Paul Richardson on the major response to women ‘bishops’

Consecrated Women? falls into three main sections. The first offers a careful and reasoned statement of the reasons why Catholic Christians cannot accept the ordination of women as either priests or bishops; the second sets forth proposals for a Third Province and provides a draft for a measure to establish such a Province; and the third contains some of the papers submitted to the theological and legal working groups who together are responsible for the volume.

All three sections of the report deserve attention, but it is the second section that is likely to be the focus of most interest. As the Archbishop of York states in his foreword and as the Archbishop of Canterbury appeared to accept in his article in New Directions in September 2003, the Act of Synod in its present form ‘will not bear the weight of moving towards the ordination of women as bishops.’ Those opposed to the ordination of women could not in good conscience accept the jurisdiction of a women bishop. They would look not for alternative episcopal care but for alternative episcopal oversight. As the report puts it, ‘An alternative oversight, where those opposed would be under another jurisdiction, entirely separate from that of the diocesan bishop, would seem to be the only satisfactory way of providing for those opposed.’

Once this has been conceded, the creation of a Third Province seems to be the most sensible way forward and the conclusions reached in Consecrated Women? flow quite naturally. There may be those who argue that another, possible approach would be to allow parishes opposed to the ordination of women to place themselves under the jurisdiction of a neighbouring male bishop while continuing to receive pastoral care from a PEV, but such provision would soon prove messy and cumbersome.

In any case, such a solution ignores the missiological advantages that would follow from the creation of a Third Province. At present, traditionalists feel marginalized and unwanted. This sense exists even in dioceses where bishops try to be fair and friendly. Many senior clergy give the impression of hoping we will soon disappear. ‘How much longer is it going to last?’ demanded one suffragan after I told him I had attended a conference on the doctrine of reception. The future of the church does not belong to us. Hardly ever is it conceded that we have a contribution to make to the life of the church as a whole or that the Church of England would actually be the poorer without us. Although the PEVs have achieved a great deal, they have limited influence over many important areas of church life. Provincial structures would give traditionalists a greater confidence and a firmer sense of identity. Morale would lift as clergy and laity alike came to feel they could set a direction for the church and were not dependent at every turn on being tolerated by an institution that has basically very little sympathy for them.

The result could well be growth in numbers. As the Bishop of Fulham points out, the vote in 1992 did not halt the decline of the Church of England. Electoral rolls are down and figures for church attendance have continued to plummet. But traditionalists have had some success in attracting young male ordinands and there is evidence that numbers attending Resolution parishes have stayed steady or even grown. A Third Province would have the freedom to make changes that could make the church more attractive. Talk about ‘dignitaries’ could come to an end; clergy pay differentials, episcopal palaces, purple shirts, and all the pomp and circumstance of establishment could disappear. Consecrated Women? advocates that bishops of the Third Province should not sit in the House of Lords. This could be very significant. One of the reasons why the Church of England has had such a weak hold on the loyalty of its baptized members is that very few of them have ever had any sense of belonging to a clear and distinct organization. With its traditional ties to the monarchy and the upper classes, the church has seemed like a branch of the state. Stephen Toulmin summed up the post-Restoration Church of England very well in his important study Cosmopolis. ‘The Established Church’, he wrote, ‘played its part by calling down God’s blessings on the re-established rulers of the state, and so confirming the fragile stability of the social order. During the subsequent three hundred years, if we can trust the Anglican clergy, the Lord God has had miraculously few occasions to find fault with the actions of the British government or its agents’ (page 94). Whether it was ‘the Tory party at prayer’ or ‘socialists at mass’, the Church of England failed to project the image of a body with its own creed and authority. As a result, while it often evoked nostalgic affection, it inspired little real respect or loyalty. A Third Province that was not afraid to be counter-cultural could change all this. It would have a definite identity and be able to demand commitment from its members.

Even if General Synod and Parliament agree to a fair distribution of central church resources, money is likely to be in short supply in the Third Province. This could be a blessing provided that the right decisions are made. No diocese in a Third Province should seek to equip itself with the range of staff and advisers to be found in the dioceses of the existing Church of England, though the report is right to argue that provision should be made for church schools and this will certainly require Boards of Education (with provisions for sharing schools with the other two provinces where appropriate). But no effort should be spared to find the resources to support residential theological training at a high academic level. The key to the success of the Third Province will lie in attracting bright, young ordinands of maturity and commitment.

As Bishop Broadhurst admits, the danger of the Third Province is that it will turn out to be an inward looking ghetto, obsessed with a single issue. Good leadership will be essential to ensure that the emphasis is on mission. Ecumenism and close relations with the other two Anglican provinces in England will be important. The report is right to argue it would be inappropriate for the Third Province to be represented in General Synod. It would, after all, be unfair for Third Province delegates to vote on measures that would apply in the other two provinces but not in their own. But more thought needs to go into the kind of links that could be developed to promote closer co-operation, where appropriate, between the three provinces. We seek theological coherence and integrity, not apartheid. It is essential that the Third Province does not loose sight of its responsibility to Anglicanism as a whole or its readiness to listen to the wider church in all its different parts.

