (as things stand – and show every robust sign of continuing) a woman priest of the Diocese of Melbourne is not a priest in the Diocese of Ballarat, and a female Archbishop of Perth would not be regarded as a priest or bishop in the Diocese of Sydney.

Whether a woman ordained under any Act of Parliament which can presently be envisaged could be described as ‘of the Church of England’ is, I believe, equally questionable – for many of the anomalies of the Australian situation are found, in a different form, in the Church of England.

Canon A4 states that the Ordinal ‘annexed to the Book of Common Prayer is not repugnant to the Word of God; and those who are so made, ordained or consecrated … ought to be accounted both by themselves and others, to be truly bishops, priests, or deacons.’ But Schedules A and B of the 1993 legislation to ordain women go some considerable way to undermining that Canon, and the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod effectively suspends it for the duration.

In cash terms this means that no woman bishop would necessarily be recognized as such by all in her diocese. She would not, of necessity, be the ‘principal minister’ of her diocese (in the meaning of Canon C18.4); nor would she necessarily be its ‘focus of unity’. The provision of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors, moreover, (whose raison d’être is to represent precisely those who do not and cannot obey the relevant Canon) renders it impossible that she should be in unimpaired communion with the whole English college of bishops (even were the appointments system effectively to block diocesans opposed – which the Act of Synod pledges it will not).

Unless the 1993 Measure were amended, the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod repealed, the Provincial Episcopal Visitors reduced to presbyteral status, and Canon A4 rigourously enforced (all or any of which seems unlikely), a woman bishop would not be a bishop ‘of the Church of England’, but merely a bishop (in the Church of England) for those who like that sort of thing.

The second question for your Commission obviously relates to the first.

Many on both sides of the divide over women’s ordination and consecration greeted the language of ‘reception’ and ‘provisionality’ (which was the stock in trade of the Eames Commission) with relief. It seemed to offer a formula which would diffuse current tensions. But many (on both sides of the divide) also saw the problems which those notions laid in store. Those problems are considerable in the matter of women priests (as those ordained under the 1993 legislation have justifiably complained). They are near intolerable when one comes to consider the consecration of women as bishops (as recent events in Maryland have made plain).

There are three main features to the Eames proposals. Eames accepts that to the ordination of women to the episcopate and the presbyterate there is ‘a degree of provisionally’. It further assumes that the juridical and sacramental functions of the episcopate can be separated in such a way that the sacramental functions can be exercised by one person and the juridical and legal by another (always providing that some degree of communion can be maintained between the two). And finally it assumes that parishes who cannot accept the sacramental ministry of women bishops will nevertheless be prepared to accept their juridical and legal authority.

All of these assumptions are obviously questionable.

No one will (or can) deny that a change to the unvarying practice of the Church, unilaterally undertaken by a body within it representing fewer than a million communicants, has a ‘degree of provisionality’. But that is not the point. The point is that the orders of the Catholic Church exist to be the opposite of ‘provisional’. They exist to be an assurance of the authenticity of doctrine and the validity of sacraments. (Hence Canon A4 and Saepius Officio.) In consequence, as Bishop Kenneth Kirk pointed out in a paper for the Church Assembly in the 1950s, and Cardinal Willibrands repeated to Archbishop Runcie in 1985, the Church has a solemn obligation, where the sacrament of orders is concerned, always to take the least doubtful course. There is something almost wilfully frivolous about a Church which inaugurates orders in which it admits that it cannot place wholehearted confidence.

Nor is it at all clear that the division of the episcopal role into its sacramental and juridical functions (exercised, as Eames allows, by separate people) is either rational or desirable. It is obviously invidious from the point of view of the women who want to be bishops. To be accorded the role of Chief Executive Officer of a diocese is no consolation prize for being denied the role of Father-in-God. Such ad feminem objections apart, however, it could well be argued, that the office of bishop exists precisely to unite those two functions within the body of Christ. Within each diocese and in the one person, the bishop figures (as Ignatius of Antioch might have put it) both the prevenient grace and the terrible justice of the Father. Law, within the community of the redeemed, is administered by the Servus Servorum Dei: the one who judges is the one who has also washed feet. Catholic people will always want to be judged by those by whom they have been nurtured. That is the point of it all. No one could ever suppose himself excommunicated by a Chief Executive Officer.

Which is why the third assumption underlying the Eames Reports is so wide of the mark. The suggestion that catholic Christians will gratefully accept an unprincipled emasculation of real episcopacy is at best optimistic and at worst insulting.

Of course, you will accuse me, Michael, of the old Synodical ploy of never asking a question to which one does not already have the answer. And of course you would be right. But the point is that we all have our own answers to these questions. We have been pondering them, for God’s sake, for forty years. I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to assess the theological weight of your Commission. What I can say, without fear of contradiction, is that it is unlikely, at this stage, to prove so deep and so inventive that it can come up with arguments which have not already been given a long run for their money.

But go for it! That, after all, is all you can do.

Yours as ever,