If bishops are seeking a structural solution that is not, however, to be a New Province, they have no easy task. John Shepley discusses one possible option that looks good at first but would prove an absurdity

In the search for a way forward which will allow the consecration of women as bishops (and, almost as important in the campaign for sexual equality, their appointment as diocesans) one suggestion in the Rochester Report naturally comes to the fore. ‘Women could be appointed as diocesan bishops but with the office of archbishop restricted to men.’ [Rochester pp.223–224]. As Geoffrey Kirk has written in the FiF pamphlet Options Options: ‘…even the most doctrinaire among proponents might be prepared to consider a restriction on female archbishops. The cost would be small and the advantages might well be great. Or so it appears.’ [p.12]

With only a little imaginative adaptation – an agreement by the Archbishop of Canterbury not to ordain women to the episcopate and the granting of some form of jurisdiction to the Provincial Episcopal Visitors – such an option might be thought to be capable of satisfying opponents (at least in the short term) and allowing the Church of England to continue business much as usual.

This ‘Son of the Act of Synod’ has obvious attractions for those who are convinced that opposition to women’s ordination will dwindle (or can be slowly eliminated) and that all that is needed is a holding operation to deal with an ageing band of intransigents.

It is only fair, then, at this stage, to point out the illogicalities and disadvantages of such a proposal, both for the supporters and the opponents of women bishops. It is true that the Act of Synod (and the so-called London Plan), though not an ideal solution for either party, has worked tolerably well. Woman priests have been enabled to minister in every diocese of the forty-four, and opponents have settled down to an episcopal ministry which they can readily accept and which they have come to value for its own distinctive characteristics.

But the canker in the rose has always been the dependence of the arrangement on a doctrine of reception. Both sides in the debate have been able to agree on one thing: that the ordination of women as bishops has far greater ecclesiological significance than their ordination as priests. That is why women bishops were specifically excluded from the 1992 Measure. The bishop is high priest and fount of orders in his diocese. He sanctions and authorizes all ministry in it. In his office he is the focus of unity of the local church.

The problems have been neatly set out by Fr Aidan Nichols: ‘I have little doubt that for the leadership of Forward in Faith and the Provincial Episcopal Visitors…the ordination of women into the episcopate is the hurdle they cannot jump. The key arguments run as follows. When the bishop has ordained women to the presbyterate, unity may be impaired, but the very impairment illustrates that unity is the norm that could be restored if the error were removed. If, however, one were to be ordained bishop who could not possess the character of a bishop, then the element of unity would be entirely missing and an essential note of the Church would be absent. There would be no local church.

‘Furthermore, irregularly ordained bishops, in conferring their own irregular orders not only on other women but also on men, would disrupt the male priesthood and diaconate, creating doubt and uncertainty of a kind in practical terms impossible to resolve about the wider sacrament of Order. Such bishops, once welcomed into the provincial college of bishops, would place its competence in doubt, not least in the matter of its commissioning any future Episcopal Visitors for traditionalist groups.’

To put the matter even more succinctly: orders are not the possession or responsibility of one person. The Archbishop of Canterbury is part of, indeed in his role as chief consecrator, embodies, unifies and represents the whole college of bishops of the Province. Even were he to take a self-denying ordinance to refrain from consecrating women as bishops, he would remain the consecrator of men who would consecrate women. The only way in which he could continue to authorize and initiate the ministry of bishops opposed to the consecration of women would be if he were to cease to ordain all bishops other than them! He would need, in fact, to become the Archbishop of a notional Third Province; and cease to be, in significant respects, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Such a state of affairs would plainly be intolerable for those in favour of the ordination of women as bishops. Women bishops would thereby be placed in an intolerably anomalous relation to the Primate of All England and the President of the Anglican Communion. They would be tragically hoist with their own petard. ‘Son of the Act of Synod’ (or whatever we are to call such a proposal) could only function were a purely tactile understanding of orders and ordination to be accepted as normative for the Church of England – the very doctrine of ‘taint’ which proponents of women’s ordination invented in order to deride, and which they have erroneously attempted to pin on us!

Not manual acts but sacramental relationships lie at the heart of Holy Orders. An Archbishop who agreed not to ordain women would not thereby have set himself apart from such ordinations, or enhanced his credibility with those opposed to them. He would merely have an impaired relationship with the greater part of his Province, and assisted in the introduction into it of an understanding of Holy Orders which is at variance with that of the catholic tradition.

It is hard to imagine an Archbishop who would be prepared to do so; particularly since his refusal to ordain women to the episcopate, on no theological grounds which he could himself robustly defend, would open him to the charge of a form of discrimination which would arguably be immoral, and which might even be illegal.