Edwin Barnes responds to a first reading of ‘Consecrated Women’

The Shadow Working Party has delivered, and we have every reason to be proud of it. First, we should be proud that Forward in Faith could produce a theological working party of such calibre; not only the seven permanent members, but also two distinguished observers from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions and a legal team of great expertise. Then, in Mr Oswald Clark, Fr Robin Ellis and Dr Mary Tanner three assessors who will command the widest possible respect. So why all this effort? Why so many man-hours of writing and discussion, why the production of this book to coincide with the report of the Rochester Commission?

Labour of love

The answer might surprise some of those who find us ‘traditionalists’ most aggravating and impossible. The reason Consecrated Women? has been produced is love. Love for Our Lord and his Church. Love for our particular part of that Church, the Church of England. Love for our nation and her soul. Love for our fellow-Christians, and for Unity in Christ.

Consecrated Women? is not an easy read, and neither should it be. It is the product of a deal of hard work, and requires some work on the part of its readers. It begins with a Preface (by the Bishop of Fulham) which puts the whole business of women’s ordination in the Church of England into context. It reminds us what a close-run thing the vote was in 1992, which resulted in a Measure which said (was the double entendre intended?) ‘Women may be priests in the Church of England’. It reminds those who have grown tired of the Act of Synod that it was not the Act but the primary legal document, the Measure itself, which allowed that there were and would continue to be two opinions concerning the rightness of ordaining women as priests. It recalls that the then Archbishop of York, John Habgood, believed that members of the Church of England would be ‘open-minded enough, and generous enough, to learn from each other, and to ask themselves on the basis of each other’s experience whether this new ministry is clearly being blessed by God or not.’

‘Or not’

That ‘or not’ is at the heart of the present frustrations in the Church of England. Those who only see women’s ordination as a blessing cannot concede any doubt in the matter; those who believe it was wrong and damaging for the Church and her unity find it hard to admit that any good has come from this experiment. Open-mindedness and generosity such as John Habgood expected have not been very evident in the way some dioceses have operated the Act of Synod, nor in the current pressure to rescind the Act nor (I speak for myself) in all the words and actions of at least this opponent of women’s ordination. For all that, as a later Archbishop of York has said, ‘It would not only be a tragedy if the Act of Synod were to be rescinded, it would be an act of betrayal and trigger a new crisis for our church’ (David Hope, preaching earlier this year).

The Report begins with theology, and in a sustained and detailed argument asserts that the consecration of women to the episcopate would be a disaster for the Church of England. First, because of the Church’s tradition, which is ‘neither casual nor trivial; neither culturally conditioned nor merely provisional’. It looks carefully at the Fatherhood of God and the necessary maleness of the incarnate Son, and the relationship (the ‘sacramental consonance’) of the maleness of Our Lord and the maleness of the bishop. It begins here because ‘the question of whether women can be admitted to the episcopate … is inseparable from questions which touch on the doctrines of God and creation, of christology and the Incarnation, and of the nature and function, within the whole life of the Church, of the work of both priest and bishop.’

Solid but not stolid

Some of the underlying thinking in this section is expounded more fully in appended papers – ‘The Bishop as Bridegroom of His Church’ from Fr Aidan Nichols OP, ‘The Gender and Number of Bishops’ by Fr John Hunwicke, ‘Fatherhood, Headship and Tradition’ by Fr Geoffrey Kirk. These give us profound scriptural food for thought – note especially Fr Kirk’s appeal to Evangelicals to be more rooted in scripture rather than such non-biblical themes as ‘leadership’. There is also the occasional flash of humour which acts as yeast in the otherwise heavy going of solid theology. I admit to laughing aloud at ‘Hierarchies in any form are to the proponents of women’s ordination whatever is the feminist equivalent of a red rag to a bull’ (no, I do not want to know what your idea of that equivalent might be!).

Lay and priestly vocation

Chapter 5, dealing with the imagery of Bridegroom and Bride in scripture and sacramental symbolism is especially important, and throws new light on women’s proper ministries. It is good to be reminded that ‘the most fruitful expressions of women’s ministry in the Church of England… in the religious life, the Order of Deaconesses … as catechists, spiritual directors and parish workers, were formed by the Catholic tradition.’

A chapter on Priesthood and Sacrifice concludes with a powerful quotation from Fr Aidan Nichols OP asserting that the bishop or priest represents Christ ‘as the High Priest of human salvation, Head of redeemed humanity, Bridegroom of the Church. This representation takes place in the sacramental order … of dominically instituted effectual signs. Entry on this office must meet the conditions set by the symbolism appropriate to the sacrament in question … the male gender must not be the least of these conditions.’ In the past, we have looked for the right words in which to speak of a priest as somehow representing Christ, the eikon Christi; here Fr Nichols gives us the way to do just this.

