Back to the Future

As the Church of England moves towards the formal debate about women in the episcopate there are a number of options for the way forward. This month we examine perhaps the most radical of those options: a decision to cease ordaining women.

It is hard to say precisely what was meant when it was claimed that with the ordination of women to the priesthood the Church of England had entered upon an ‘open period of reception’. People on both sides of the argument understandably asked how anyone would know when the period had ended, and the matter could be taken to have been resolved. Answers were various.

Reception, about which a series of essays has just been published (Seeking the Truth of Change in the Church, Continuum, ISBN 0 567 08884 7), can seem abstract, almost ethereal. It needs to be earthed in the actual experience of a Christian community. So how has the Church of England fared with women’s ordination? Has opposition dwindled? Have the hopes of proponents been fulfilled? Have women priests themselves found the experience enriching? Have there been any unexpected ‘side-effects’?

It is clear that the opposition has not dwindled in the last ten years. Instead, it has firmed up and grown. Parishes seeking the episcopal care of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, for example, have increased from eighty in 1993 to one hundred and twenty in 2004. Despite substantial and continuing losses to Rome, the membership of Forward in Faith has continued to grow during the same period.

The hopes of proponents meanwhile await fulfilment. The decline in numbers of the Church of England, which it was claimed would be halted, has continued apace and perhaps accelerated. Whether the perceived ‘relevance’ of the Church to contemporary secular society has increased is hard to say, and would in all circumstances be disputed.

The experience of women priests varies. Calls are naturally being made for a ‘celebration’ of the first ten years. At the same time reports emanating from various women’s groups show a remarkable level of discontent. This is naturally attributed by those groups to male prejudice. But it does not take much imagination or insight to see that there are problems which cannot plausibly be attributed simply to the attitudes of male colleagues.

The side-effects of women’s ordination (apparent to their full extent only when the ordination of women to the episcopate is contemplated) have been enormous. Provincial autonomy in the matter of orders and the shape of the 1993 Measure have together conspired to mutilate the sacred ministry as Anglicans had received it. No longer are the orders of all acceptable to all, in the Church of England or across the Communion. The Lambeth Conference has been turned from a collegial gathering of bishops to a consultative group of church leaders, and has diminished in stature and effectiveness accordingly. The principal of autonomy, adapted to serve the cause of women’s ordination, is proving equally adaptable to other areas of the liberal agenda. The Communion is in crisis, the principal cause of which is the ordination of women and the manner in which it was approached and achieved.

Can Pandora’s box be closed?

That hope, always inherent in the notion of ‘reception’, cannot now be dismissed. A consideration of the theological and ecclesiological implications of women in the episcopate must surely conclude that women bishops will further impair the role of the episcopate as an effective sign of unity and communion on all three ‘planes’ outlined so recently by the Cameron Report (‘Report of the Archbishops’ Group on the Episcopate’, 1990, p169, para 351). The only way forward, on reflection, may be back to the future.

To phase out the ordination of women to the priesthood now would, of course, be to court a degree of unrest and disruption on the part of those for whom the priesthood of women is self-evidently an issue of justice. Against that must be measured the equal and opposite disruption which would as certainly result from a one-clause measure to ordain women to the episcopate (which alone could satisfy the a priori ethical demands of the activists). The majority, in the Church of England, it should be remembered, has never felt passionately about this issue.

The advantages of a reversal of policy for the Church of England, ecumenically and in its relations with the majority of provinces in the Communion, would be incalculable. It would be a positive sign in relations with the two great churches of East and West, a sign to other Anglicans that the disintegration of world-wide Anglicanism is neither necessary nor unavoidable, and a witness to Anglicans in the global South that the Mother Church takes seriously the admonitions of scripture as the tradition has consistently interpreted them.

These, in the present unhappy circumstances of the Communion, are rich prizes to be gained.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham, in the diocese of Southwark and National secretary of Forward in Faith