The quality of theological reflection displayed in the first and third section of Consecrated Women? promises well for the intellectual vitality of a future Third Province. At the heart of its argument is an understanding of the bishop as ‘high priest’ or principal liturgical minister of the church, focus for unity, guardian of tradition and teacher of the faith, successor of the apostles, and ‘type, or eikon, both of the Father and of the Son as sent by the Father’. Quoting Fr Aidan Nichols OP, who served as an ecumenical consultant, the report sees ‘the bishop as the continuing apostolic ministry in the Church’. There is a fine exposition of the theme developed by Han Urs von Balthasar of Christ as the bridegroom of the Church and of the priest as icon of Christ. Replying to the argument that a male priesthood is unrepresentative of half the human race, the point is made that by the same logic women would be excluded from the salvation achieved by a male saviour. Eric Mascall is quoted to refute the allegation that the maleness of Christ somehow implies the superiority of the male over the female. Although he is not mentioned by name, Austin Farrer’s stress on accepting the authority of the images given to us in revelation is set out as an important guiding principle.

Without wanting to challenge any of the theological arguments advanced, I have suggestions to offer for developing some of them a little further. The report rightly emphasizes the issue of sacrifice and the fact that only male priests offered sacrifice in the Old Testament. The Old Testament priesthood, of course, prefigured the priesthood of Christ, but I do not think it is without significance that ethnographic evidence shows sacrifice linked with pagan male priests throughout the Mediterranean basin, Africa, and the Pacific. Whereas women are nurturers and life-givers, there is, in the words of Fr Adrian Edwards CSSP, ‘a tie-up between masculinity, violence, and sacrifice as both controlled violence and the cure of violence’ (see ‘Gender and Sacrifice’, New Blackfriars, September, 1986). This links very well with the point made in 2.6.2 and 3 of Consecrated Women? that the self-emptying and kenosis of the Godhead are revealed more appropriately in the incarnation and sacrificial death of a male saviour.

In 3.2.7 a link is made between the stress on transcendence in Judaism and Christianity and their use of paternal symbols. Because there is a greater continuity between mother and child than between father and child, pantheism tends to prefer maternal symbols. This point was made in the early days of the debate about the ordination of women by VA Demant who claimed that in the past female priesthoods belonged to cults of the earth mother. Demant was ridiculed and attacked for his argument but in the light of New Age trends and the teaching of sections of the environmental movement about the sacredness of nature, we need to ask whether we can risk a change in basic Christian symbols without surrendering to strong currents in the wider culture pushing us towards pantheism.

Many people have been led to accept the ordination of women by practical considerations. Lacking any awareness of the wider theological and symbolic issues, they have concluded that since women can do the job as well as men they ought to be ordained. One of the great failings of Anglicanism has been a concentration on the ordained ministry and a reluctance to develop other ways in which women can take part in the mission of the Church. In the Roman Catholic Church women have made an immense contribution for several hundred years through active religious orders and congregations. Another factor which has led to the ordination of women is the ‘justice argument’. In the debate about women bishops it is claimed that it is simply unjust to deny this office to women. In a section devoted to this argument (9.3) Consecrated Women? denies, quite correctly, that the ordination of a priest or a bishop is a matter of rights. The life of the church is meant to reflect a ‘diversity of gifts, graces, and ministries’. It is important to go further than this, however, and see how talk about rights is used to short-circuit the argument about the ordination of women. If it is God’s will that women be ordained in the church, then it is unjust to deny this to them. But if it is not God’s will, then no injustice is involved any more than it is unjust to refuse to recruit police officers or soldiers who have not reached the required level of fitness. Before we discuss the issue of justice, we need to determine God’s will. That is exactly what claims about the need for male priests to represent Christ seek to do.

In the end, arguments about the ordination of women often boil down to differences over the significance of gender. Why, it is asked, can black priests or white priests represent a Jewish Christ but not women priests? Implied is the claim that differences of gender are of the same order as racial differences. Against the ecclesiological argument requiring widespread consent in the church in favour of such a significant development as the ordination of women, it is argued there is no major change in the doctrine of the ministry when the three orders are preserved but women are admitted to them. Again, the implication is clear. Differences of gender are of no profound consequence. A genuine feminism will seek to uphold the differences while defending the essential equality of women and men. Consecrated Women? goes a long way to showing why matters of gender and symbolism are not matters indifferent or adiaphora, but, if the debate is to continue in the Church of England, structures will be needed to protect the integrity of those who hold to what they see as a fundamental doctrine of the Church.

Paul Richardson is Assistant Bishop of Newcastle.