John P. Richardson wonders whether those currently taking an uncompromising approach to the issue of women bishops may not be opening an unexpected new battle front elsewhere

The story is told of an officer in the First World War who, upon telling a private to send over a grenade into the trench opposite, received the not-unreasonable reply that this wouldn’t be a good idea, on the grounds that it would only encourage the enemy to send one back – a lesson which might be borne in mind by those currently taking an uncompromising approach to the issue of women bishops.

Although it would be wrong to present the Church of England as a formal compromise of theologies (the 1552 Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles were, after all, intended to be quite uncompromising), it is nevertheless true that the Church has accepted compromise in order to hold together those whose theologies, whilst at odds with one another, are nevertheless recognized as permissible within the bounds of the English Church.

In the nature of things, these compromises range from the unexceptionable to the somewhat dubious, but somewhere between these two extremes lie the arrangements regarding the ordination of women to the priesthood. To many – perhaps the majority – the practice is acceptable and causes no difficulties. To a few, however, it remains a serious bone of contention which demands, and has been granted, a ‘structural’ solution. Not everyone has been happy with this, but until now we have, as Rodney King famously urged us, just got along (albeit, only just).

The proposal to consecrate women bishops, however, has called this particular compromise into question. On the one hand, most of those using the system of Provincial Episcopal Visitors will no longer find it an acceptable arrangement and are seeking a more radical provision. There are others, however, who wish to take advantage of the new situation by rejecting any further arrangements whatsoever to satisfy those who can accept neither women bishops nor women priests.

One of the reasons for the latter s impatience with compromise is undoubtedly a sense that it can be got away with. Those it would most affect are perceived as a rump, mostly of Anglo-Catholics, many of whom (it is thought) would need only a nudge to send them into the arms of Rome, whilst the remainder can be allowed, quite literally, to die out. There is therefore a certain confidence in some quarters that pretty soon the whole cake will be theirs, with no further need to share even the odd slice with others.

What this overlooks, however, is the fact that the rejection of compromise, like the putative grenade, travels both ways. One’s own insistence on getting one’s own way may prompt (indeed may require) a similar insistence on the part of others. And this recognition is particularly important at present, since it seems to have been forgotten that the Church of England currently holds together not two but three models of the ministry.

The Catholic model will be entirely familiar to readers of New Directions, and reflects in most respects the same understanding as is found in the Roman Church. The ordained ministry maintains the truth of the Gospel and the integrity of the Church by its very being, as well as through its functions of teaching, preaching and administering the sacraments. Those ordained into this ministry are qualitatively changed by that process, but – it is believed – by its nature it is only open to men.

Then there is the approach to the ministry which we might call the Institutional model. This is the model you will typically find adhered to by Diocesan Directors of Ordinands, Bishops’ Selectors and, indeed, most of those involved in the selection and training of clergy. Significantly, it is also the model exemplified by the 1997 theological statement by the House of Bishops titled Eucharistic Presidency, written to address the issue of lay presidency raised by a Private Member’s Motion at the General Synod.

This entire document is really a conclusion (to reject lay celebration) in search of an argument. However, the most decisive argument available, namely that laypeople are not priests in the sense that the Catholic wing of the Church of England understands the term, and therefore not merely should not but cannot celebrate Holy Communion, was unavailable for the obvious reason that an appeal to it would rule out other, hitherto accepted, views of ministry and sacrament and, moreover, might tend to endorse the Catholic view on other matters; for example, the ordination of women.

Nevertheless, like a parent who realizes that ‘Because I say so’ isn’t going to cut much ice, the bishops knew an argument must be found. Unfortunately, the result was a justification through which one could drive several coaches and their accompanying horses.

Their defence was that the president at Communion should be a person with what they called ‘overall pastoral oversight of the community’, which they immediately equated with ‘those ordained as bishop or priest/presbyter’ [4.46]. This relied on the argument that Communion is not celebrated by an individual empowered to do so, but by the gathered community as a whole. The president thus acts (merely) as the community representative, but, by a cunning twist, only those episcopally ordained as its overseers may represent the community.

Thus what Eucharistic Presidency has is a ‘Catholic’ view of presidency – that it should only be celebrated by those ordained as priest/presbyter – without a ‘Catholic’ view of priesthood (or, indeed, Eucharist), based on a tenuous argument about roles within the local church. The ‘priest’, under this view, is not a layperson, but neither is he or she a priest in the way this was understood before the Reformation. Thus the statement suggests, At ordination a minister is set in a distinctive relationship to the Church as a whole, and this is a permanent relationship, signified by the use of the traditional term character [3.29].

Yet whilst the term is traditional, the understanding of it with the longest actual tradition, namely that ordination imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual mark, is noticeably absent – as it must be, since to suggest otherwise would be to undermine other aspects of the Institutional model and the compromise of theologies it seeks to maintain.

