Anthony Saville has been reading the recent statement on women bishops from the two leading liberal groups

On 17 May Affirming Catholicism and Watch issued a joint press release, which began, A campaigning group and a network of Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England have agreed the fundamental principles by which women should be appointed as bishops. For the first time, the leadership and members of the Executive Committees of Affirming Catholicism and Watch (Women and the Church), which between them represent nearly half the members of the Church of England’s General Synod, have jointly drawn up a list of key, non-negotiable principles for moving forward on women bishops.

Illiberal demands

Their demand is unequivocally for a single clause measure (though they are smart enough not to use the phrase). Nevertheless it is not without interest. While the tactics may be bullying, some of the principles are important, and can be fully shared by opponents as well. The integrity of a bishop is a central issue. While there might be some sense in which a priest’s ministry could be viewed as provisional, the same is no longer possible when it comes to the ministry of a bishop.

Their expressed fear that the Church is currently discussing proposals which so limit the ministry of women bishops in order to take account of those who won’t accept them, that there is a danger of creating a second class of bishops who are women is understandable. It is a fair point: stretching the present approach (a sort of Act of Synod plus) will never work. We have said the same ourselves.

If, then, one was to accept a clear and independent jurisdiction, with clear and permeable boundaries, and avoid any fudge over shared, joint, collective, cooperative, transferred or parallel powers – in other words accept what Forward in Faith has been proposing, then most of what these two groups are demanding would be satisfied.

Their first section (A) on how the church should proceed in consecrating women bishops is a mixture of naivety and disingenuousness. Such declarations as 2. Legislation must express the Church’s joyful acceptance of the decision to ordain women as bishops are rather too Bambi-esque to be taken seriously. There is a category mistake here: expressing joy is not something that legislation does.

The second section (B) is worth citing in full. We are well aware that Affirming Catholicism and Watch hate traditionalists with a loathing that is visceral, but this is not what they say explicitly. Instead there is a great deal we agree on, perhaps rather more than they would wish:

B. How the church should make pastoral provision for those with private reservations about the ordination of women

1. The pastoral provision may not create a parallel jurisdiction of those who are not prepared to accept the ordained ministry of women, but must seek the highest possible degree of communion together with the highest possible degree of permeability.

2. The pastoral provision must not give rise to a ‘theology of taint’ whereby opponents of women clergy are able to declare themselves out of communion even with those male clergy who have shared a sacramental ministry with ordained women.

3. Arrangements requiring ordained women to exercise pastoral sensitivity towards those who are opposed must be balanced by reciprocal arrangements requiring pastoral sensitivity from those who are opposed.

4. With respect to Dioceses and Diocesan structures, the pastoral provisions must maintain the integrity of the Diocese as the fundamental unit of the Church.

5. The bishop is and must be recognised to be Ordinary in his/her Diocese.

6. Any bishop who exercises a ministry specifically with respect to those opposed to ordained women’s ministry must therefore share in the ministry of the Ordinary.

7. Any such bishop must accordingly work within and according to the policies and practices of the Diocese where he exercises that ministry.

8. In Dioceses where the Ordinary is opposed to the ordination of women and does not ordain women as priest and/or deacon, the interests of women priests and those who are supportive of the ministry of ordained women must have episcopal representation within the Diocese.

9. All bishops and all parishes of a Diocese must continue to be part of the same synodical structures (through which the ministry of oversight or episcope is also exercised).

Points 1 to 5 could essentially be satisfied by FiF’s proposals, which would equally maintain the integrity of liberal diocesans, avoid the theology of taint, and so on. Points 6 to 9 rather undercut the earlier demands by asking for a continuation of something like the present arrangements, which would surely compromise the integrity of the bishops involved.

Might is right

The AffCath/Watch statement may sit light to Catholic theology, but it does have an eye for the simple. Aware of the problem of sacramental assurance to which the Guildford Report referred (how can I know this bishop is what he/she claims to be? how can I know that the sacraments they celebrate are valid?) they offer a uncomplicated solution.

In some churches which ordain women to the priesthood, the argument of sacramental assurance has been used to support the move towards ordination of women with no provision made for those who are opposed. In other words, if there is a problem about doubt, then forbid doubt. Brutal, perhaps, but undoubtedly simple.

As they note with approval, In the Lutheran Church of Schaumburg-Lippe, it was decided that this decision should also mark the end of ordaining those opposed. The Bishop, Jürgen Johannesdotter, explained the reason: “We wanted every parish member to be sure that they were receiving true sacraments, absolution and blessing from every pastor ordained by the Church.” How can you be sure? Because we say you are.

The statement can be found at

FiF’s response is at