Geoffrey Kirk on which way to turn

With the priests Ordination of Women Measure 1993 and its attendant Act of Synod, the Church of England entered upon what its own documents describe as an ‘open period of reception’ of the new ministry. Archdeacon Judith Rose’s motion, which was passed by the General Synod in July 2000 marked a milestone in that journey. It asked the House of Bishops to ‘initiate further theological study on the episcopate, focussing on the issues that need to be addressed in preparation for the debate on women in the episcopate in the Church of England.’

The Commission which resulted from (often known as the Rochester Commission from its chairman, the Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester) will produce, in due time, the first official theological statement on the ordination of women since the House of Bishops Second Report (GS829) in 1982.

With the final publication of the Report – which is already available to the Bishops in draft – a number of options will lie before the Church. In a series of articles over the next months, New Directions will look at those options one by one, assess them both theologically and politically, and encourage our readers to come to a conclusion for themselves. But first of all the options need to be stated in their naked simplicity, and the ground staked out for further analysis.

The first option, of course, is to declare the open period of reception for women’s ordination at an end and the experiment to have failed.

This may be a little beyond the bounds of Anglican probability, but if the notion of ‘reception’ is to be taken as anything more than empty rhetoric, it has to be conceded that the Rochester Commission could (as a result of further deep theological reflection) come to agree with the Vatican and the Phanar, that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood or the episcopate. Like the Lutheran Church of Latvia and the Presbyterian Church of Australia, it would then cease to ordain women to the priesthood.

A second option would be to maintain the status quo, where women can be priests but not bishops.

Such an option would leave the period of reception open. It would frankly admit that to ordain women to the episcopate rendered women’s ordination practically irreversible. It would allow for the theological uncertainties which still remain. It would preclude, for the foreseeable future, a female Archbishop of Canterbury (thus avoiding further destabilization of the Anglican Communion at a time of increasing unrest).

Some might hold that there are fundamental theological reasons why women may be priests but not bishops – reasons related to the role of bishops as instruments of unity within and between dioceses, not only at home, but across the world; reasons connected to the doctrine of male headship; and reasons related to the history of the origins and development of the two orders, which might be held to render them separate and distinct.

To continue status quo would not, of course, end dispute about women in orders. Rather, it would be to allow space for the continuance of debate. It could not in the nature of things satisfy those for whom the ordination of women in 1992 was a tragic misjudgement. Nor those for whom the ordination of women in all three orders is an ethical a priori objective. It would do little if anything to improve relations with Rome and Constantinople. It would retain a major stumbling block to Methodist reunion.

A third option would be single clause legislation with no provision for dissent.

This option might be thought to follow logically from the General Synod vote in 1975 ‘that there are no fundamental objections of the ordination of women to the priesthood’. It would be attractive to those who view the whole matter as one of justice and human rights and who are already impatient with the Act of Synod. It would have the advantage of relative legislative simplicity. It would maintain the integrity of the bishop’s office and the geographical integrity of existing Church of England dioceses.

Such an option, of course, would be radically unacceptable to opponents. It would force them into conscientious law-breaking on a scale hitherto unknown in the Church of England. It would place in an invidious position those bishops (the PEVs) whom the Church of England has ordained and commissioned especially to pastor and care for opponents.

A fourth option would be that women could be admitted to the episcopate, but precluded from the office of Archbishop.

This would not be immediately attractive to those who see the issue as one of human rights; but, in the way in which they put up with the schedules to the 1993 Measure, they might see it as the least of all possible ills. It would gain them substantially what they wanted, until the prohibition could be overturned.

The option might, moreover, prove attractive to those Evangelicals for whom ‘headship’ is an infinitely receding principle. They could (just) argue that headship in the CofE was still male! It would possibly help sustain the unity of the Anglican Communion in the short term – if other gender- and sex-related issues did not fracture it sooner. It is hard to see how it would help those opposed to the consecration of women in theological grounds. Nor are ‘glass ceilings’ attractive to WATCH and GRAS.

A fifth option would be to appoint women as suffragans, but not diocesans.

Such an approach would have all the advantages and disadvantages of the fourth option, with the additional disadvantage that the glass ceiling for women would be set far lower. For Catholic Anglicans it would raise serious questions about the episcopal credentials of a new kind of minister – one who acted like a bishop, but who could not in principle be preferred as a diocesan.

A sixth option would be to restructure episcopacy in such a way that it would become a ‘team’ activity, with both men and women in each diocesan ‘team’. The notion would be that parishes could set up a ‘special relationship’ with those members of the team who fitted their theology or predilections.

This radical idea derives from the world of ecumenical encounter, where ‘episcope’ increasingly replaces ‘episcopacy’ as the preferred term. It has the difficulty that it reverses the traditional monarchical view of the episcopate, with its origins in the first century, which sees the bishop (singular) as an icon of God the Father. It would also, almost inevitably, create problems of primacy within the team – should the ‘lead’ bishop be male or female?

Those for whom girl-power is the primary aim would be unlikely to find this version of co-operative ministry very attractive. For those opposed it might well be seen simply as a rejection of episcopacy as the Church has received it.

A seventh option would be to adapt and expand the present provision of extended episcopal oversight.

This might be done in a number of ways. Each diocese might maintain at least one male bishop opposed to the ordination of women who would minister to dissentients. If it was objected that such a bishop would necessarily be in unimpaired communion with a female diocesan, it might be arranged that he reported instead to a male Archbishop.

Various arrangements of this kind have been proposed in Australia. Thus far they have proved singularly unpopular with the proponents of women bishops and little more in favour with those opposed. Their sole effect has been to slow down the process toward female consecrations.

The question for the Church of England would be the extent to which such bishops would usurp the juridical rights and sacramental authority of diocesans. To satisfy opponents they would need to do so to a considerable extent (at the very least to have rights to select and ordain candidates for the ministry and to have their own ecumenical priorities). Proponents would probably denounce such arrangements as a tantamount to a new Province.

An eighth option would be the creation of a new Province of the Anglican Communion, parallel to the existing provinces of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, with orders separate and distinct from those of the Provinces of Canterbury and York.

Such a province would have all the independence and autonomy presently allowed to Anglican provinces, together with its own Provincial Synod or Governing Body. It would be created by Measure. Parishes would enter and leave it by Schedules to the Measure not unlike those in the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993. Parishes which so voted would be withdrawn, both sacramentally and juridically from the Church of England dioceses of which they had previously been part.

This option would have the advantage of continuing the ‘process of reception’ to which the Church of England is committed. It would allow time (on the Gamaliel principle) to decide which opinion would prosper.

Such an arrangement would almost certainly prove extremely unpopular with proponents. But on further reflection they might begin to see that it had distinct advantages for them. It would remove dissentients from the life of the Church of England, which could then operate without the various degrees of discrimination against women priests and bishops which the other options would involve. It would remove from the General Synod the irritant of a sizeable party intractably opposed to further innovation. It would allow the Church of England to pursue the Methodist reunion programme and other ecumenical projects without let or hindrance.

A New Province, moreover, would involve no ecclesiological innovation which the Anglican Communion has not already embraced in order to facilitate the ordination of women as priests and bishops.

Such a list of options may seem long, and the choices hard. But getting it right is imperative if legislation is to be passed with the required majorities, and women bishops are to have a fair chance of establishing themselves without acrimony.

The fate of recent proposals in Australia provides a cautionary tale. Opposition (from both sides) to the provisions for dissent, ensured that the primary legislation itself fell. ‘They shot themselves in the foot’, said David Chislett, reviewing the day’s proceedings in Brisbane 2001. ‘One cannot help thinking that things might have been organized better.’