Fair-minded opponents claim they understand our position; they may believe they understand our position, but as Mark Stevens shows, a single word can often betray them

My own view is that we have come up with a workable proposal which preserves the integrity of the Church of England and safeguards the position of those who cannot yet accept the ordination of women as presbyters or bishops,’ writes Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden and member of the Guildford Four.

The word, of course, is ‘yet’. In those three letters a world of truth and misapprehension is both encoded and revealed. That casual, insouciant ’yet’ innocently betrays more than might at first appear.

Despite protracted talk about ‘periods of reception’ and the ‘reversibility’ of the innovation, that little word, it seems, lets the cat out of the bag: there never was any intention of ‘openness’, only a strategy for terminal care; the innovators never took the trouble to consider the arguments of their opponents, for the simple and logical reason that they did not suppose there could be any. They assumed the opposition to be based on nothing more than prejudice and ignorance.

Women’s ordination, the ‘yet’ seems to declare, is not a proposition to be argued, or proved from Scripture: it is a self-evident truth which demands urgent prosecution. In her book Theology and Feminism, Daphne Hampson has put the matter clearly and succinctly:

‘What was I doing, in the late twentieth century, arguing that what happened in the first century was of relevance to whether or not I could be a deacon? I had never had to argue that as a woman I should have an education, become a theologian, own a house, or anything else. What did that do to me as a person, to my sense of myself in the Christian church? …I saw that I had to be free of this… writing my last newsletter to the Group in Scotland I had loved and brought together, I said that I thought we had to be much bolder, taking an a priori stance on the fact that there could be no discrimination against women.’ [Blackwell, 1990, p31]

And, of course, if sexual equality in the matter of orders is an a priori imperative (‘I am compelled by what I perceive to be the cause of justice’ said Roy Williamson in the 1992 debate), it follows that it must equally be self-evident that those who oppose it are benighted, bigoted and unjust. (Hampson again: ‘Writing a doctorate on the British response to the church conflict in Nazi Germany, I was well aware that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had refused to grant that the established national Protestant Church was in fact a Christian church so long as it refused to ordain people who were racially Jewish. I believed I should consider the Anglican Church not fully Christian in that it discriminated against women.’ [op. cit., p30])

Of course, in a world where the mad and the bad are subjected to therapy rather than restraint or punishment, opponents must be treated humanely. But their only future, goes the argument, is recantation or extinction.

This is a logic with which truly liberal proponents like Bishop Pete naturally feel uncomfortable and understandably seek to avoid. They do not like to appear intransigent and totalitarian. They are, after all, experiencing the discomfort of having the same a priori arguments used against themselves, in the increasingly rancorous debate about homosexuality. Yet, as so often, it is the little words which tell the biggest story.

That casual usage appears also to reveal a basic misunderstanding of the nature opponents’ case. It seems to assume that they have but to see the error of their ways to change their minds with alacrity. But not so.

The problem is structural and ecclesiological. Opponents take as an axiom of Christian believing the doctrine of the ecclesial sufficiency of Scripture (that nothing should or can be imposed which cannot be ‘read therein’ or ‘proved thereby’ [Article VI]’; and beyond that they appeal, as Anglicans have always done, to the practice of the first three centuries as normative.

Michael Adie, in the 1992 debate, famously claimed that women’s ordination is ‘a reasoned development, consonant with Scripture and required by tradition’ [Verbatim Record, p11]. Even if that were the case (and we beg to doubt it – ‘that’, said Alec Graham in the debate, ‘is quite a claim.’), it would not be enough. ‘Required by Scripture and embodied in the tradition’ is the level of proof opponents demand. And in default of that they are obliged to conclude with Pope John Paul II that ‘…Ecclesiam facultatem nullatenus habere ordinationem sacerdotalem mulieribus conferendi’ (…the Church has no ability to confer priestly ordination on women.’)

Opponents hold, moreover, that Holy Orders (epitomised by the order of bishops, who are the high priests and focuses of unity in their local churches and the agents and expressions of unity between local churches) are by nature and purpose, universally interchangeable (see Canon A4). It is beyond the competence of the Synod of a local church to change what is the possession of all the churches and essential to their nature, form and character. (‘Yes, we can claim female ministers, we can do something which is sui generis to ourselves’, said Peter Geldard in the 1992 debate, ‘but we cannot thereafter ever claim again that we share something with the wider Body of Christ.’ [Verbatim Record, p29]

The problem with opponents of women priests and bishops is not merely that they have reached a decision on the matter different from the proponents (or even that they are irredeemably sexist, as many proponents have privately concluded) but that their understanding of the nature of the Church and of Holy Orders renders the ordination of women as priests and bishops not only undesirable but impossible. There exists no body competent to bring it about!

But there is more. Because the Synod has acted ultra vires, and because its procedures rely upon a division of its membership by Houses (of Bishops, Clergy and Laity) the legitimacy of the Synod’s decisions in other matters is naturally called into question. Not only can opponents not yet accept the orders of consecrated women; neither could they, at some future date, accept the decisions of Houses which, in their view, will increasingly comprise those who are neither bishops nor priests.

It is, by any standards an unfortunate phrase which does nothing to help either understanding or co-existence. Can one dare to hope that Bishop Pete may yet withdraw his ‘yet’?