You will remember the rash of motions in Anglican Synods across the Communion in the 1970s: ‘That there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women’. The whole proceeding was absurd, of course, but no-one (or almost no-one) questioned it at the time.
How helpful it would be if questions of theological truth – or truth of any kind for that matter – could be settled by democratic vote in a synod or parliament. The Westminster Parliament would long ago have settled the Irish question simply by voting that it was not a question after all. The United Nations, by a single resolution of the Security Council, would have settled the rights and wrongs of the Arab–Israeli conflict. And we would all know the length of a piece of string.
But things are just not like that. Over thirty years after those purportedly conclusive votes, the debate about the ordination of women the priesthood goes on. The internal opposition has in no way diminished. Both our principal ecumenical partners have meanwhile intensified their objections. Now proponents are once again trying to close the debate by the consecration of women as bishops.
When will they ever learn?
‘Everyone’, concluded a book on the Irish troubles written in the 1980s, ‘talks about a solution to the Irish problem. But no-one will be honest about what the problem is. The problem is that there is no solution.’
The same might be said of women’s ordination, which, like sugar to a bad tooth, has found out the weakness of the Anglican settlement and opened a chasm which shows no sign of healing. Instead, as many of us predicted – and as must daily become more apparent to the Archbishop of Canterbury – related cracks are appearing.
So what is at stake between the proponents and opponents of this divisive issue? Four fundamental things:
The doctrine of the incarnation
The trustworthiness of Holy Scripture
Fidelity to the Tradition
The nature and function of Holy Orders
These areas of dispute touch the very core of what it is to be a Christian. They cannot be resolved by synodical fiat, and it is on the infantile side of naïve to suppose that they can.
For the last ten years the Church of England has sought to live with a mixed economy of Orders. Sir Patrick Cormack (pp7–8), in this edition of New Directions, offers a timely reminder of how that Act of Synod came about. But the game is up and the chips are down. Women bishops will render those compromises unworkable. What is the way forward?
Consecrated Women?, the report of the Shadow Working Party on Women in the Episcopate (published this month by the Canterbury Press and Forward in Faith, price £12.99), is in two parts.
The first states coherently, magisterially one would like to say, the theological objections to women’s ordination. Its authors are under no illusions that such a restatement of the case will significantly change minds. They know that the die is cast and that for the majority there is no turning back. This is more an exercise in setting the record straight. Proponents of women’s ordination have for so long misrepresented the arguments of those opposed that they have come to believe their own propaganda. They need to be reminded at the end of the day that these are arguments which no synodical vote can sweep under the carpet.
The second part of the book deals with the practicalities of going on living with the deep divisions on fundamental issues which the ordination of women has exposed. If what was said in Bonds of Peace and other such assurances so long ago was truly meant, then the time has come to give those assurances cash value.
A group of lawyers, – ecclesiastical, civil and criminal – has examined the possibilities and reached a detailed and workable solution – a draft Measure for the creation of a free and independent province. Not since 1920, when the Church in Wales was carved out of the province of Canterbury, has such a restructuring of the Church of England been proposed. People have balked, hitherto, at the complications of such a structural solution. Some have even claimed that such a province could not be achieved by Measure. The draft Measure, by contrast, is simple, easily understood, and immensely practical. If there is still a will to continue the comprehensiveness which the Act of Synod began, here is the way.
Consecrated Women? is a straightforward challenge to those who want women to be bishops. Can they really respect and recognize theological opinions different from their own? Did they ever really mean what they said about tolerance and inclusivity? Now we shall see.
Next year, for the first time, the number of women to be ordained will outnumber the men. As, de facto, no woman seeking to be ordained to the priesthood can be an orthodox Christian, the future path of the CofE now seems determinedly heterodox. Behind the bald figures other alarming realities are beginning to surface. Male candidacy is down more than 50% on 2003 and, although female candidates now have a slender lead, this only disguises the fact that their ordinand numbers are down by 30%. The prospect of working for the present management in an unholy mess becomes more unattractive by the year apparently.
In addition, the age profile of ordinands is also changing rapidly. The future incumbent of the average parish church is increasingly likely to be a woman ordained in her forties whose children have left the nest. Youthful, male and lifelong pastoral leadership will be at a considerable premium. This may be what the lobbyists of 1992 had in mind, but few others will rejoice at the prospect of the CofE becoming a club for neo-elderly feminists and their even more unorthodox supporters.
Eleven years into Archbishop Carey’s experiment with Holy Orders, the CofE is almost down 20% in membership, half its children have left and 30% of its menfolk have quietly walked away. Next stop… women bishops. No wonder even the most cautious are beginning to warm to the inevitability of a Third Province.