Robbie Low reports on an historic event

The flames of the six candles on the high altar shimmered against the great Pre-Raphaelite reredos. The sun, due south and at its zenith, sparkled through the quiet windows. A couple of dozen clergy in glorious vestments thronged the sanctuary where the candidate lay prostrate throughout the litany. The Veni Creator echoed from the consecrating bishops as they rose to gather prayerfully around the, now kneeling, bishop elect. The hands severally descended upon the close-cropped head of the rosy cheeked and bespectacled figure before them.

‘Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a bishop in the Church of God’

As the chief consecrator continued with his benedictions, one of his colleagues, the Bishop of Rochester, looked up and smiled seraphically at the expectant and excited congregation… and it was done. The first woman in England to be consecrated as bishop stood before us.

At this point, dear reader, you will be wondering whether your correspondent is about to embark on a work of prophecy or has abandoned Lenten abstinence for a none too swift swig on the absinthe. Neither is the case. This event is real and, as always, New Directions likes to be at the cutting edge. Let me explain.

A year ago this magazine published another of its scoops. A woman, we announced, was about to be consecrated. Few believed us but one who did was good old Ruth Gledhilll at The Times. She followed the story, confirmed it and published – thereby, incidentally, delaying the whole business by some months! When it finally happened the Archbishop was kind enough to invite me, as this magazine’s roving reporter, to be present as his personal guest. So it was that on Thursday 10th April I found myself seated in the glorious Chapel of Royal Holloway College, London for this historic event in the life of the Open Episcopal Church and, indeed, all the liberal churches in the England.

Winchester Cathedra

The Open Episcopal Church traces its Apostolic blood line back through Liberal and Old Catholics to a bevy of sixteenth-century cardinals but it rejects utterly the exclusive and authoritarian mores and teaching of old-fashioned Christianity, of which more later. Its bishops comprise two pleasant elderly gentlemen who, when not on episcopal duty, usually worship at the local Forward in Faith Church! They have recently augmented their senior staff by consecrating Jonathan Blake, a priest who proved surplus to Church of England’s requirements and can now be hired for baptisms, weddings etc. ( Blake it is who claims the title Bishop of Rochester.)

The latest consecration however is a real coup because the new ‘bishop’ is one Dr Elizabeth Bridget Augustine Stuart SSB. Liz, a former Roman Catholic, has for years been Professor of Theology at King Alfred’s College, Winchester. Her recent ordination in OEC and now consecration has not gladdened the heart of the Bishop of Winchester. Traditionalists in Winchester are bemused by this. After all the CofE ordains women and will shortly consecrate them and, judging by the senior appointments since 1993, is not over-blessed with articulate, educated, charismatic candidates.

But back to the liturgy!

I knew we were in for the long haul when I received my order of service. I needed help to lift it. We required three-and-a-half hours to perform it! Its liturgical style was Orthodoxy meets Prayer Book meets ‘Celtic’ Christianity meets New Age. Its formality and elaboration were entirely unforced and prayed with a lightness and intimacy. The anointing was spectacular. Dr Stuart’s head was bound and copious quantities of oil poured on her crown and then on her hands, which were similarly bandaged and tied round her neck. She was several minutes in the vestry with a hair dryer before normal service could be resumed.

Twice the fire alarms were set off by glorious clouds of incense and with what exquisite timing. At the Veni Creator and the epiclesis, the Holy Ghost’s fiery presence was given audible reality – the second time with the chapel cleared (apart from the celebrants) and the fire engines in attendance!

All Aboard

The sermon was strong on emotion and painfully weak on theology – Galatians 3.28 got its usual outing. But the degree of OEC’s inclusivity was outlined in those welcome to receive the sacrament. It included Muslims, Jews, atheist, pagans and witches. This was indeed fortunate as I met representatives of the last three categories over tea afterwards.

The offertory was splendid involving the presentation of six fine bottles of claret complete with OEC episcopal seals and a symbolic loaf – amusingly a large Bloomer.

At the end of the marathon we staggered off with the cheering throng of 60 or so congregation to generous refreshments. While my Anglican colleague and I had respectfully excluded ourselves from the sacramental feast (unlike the Anglican women priests present), after three and-a-half hours we had no intention of exercising similar restraint at the buffet. It also gave me a chance to talk to members of the congregation. There was a retired United Reform Minister in a biretta, a youngish man who had been turned down by Anglican selectors because (an exact quote) ‘he is too sacerdotal for the priesthood’ and an elderly Anglican reader who had recently been ordained by OEC.

And a lot of ‘gay’ men.

I ate my sandwiches next to a depressed Anglican who doubted Rowan William’s ability to deliver on inclusivity the way OEC had. Bishop Terry from Wales who was sure he’d seen me at the famous Southwark ‘gay day’. A man whose boyfriend was a server at the consecration and taught half the year at a foreign seminary. He didn’t tell me which server but I guessed correctly that he was the one with the highlights. And if there was a large number of the friends of Dorothy there, it was equally true of the friends of Sappho.

The Open Episcopal Church is very very positive in its rejection of historic Christian moral teaching and utterly inclusive of all sexualities. It was no surprise, therefore, to see two of the leaders of the Church of England’s ‘gay’lobby in attendance. And though they are unlikely to join OEC they have a strong vested interest in the further degradation of the traditional view of gender. What they have, correctly in my assessment, recognized in the OEC is the logical outcome of the theology which has driven the women’s movement so successfully to hijack the CofE.

The Open Episcopal Church may be a small maverick group which will not greatly impact on the Church Universal nor even ecclesia anglicana but consider this. Their argumentation for feminism, gender diversity and sexual inclusivity is not absent from Anglicanism. Indeed it is represented at the highest levels here and in the United States of America and Canada where it is currently tearing the Church apart and excluding traditional believers.

The OECD sees itself as ‘pioneering’. Exactly the same language was used by the protagonists in the 1992 debate. Though, privately, most of them now accept that was a hopeful lie – the Great Communions of East and West will never follow – the Church of England can scarcely criticize OEC for its ‘brave and ground-breaking’ decision, its rejection of Scripture and its carelessness of ecumenical relations. The CofE has already got the T-shirt and we are all condemned to watch the movie.

I left Royal Holloway College, where I had been received warmly and courteously by people with whom I profoundly disagree, and the thought crossed my mind.

It is a pity that all those plotting a similar course for the Church of England were not present. They would have been given an object lesson in how to do it and on the consequences of their theology.

I have seen the future – and it is not Anglican.

Pull Quotes:

Judging by senior appointments since 1993 the CofE is not over blessed with articulate, educated, charismatic candidates.

Those welcomed to the sacrament included Muslims, Jews, atheists, pagans and witches

The C of E has already got the T-shirt and we are all condemned to watch the movie