Off the Hook

In the last article of our series we examine the proposals for a Free Province.

The Anglican Communion presently enjoys impairment of communion at both the presbyteral and the episcopal levels. Orders are no longer interchangeable between provinces, and in some cases between dioceses within provinces. This is perfectly acceptable to the proponents of women’s ordination. Indeed, it is a state of affairs which they themselves initiated.

Said Michael Adie (then Bishop of Guildford) when moving the Measure on November 11 1992:

‘This determination to stay together has shaped the legislation now before us. Many on both sides of the debate would have preferred a one-clause Measure plainly and simply providing for women to be ordained to the priesthood. The report of 1986, prepared by a group representing all points of view, recognized that a one-clause Measure would not do. The House of Bishops in its 1987 report agreed, and the Synod endorsed the Bishops’ report, so setting the shape of the legislation. There must be provisions which ensure that those who do not agree with the ordination of women still have room and space in the Church of England. Hence the provisions for bishops, clergy and parishes. These ensure that people with different views and different theologies will still have a respected and secure place in the Church. During the course of our debates those provisions have been adjusted by the Synod in response to criticism, and they are now as good as corporately we can make them. Furthermore, they are secure because they cannot be withdrawn or altered except by another Measure.’ [Italics mine]

A mixed economy in orders – a notion more revolutionary even than the ordination of women – was the express intention of the framers of the legislation. To suppose that they spoke with forked tongue – to suppose that they had no such firm intention and intended to revoke the provisions at the earliest opportunity – would be to do them a grave injustice. All that remains, therefore, is to see how that express intention can be continued and worked out in the changed circumstances of the consecration of women bishops.

The Act of Synod (which continued and fulfilled the provisions of the 1993 Measure) worked by the legal and theological fiction that whilst the ordination of women fractured communion at the presbyteral level (all those ordained priest by the same ordinal were not equally acceptable to each other), it did not, by virtue of Clause 2, impair communion and collegiality among bishops. Those bishops who had ordained women were graciously to respect the sensibilities of those opposed to their action by providing for them Extended Episcopal Care. That care was to be by one who would not ordain women, but who was nevertheless happy to receive consecration in a college of bishops the majority of whom did.

Opponents of women’s ordination, out of a desire to remain in what the Eames Commission described as ‘the greatest possible degree of communion’, winked at this ecclesiological inventiveness and let it pass.

But this daring and incoherent experiment will be brought to a close by the ordination of women as bishops. The leger-de-main which has heretofore allowed Canon A4 to be suspended among presbyters, but operative between bishops, comes naturally to an end when there are women in the episcopal college.

As the obvious beneficiaries of a ‘high’ notion of the bishop as supreme authority and focus of unity in a diocese, the advocates of the consecration of women are now tenacious of the very doctrine of the unity, integrity and interchangeability of orders which, in the 1993 Measure, they were content to set aside. Sadly, their eagerness to affirm it now looks like convicting them of bad faith in so willingly abandoning it then.

Fortunately this need not be the case. There is a loop hole for them.

Because the proponents of women priests and bishops have always, perforce, had to accept ecumenical relations with communions which did not so ordain, and because they have also had to accept relations with provinces of the Anglican Communion which tenaciously continue the tradition which they received from the mother church, an obvious solution presents itself. All the proponents have to do is to assist the opponents in the creation of a body analogous with (or identical to) one of those bodies over which the proponents agree that they can exercise no powers of coercion, and with whom they are content to remain in the impaired communion which they themselves have created.

A new, free and independent province of the Church of England would, of course, secure that future for opponents which Michael Adie supposed to be an essential feature of the 1993 Measure. It would also indemnify proponents from accusations of chicanery and bad faith. They should be grateful for that.

Geoffrey Kirk is National Secretary of Forward in Faith. Those interested in what a New Province of the Church of England for those opposed to the ordination of women would look like and how it could be achieved by Parliamentary Measure should consult Consecrated Women?, Canterbury Press, £12.99.