Sam Philpott on the Women Bishops Shadow Working Party Report

Some years ago, an elderly parishioner of mine was brought from hospital on a home visit by a young social worker who soon picked up on the fact that her patient greatly valued her Christian faith. At the end of the visit, waiting for their transport to arrive, the social worker attempted to make this the subject of a conversation. ‘What do you think of women priests?’ she asked. ‘Not much’ came a rather gruff reply. ‘Why is that?’ enquired the social worker. ‘Because it isn’t in the Gospel!’ came the reply. There was a pause, and then quite quickly and firmly my parishioner followed through with ‘You wouldn’t know what that is, would you?’ Over these last two years the Forward in Faith Working Party has been struggling with precisely that – the GOSPEL. We have been convinced throughout that the business we are about is securing our faithfulness to and unity with the Gospel and the Tradition of the Church.

A report to Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher in 1947 (Catholicity: Study in the Conflict of Christian Traditions in the West) is apposite. I want to share three quotations with you. The first of these is:

To be a Christian was to belong to the one Body, to hold the one apostolic faith, to share in the one visible series of sacramental rites, to be under the rule of one apostolate, to know the unity of the two covenants, and of God as Father, Saviour and Creator… If theologians are not agreed from the outset in believing the Church is part of a Divine fact prior to the individuals who compose its membership, in believing its outward order to be part of its being, in affirming the unity of the faith, in recognising the authority of Tradition together with that of Scripture, then they have not reached agreement about the first principles of the unity they are seeking (page 15).

The task we had been set was to explore whether or not a woman can be a bishop, and it is to both Gospel and Tradition we must look because we are not dealing with what we would like or not like, but what God in Christ had given It is in the Gospel and in the Tradition that we discover the self-revealing God who makes himself known to us in Jesus Christ. Here we encounter God who lovingly invites men and women, both young and old into what Archbishop Rowan has recently called the ‘space where God has cleared away the brambles’. You and I know that space by its more familiar name – it is, of course, the Church. Note the truth of which Catholicity when describing the Church: she is ‘part of a Divine fact prior to the individuals who compose its membership’ (page 15).

Again, the Report has a quotation from Archbishop Frederick Temple, preaching at the consecration of Truro Cathedral in which he tells his hearers,

Men speak as if Christians came first and the Church after: as if the origin of the Church was in the wills of the individuals who composed it. But, on the contrary, throughout the teaching of the Apostles, we see it is the Church that comes first, and the members of it afterwards … the Church takes its origin not in the will of man, but in the will of the Lord Jesus Christ (page 11).

The Church is indeed that space where God has cleared away the brambles but she is his space and taking up his invitation to live within her, we accept that she is as Christ wills her to be.

And lastly, Michael Ramsey and his co-authors, surveying the impact of Renaissance/Liberalism, writes

iii. … the recognition of the human factor in the Bible was accompanied by the tendency to employ canons of interpretation fatal to the understanding of the Bible as the word of the living God. And the new attention to the Divine operation in the evolution of nature and man, while it had the merit of recovering a forgotten aspect of primitive theology, opened the way to a doctrine in which the uniformity of nature ousts the Biblical conception of the living God, and the certainty of human progress ousts the belief that God is Judge. These doctrines are the ugly nemesis of Renaissance perceptions divorced from those which Catholic and Protestant have preserved.

For the achievements of Liberal scholarship took place amid a constant infiltration of notions which tended to make man rather than God the centre of the picture … the basing of the Christian attitude to Jesus upon ‘value-judgement’ has carried with it not our submission to Him in His claim upon us, but our submitting of Him to our own ideas of moral value as we pick out what fits our own moral ideology and reject the rest as ‘husk’ (pages 29–31).

If this is where we have arrived in our attitude to the things of God, is it surprising that at some point, such as happened in 1992, a provincial synod, dominated by such an approach to Gospel, Tradition and Church acts by majority vote to change what God has given and ordered? God’s space has become my space and, I can and will order my space in any way I choose and especially is such manner as I find most congenial.

Our Working Party’s approach has been that of the faithful Catholic Christian. We accept that Scripture and Tradition are in harmony one with the other; the Church is a divine fact before you and I were ever on the scene, and we have employed an approach to Scripture that commands our submission to the Christ who is our Saviour and Judge, and not his submission to us and our own ideologies.

In this task, we have been ably assisted by our ecumenical members, Fr Aidan Nichols OP and Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, and we are grateful for their wisdom and insights. The orginal group also included: Sara Low, the Bishop of Fulham, the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, Fr Jonathan Baker, Fr Geoffrey Kirk, Brian Hanson, Stephen Parkinson and myself. They have all stayed the course.

The group has received visitors who have helped us too – the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of Chichester, Revd John Richardson, Fr John Hunwicke, Canon John Halliburton (via a Paper), Archdeacon Williams of the Church in Wales, and Fr Arthur Middleton (whose Paper we have yet to consider in depth). Fr Hunwicke so impressed us that we pressed him into service as a member of our group! They, together with members of our Working Party, have helped as we explored Scripture, the Fathers and the Anglican Divines.

In addition, we have read papers by the Bishop of Rochester (Chairman of the General Synod Working Party), Bishop Stephen Sykes and Dr Mary Tanner.

The Bishops of Fulham and Ebbsfleet have enabled us to look at the models of episcopacy in which they are presently following as they serve the traditionalist members of the Church of England.

As in other matters upon which it decides, so in this, we are faced with the consequences of the actions of others, especially General Synod. The Synod has a Working party on Women and Episcopate, chaired by Bishop Michael of Rochester, which is expected to report to the House of Bishops in the Spring of 2004. This is paralleled by an increasing number of motions being received by General Synod from diocesan synods demanding action to consecrate women now. Some demand the repeal of the Episcopal Act of Synod.

When the Church of England is able in law to consecrate a woman as bishop (and that is an inevitable outcome), where will that leave us? Much has already been written about the inevitable inadequacy of the provisions of the Episcopal Act of Synod. It simply will not meet our needs when every ordination, male as well as female, by a woman bishop is not recognized by us. What, if anything, is to be put in its place?

Our Working Party has a sister group which has been working on thinking through the provision that will be required if traditional members of the Church of England are to remain in some way within the church of their baptism. Their contribution will form part 2 of the Report we intend to publish in order to contribute the forthcoming debate. Our Report will state unequivocally where we stand in this matter and that we refuse to be moved. It is our prayer that all those committed to the traditional understanding of the Catholic Faith will wish to stand with us.

Our Report will be in draft form quite soon now. Publication is dependent upon the process of sharing it with others that we are obliged to follow, for sake of courtesy if for no other reason, before putting it in the public arena. We have an obligation of thanksgiving to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and the Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain. And, although increasingly ill at ease within it, we are members of the Church of England and we owe a courteous respect to Archbishop Rowan and, in my own view, to Bishop Carey whom I always found to be as supportive of us as his own position in this matter would allow. Then it will need to be received by Forward in Faith, both the National Council and the National Assembly. This may seem a tediously long time to wait but, on behalf of our Working Party, I promise that we shall act as expeditiously as a serious attitude to these things allow.