John Shepley reflects on the debate in the Church in Wales and wonders whether the proponents of women bishops are really serious in their expressed desire to introduce them
What concessions are proponents of the ordination of women as priests and bishops prepared to make in order to achieve their end? Recent events in Wales have brought that question to the fore. The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, made it clear through speeches and newspaper articles before the Bill was brought before the Governing Body that he opposed any formal provision for opponents. It was even widely rumoured that if amendments making such provision were passed, then the House of Bishops would withdraw the legislation and await a more favourable opportunity.
It was a high-risk strategy. Will there ever be a time, in the foreseeable future, when opposition will have dwindled to such an extent that provision for those of the original integrity will be unnecessary?
In England, it has to be said, enthusiasts for the new ministry have been eager to make concessions; so much so that opponents have viewed their provisions with suspicion and sometimes downright antipathy. The Act of Synod nevertheless provided space for the development of an ecclesial life for those who could not accept the innovation, which has proved flexible, extendable and acceptable. Its quasi-legal status proved sufficiently robust to withstand the inevitable attacks on its integrity.
Wales, from the beginning, took a different course. Had it not been for a last-minute intervention by the then Bishop of Monmouth, Rowan Williams, there might have been no provision to speak of for opponents. And even then it was a grace and favour’ provision with little or no legal backing. Barry Morgan is merely returning to the drawing board; and, incidentally, bringing Wales into line with other provinces of the Communion who have similarly made no formal concessions. What are we to make of all this?
The strong suit of the Morganites (and the Christina Rees tendency in England) is that to limit in any way the jurisdiction and competence of women bishops would be to deform episcopacy itself. A bishop is a bishop is a bishop, the argument goes. To create a cadre of second-class bishops whose writ runs only among those who like that sort of thing would be to compromise the Catholic credentials of the Church – and defeat the egalitarian objectives of the campaign.
Of course they have a point. No one, least of all opponents of women’s ordination, wants to do permanent damage to Holy Orders. But that, of course, is what women’s ordination has done. The recent words of the Holy Father at an ecumenical gathering in New York, come immediately to mind:
‘Fundamental Christian beliefs and practices are sometimes changed within communities by so-called ‘prophetic actions’ that are based on a hermeneutic not always consonant with the datum of Scripture and Tradition. Communities consequently give up the attempt to act as a unified body, choosing instead to function according to the idea of ‘local options’. Somewhere in this process the need for diachronic koinonia – communion with the Church in every age – is lost, just at the time when the world is losing its bearings and needs a persuasive common witness to the saving power of the Gospel’ [cf Rom 1:18-23].
Provision – statutory provision – which safeguards the integrity of those who oppose these soi-disant prophetic actions, preserves rather than disturbs the traditional ecclesiology It makes a return to the practice of the Undivided Church at some future time possible and achievable.
Archbishop Morgan is no doubt sincere in his single-minded pursuit of what he supposes to be just and right. But he and those who think like him need to ask themselves serious questions about the implications of their position. Are they really so sure that they are right – that they carry the whole burden of history; that this is the necessary action and this is the appropriate time? So much of their argument is contingent. It bases itself on the credibility in contemporary society that such a change promises. But these have more often than not been disappointed in the past. Who now remembers, without acute embarrassment, confident claims that a revised liturgy would draw in the disaffected and the unchurched?
Women’s ordination, moreover, has incontrovert-ibly been shown to be linked to a wider agenda of ‘inclusion, which will generate further inevitable divisions among Christians. Anglican Communion concerns about the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of gay bishops can now be seen to be part and parcel of the ethical a priori stance which was first adopted by the movement for women priests.
Barry Morgan’s heroic posturings look very different when they are seen as ensuring the exclusion from the Church of their birth and baptism of priests and laity whose strong suit (as they see it) is obedience to Scripture as the Christian centuries have unanimously interpreted it. How does he measure that loss (and both morally and numerically it is very great) against the putative gains which women bishops are supposed to bring with them?
Like George Carey before him, Morgan sees this change as essential, in our modern world, to enliven and defend the core doctrines of the faith. But when he has driven out those of quiet fidelity, where will the Archbishop find allies in the defence of what he himself holds to be essential? The advocates of simple legislation for women bishops with no legal provision for opponents certainly have directness and clarity on their side: everything else is admittedly cluttered and complicated. But blindness to the wider implications of such a policy raises another, more serious question. Do they, perhaps, hate opponents of women’s ordination more than they want women bishops?