By way of ‘Ministry in the Early Church’ and ‘The Episcopate and the Church of England’ we come to a short chapter dealing with some of the arguments raised by feminists (the supposed need for Christ to be both male and female, the argument from ‘Justice’ etc) before concluding in Chapter 10 to ask how the Church of England could make the innovation of consecrating women and bishops and yet remain true to its assertion that women’s ordination is provisional, capable of being received or not received, accepted by all or reversed. So ten chapters set out a series of powerful arguments showing how impossible and wrong it would be for women to be consecrated as bishops; and then in the second part of the Report ways of going forward are examined, by which the circle might be squared and the impossible made feasible.


It is to this second part that many of us will turn first. We have been through the arguments against women’s ordination so often in the past that, although women in the episcopate would compound our problems, they do not raise many entirely new difficulties. They would, though, make it impossible for the Act of Synod to continue to operate as it has done (only just, and with great difficulty) up to now. Rowan Williams has said that for us, for whom women’s consecration would be the last straw, ‘The Act of Synod would no longer be an adequate resort.’ Later he has written ‘I think it worth working at structures in Anglicanism that don’t either commit us to a meaningless structural uniformity or leave us in mutual isolation.’ For the truth is (as chapter 3 of Part 2 points out), ‘the period of discernment over the rightness or otherwise of the decision by the Church of England to ordain women to the priesthood will not come to a close if the Church of England decides to ordain women bishops. The Church of England will still await the decision of the wider Church and within the Church of England itself there will still be a substantial minority who cannot and will not accept women priests or bishops. This minority would require some form of provision.’ A simple one-clause measure permitting women to be consecrated as bishops would not resolve matters, nor would the situation be helped if they were permitted to be suffragans but not diocesan bishops – and imagine the outcry in any case were that to be proposed!.

The Report looks at other options – ‘team bishops’ and so on. In the end it concurs with the Archbishop of York: ‘The question needs to be asked whether (the Act of Synod) can continue to bear the weight of this further development having in mind its main premise of ‘extended’ episcopal care. Plainly it could not.’ He goes on to argue that any such arrangements for those opposed to women’s ordination ‘must surely be at least “alternative” rather than merely “extended”, and that these same arrangements be in respect of “oversight” rather than “care” – arrangements ranging from a further development along the broad lines of the Act of Synod to an altogether more distanced third Province.’

Shaping the dream

Some of us have heard the Bishop of Fulham on ‘peculiars’. He has long argued that the territorial integrity of dioceses is a myth in the Church of England. Until the early nineteenth century there were hundreds of parishes which were not under the authority of the local diocesan bishop. Even after the Victorian reforms, there remained the Royal Peculiars (the Dean of Westminster answers to no-one but the Queen), and Service and Prison Chaplains have their own bishops and do not come under the authority of a local bishop. New College, Magdalen, Lincoln and many other Oxford Colleges owe no duty to the Bishop of Oxford. The possibility of a ‘peculiar jurisdiction’ on these lines is considered at length, only to be rejected in the end as unacceptable in the English situation. In the end, the Report concludes that ‘the only way of achieving satisfactory alternative oversight is to create a new province (in addition to Canterbury and York) in which it would not be possible for women bishops and priests to officiate.’

So the dream which many of us have entertained during the last ten years is given shape by this ‘shadow’ working party. The Act of Synod has never had many friends. Those who invented it so that they could hurtle down the feminist path disowned it the moment it had allowed them to achieve their purpose. The promises they made so fervently about continuing to afford an ‘honoured place’ within the Church of England for those who disagreed with them rapidly evaporated. On the other hand, those of us who tried to make the Act of Synod work, despite obstruction from many of the supporters of women priests, always knew that it was a second-best. Although at his consecration he was enjoined to ‘lead the people committed to his charge’, a Provincial Episcopal Visitor was constantly made aware that in reality no-one was committed to his charge, and he had no authority except what was lent him, often grudgingly, by a diocesan bishop.

On the march

For all that, the Act of Synod made it possible for parishes and people to feel they still belonged to the Church of England. If their diocesan bishop ignored them, or, worse, despised them, they still had a Father in God who would fight their corner, though he might have none of the weapons of temporal power. The proposals for a Third Province would empower us and give us some possibility of self-determination – and with this would come the corrupting dangers which power brings.

‘Free at last’ might become our marching song, and we shall certainly be on the march. A Third or Free Province is not the end of the road, only a staging post. I suggested this Report was a labour of love; and love needs working at if it is to reflect the love of God. A new Province would give us the responsibility of reaching out to other Christians, showing them who we are and why we are in a semi-detached relationship to some other Anglicans. Other denominations, and Anglicans of other jurisdictions, would expect great things from us. When we are no longer constantly battling with those we label ‘liberals’ or ‘feminists’, we shall have a much harder battle to avoid tearing one another to pieces. The fight has soured many of us, and the new Province will have to begin with an emphasis on repentance and forgiveness.

We owe an immense debt to the members of the working party, and not least to those who have drawn up the legal proposals. If the Church of England wants them to work, then they will work. If, though, General Synod refuses us what we need to continue our Christian life as Anglicans, then we shall have to find other ways. The Lord has not abandoned us in the past, and he is not going to do so now.

Edwin Barnes was formerly Bishop of Richborough.