‘Provisionality’, writes Dr Mary Tanner, in a recent assessment of the forthcoming FiF Report Consecrated Women? (available from October, visit www.forwardinfaith.com), ‘was not understood in the Anglican Communion discussions, or in the Church of England official reports, to mean the provisionality of the orders of any particular woman ordained. It was used in reference to the development in the ordering of the ministry itself.’

Perhaps so. But what does she mean? An analogy might help. Orders, Dr Tanner is saying, are rather like membership of the Police Force.

Suppose that there existed a law which forbade the Metropolitan Police from recruiting among, say, Arsenal fans. Such discrimination would naturally be abhorrent to many, who might successfully campaign for a change in the law. Parliament might then allow the recruitment of Arsenal supporters on an experimental basis (for three years, let us say; or even for an indefinite period). At the end of that time the intention would be to remove the ban absolutely, or to reinstate it permanently.

Arsenal supporters who became policemen during this period would, of course, have all the rights of arrest, search and caution belonging to other police officers. There would be no provisionality about them so far as the criminal was concerned. But there would be an element of provisionality to the whole arrangement. It might one day be terminated.

All this follows from the simple fact that the Metropolitan Police Force is wholly under the authority of Parliament. Changes to its rules, regulations, structures – indeed its very existence – are agreed by all to be within parliamentary competence. The police are what they are, and do what they do, because of the statutory instruments which authorize them.

But Catholic Christians (as the Holy Father has recently pointed out) do not view Holy Orders in the same way. They are not made, but given. They are not constituted by the Church; the Church is constituted by them. To change in any significant aspect what the Lord has given is, at the very least, to introduce into Orders (which exist to give sacramental assurance) a fatal degree of dubiety.

It is oxymoronic for the Church to authorize a ministry of which the best that it can be said is that it may, at some future time, prove to have been authentic.