Absolutely Null and Utterly Void?

In 1975 the General Synod of the Church of England voted that ‘there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood.’ In July 2000 the Venerable Judith Rose put forward a private member’s motion (that ‘the House of Bishops initiate further theological study on the episcopate, focusing on the issues that need to be addressed in preparation for the debate on women in the episcopate in the Church of England.’) The motion received a large synodical majority. Members of the Synod were clearly prepared to admit in 2000 a possibility they had dismissed in 1975: that there are or might be ‘fundamental objections’. In this new situation it is important to ask what these anticipated objections might be.

We believe that ‘fundamental objections’ arise from the very nature and purpose of Holy Orders themselves. And we think that Archdeacon Rose was right in guessing that those objections are centred on the role and work of a bishop.

So what are Orders for?

Of course bishops, priests and deacons perform many offices and functions which are not strictly diaconal, priestly or episcopal. They visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, advise and encourage the doubting, seek out the lapsed and preach the gospel to all who will hear. These are the vocation of every Christian. Clergy, in these ways, are exercising the ministry of all the baptized – the priesthood of the whole people of God.

In two things, however, the ministerial priesthood is significantly different. It exists, first, to assure the faithful of the validity of the sacraments and, second, to be an efficacious sign of true communion or koinonia. These are not two discrete characteristics. They are intimately related and necessarily interdependent.

Sacraments have a direct and intimate connection with Jesus himself. In the Eucharist we receive, in substantial reality, his body and his blood; in baptism we are enabled to appropriate the Lord’s Paschal mystery, sharing in his death and rising with him to new and eternal life. The command of Jesus to ‘do this for the anamnesis of me’ has been faithfully obeyed through all the ages. Sacraments are a memorial of saving events. Their signs are linked to those events. They are necessarily relative to one culture and one civilization; but they are destined to be reproduced everywhere until the end of time.

In all this, continuity is of the essence. Clement of Rome (fl. c96), writing to the Corinthians explained the nature of apostolic succession at its very beginning:

‘The apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was God’s ambassador. Thus Christ is sent from God and the apostles from Christ; both these dispositions originated in an orderly way from the will of God.’ (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol 1, p16)

When Vincent of Lerins (d c450) formulated his ‘canon’ of catholicity ‘quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus’ (always, everywhere and by all) his words had particular resonance with regard to Holy Orders. For the assurance to the faithful of the authenticity of sacraments arises from historical continuity and geographical extension. The ministerial priesthood is an intentional continuation from the apostles’ time and, in unity, integrity and interchangeabilty, extends throughout the known world.

The principle of continuity is famously asserted in the Prayer Book Ordinal as a self-evident truth: ‘It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy scripture and ancient authors…’ And the principle of the equivalence and interchangeability of orders within and between dioceses is affirmed as axiomatic in the Church of England’s Canon A4: ‘ought to be accounted, both by themselves and others, to be truly bishops, priests and deacons’.

The 1993 legislation in the Church of England to ordain women wilfully transgressed both these principles. The schedules to the Measure effectively suspended Canon A4, and the rationale behind those schedules (the so-called ‘doctrine of reception’) licensed a degree of experimentation plainly incompatible with the intention to continue a ministry received ‘from the Apostles’ time’. (As Bishop Kenneth Kirk pointed out, in a paper for the Church Assembly in 1947, where sacraments are concerned the principle of continuity dictates that the Church should take always the surest and most certain course.)

The seriousness of all this becomes the more apparent when we come to consider the ordination of women as bishops. The Cameron Report (the Report of the Archbishops’ Group on the Episcopate 1990) speaks of the local Church, the Church throughout the world and the Church through the ages as the three ‘planes’ of the Church’s life (p21 and passim), and shows how the ministry of the Bishop is crucial to each:

In the local church the bishop focuses and nurtures the unity of his people; in his sharing in the collegiality of bishops the local church is bound together with other local churches; and through the succession of bishops the local community is related to the church through the ages. The bishop in his own person in his diocese; and in his collegial relations in the wider church; and through his place in the succession of bishops in their communities in faithfulness to the gospel, is a sign and focus of the unity of the Church (160, para 351).

It is obvious to the most casual observer that the mechanisms by which women’s ordination was achieved in the Anglican Communion – provincial autonomy and the doctrine of reception – are incompatible with such an understanding of episcopacy. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said in another but not unrelated context: ‘There is an obvious problem in the consecration of a bishop whose ministry will not be readily received by a significant proportion of Christians in England and elsewhere’ (Statement immediately following the withdrawal of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading, July 6, 2003).

The ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate in the Anglican Communion was achieved at the exorbitant expense of a catholic understanding of Holy Orders themselves. It is the supreme paradox that the means adopted to achieve it has denied to those women precisely the orders to which they aspired. The schedules of the 1993 Measure make it quite clear that theirs are not the indubitable orders which the canons envisage, and the ‘doctrine of reception’ confirms that fact. Provincial autonomy ensures that the orders of priest and bishop conferred on women do not and cannot have the universality which the Cameron Report asserts to be part of their essential nature and purpose.

Holy Orders in the Church of England prior to 1993 could and did (whatever Rome or Orthodoxy said about them!) claim an authenticity deriving from their apostolic origin. The orders introduced in 1993 can claim only the authority of the British Parliament, such as that is.