Clearly, however, Eucharistic Presidency was written to defend not against Anglo-Catholicism but against that other, third understanding of ministry found within the Anglican Church, namely the Evangelical, and it is this model which is currently being overlooked.

The Evangelical model of the ministry begins from the assumption that what the minister can do, in principle, can be done by anyone. The reason why the ordained minister does what he or she does is simply the one Annie Oakley gave to Frank Butler: Anything you can do, I can do better.’ It is the understanding of different gifts in Romans 12.3-8 applied to the concept of ministerial orders, and it underlines the fundamental Evangelical view that ministry is about function. As the Nottingham Statement of the 1977 National Evangelical Anglican Congress, put it, ‘Christianity is a one-caste religion: all Christians are equally called to minister to Christ in the world, and ministry must be seen as a calling for all, not a status for some’ [Jl].

According to this view, therefore, there is no one ‘ministry’ set apart from other ‘ministries’, nor is there any entitlement of one particular kind of minister to act in ways that other Christians cannot.

The Evangelical understanding thus takes a very different view of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ from the Institutional model. As Eucharistic Presidency puts it, the Institutional understanding of this priesthood is a corporate description, not an individual mandate’ [5.6]. All believers together constitute the Church’s ‘priesthood’, but no individual is thereby entitled to exercise any particular ministry. Evangelicals, however, would argue precisely that the priesthood of all believers is indeed a mandate to each individual, and that most especially with regard to spiritual matters. In this they would be following, albeit not necessarily consciously, the views of both Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer.

In Concerning the Ministry, Luther wrote, ‘we teach with the Word, we consecrate with the Word, we bind and absolve sins by the Word, we baptize with the Word, we sacrifice with the Word, we judge all things by the Word. Therefore when we grant the Word to anyone, we cannot deny anything to him pertaining to the exercise of his priesthood’ [LW 40.21].

More significantly for Anglicans, Cranmer affirmed that, ‘if it befortuned a prince christian-learned to conquer certain dominions of infidels, having none but temporal-learned men with him’, God’s law allowed them to ‘preach and teach the word of God there’ and also to ‘make and constitute priests’ [Miscellaneous Writing and Letters of Thomas Cranmer, CUP 1864, p. 117].

Cranmer’s opinion is particularly important since it is obviously hard to do with him what the Church of England usually does with troublemakers and suggest that, with those views, he would be more comfortable in another denomination.

For many Evangelicals, therefore, lay presidency is entirely consistent with their theology of ministry, belonging in terms of skills (as they see it) with leading the prayers or reading the lesson, rather than preaching the sermon, and therefore being open to a wider range of congregation members (including women, as far as many conservative Evangelicals are concerned).

It should come as no surprise, therefore, to discover that, in some places in the Church of England, ‘lay presidency’ is already happening. Yet clearly it is happening quietly on a small scale, not loudly as part of a ‘campaign for lay presidency’. And one of the reasons for this restraint is undoubtedly (though perhaps remarkably) a sensitivity towards the rest of the Church of England.

Certainly that seems to be the case with the Diocese of Sydney where, despite the Diocesan Synod giving approval to what they call ‘lay administration, it has been on indefinite hold, not only under the old regime of Archbishop Harry Goodhew, but since the advent of Archbishop Peter Jensen – a man who some might have suggested would be in a hurry to push it through.

Nevertheless, Archbishop Jensen remains emphatically committed to the principle. Moreover, he makes the point that, whilst it should not be seen as ‘payback’ for the ordination of women, the latter has some bearing on Sydney’s stance. He writes, ‘The…relevance of the introduction of women to the priesthood is this: if you are going to argue against lay administration, it is now difficult to rely on an argument from the long tradition of the church and also from the ecumenical consequences of the innovation. Neither of these arguments prevented the ordination of women. In fact, whereas for many of us the ordination of women was forbidden by the word of scripture, the New Testament seems to be silent as to the question of who may administer the Lord’s Supper.’ [ ]

In England, however, there are some asking if there should be, if not payback, at least a quid pro quo regarding the Evangelical understanding of ministry.

As Peter Jensen hints, for conservative Evangelicals, lay celebration is as much a biblical mandate as male headship. Even so, there are reasons to urge caution within the English context. Too often, for example, lay celebration is used as a stick precisely to beat clericalism (and, indeed, Anglo-Catholicism generally), rather than being a proper expression of a rounded theology and ecclesiology It may reasonably be suggested that until conservative Evangelicals can give a proper account of what is happening in Holy Communion (rather than what is not), they are hardly in a position to justify a change in who may preside over it.

Nevertheless, advocates of the so-called ‘one clause’ approach to the consecration of women bishops may, unwittingly, be about to open a second front. The current conservative Evangelical restraint about what they would perceive as a theological shibboleth depends in part on others also showing restraint. Yet as we know from the history of women’s ordination, the way that change happens in the Church of England is not, first of all, through the legislative structures but through radical principled action. The radicalism is already there. The principled action will not be far behind.