More of the Same

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 the suggestion that the present arrangements for Extended Episcopal Care might be adapted to meet the new situation.

There can be no doubt that the provisions of the Act of Synod have been the means whereby the Church of England was enabled to stay together in the face of the divisive decision to ordain women to the priesthood. In round figures five hundred priests left the Church of England (under the Financial Provisions Measure or independently). Around nine hundred parishes sought the protection of Schedules A and/or B of the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993, and four hundred parishes have sought Extended Episcopal Care under the 1993 Act of Synod.

Ten years on the number of those parishes is still rising.

The provisions of the Act worked because they were generally acceptable to both proponents and opponents of the ordination of women.

The proponents were rewarded with the agreement that women priests would operate in every diocese of the Church of England. Bishops in favour gained the assurance that their authority over their dioceses in all matters which they took to be essential would be full and unimpaired.

Opponents gained the oversight of bishops who had not ordained women and (co-incidentally, but of increasing importance) a new style of episcopacy which was pastoral, personal and supportive.

The ecclesiological coherence of the Act of Synod derived from the fact that the impairment of communion which made it necessary was exclusively at the presbyteral level. With the extension of that impairment to the House of Bishops the situation would be radically changed. The Forward in Faith Submission to the Rochester Commission explained the nature of that change:

…as the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod makes clear, all the clergy continue to recognize the diocesan bishop as the Ordinary by whom (or on whose behalf) they are instituted or licensed and to whom they owe canonical obedience, and all bishops recognize their fellow bishops as fellow members of the college of bishops.

If women were ordained to the episcopate, all of this would cease to apply. A significant minority of clergy and laypeople would be unable to recognize a woman as being the diocesan bishop or to make oaths of canonical obedience to her. Such clergy would be able to accept neither institution or licensing by a woman bishop nor institution or licensing undertaken by a male bishop on her behalf. Not only would such clergy and laypeople be unable to receive her own sacramental ministrations; they would also be unable to receive those of priests ordained by her, whether male or female.

The Submission went on:

It has been suggested that, by a division of the office of a bishop into its sacramental and juridical parts, it might be possible for the diocesan bishop (were she a woman) to continue as the ‘ordinary’ of a diocese, whilst another (male) bishop, appointed for the purpose, could act sacramentally for her among those who refused her ministry. In our view, the sacramental and juridical aspects of a bishop’s ministry cannot be separated in this way … The Bishop’s role as ordinary is not a matter of mere bureaucracy, but fundamental to the Anglican, and catholic, understanding of the episcopate. Such a division would, moreover, be offensive to women bishops, and probably unacceptable to them. Forward in Faith rejects such a solution as both sexist and deconstructive of the episcopal office.

A paper for the Rochester Commission by Vivienne Faull and Joy Tetley made precisely the same point:

If there is to be some form of extended (rather than alternative) episcopal ministry, then the recognition of the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop becomes very much a key issue – particularly, of course, where that diocesan is female. There is a debate to be had as to whether, for an incarnational faith, the power of order and the power of jurisdiction should in principle be separable … careful consideration should be given when coming to any decision on this option to its effect on women bishops themselves, who would have to exercise a pioneering ministry in the context of institutional ambivalence. They would be serving a church which is facing two ways – a church which in saying yes also sanctions an official no.’

In the light of the declared objections to this option from both sides of the debate, it is surprising that it has received the attention that it has. Probably the House of Bishops (the authors of the Act of Synod in its final form) were so impressed with the success of their first venture that they are convinced that they can pull a rabbit out of the hat a second time. But antipathy among proponents to the Act has been on the increase for some time. And opponents (including the Archbishop of York) are clear that it will be woefully inadequate in the face of women bishops.

Something very much more radical will be needed: a New Province or a one clause Measure. The era of compromise is drawing to its close.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, in the Diocese of Southwark.