John Packer explains why we need to find a way forward over the issue of women bishops which enables us to go on listening and working together

Amongst the more unsettling aspects of life as a bishop is the amount of literature you get telling you that you are wrong – and that the writer of the literature is right. Some of it is personal: praying publicly for the City of Leeds alongside leaders of other faiths inevitably brings allegations that I should no longer describe myself as a Christian. More, however, is published material from those with a particular perspective within the Church; whether from the Modern Churchpeople’s Union, from Forward in Faith or in The Churchman. All seem to claim that they represent the true heart of the Church of England – and they cannot all be right.

Or can they? Not if their rectitude means that those with contrary perceptions are wrong, as often seems the case. However, when they are saying that their perspective, the way God has led them, needs to be heard as a crucial element in the life of the Church, then this seems to me right. That is why I believe we need to find a way forward over the issue of women bishops which enables us to go on listening and working together.

Failure of TEA

I confess (and it feels like a confession now!) that I was a supporter of the concept of Transferred Episcopal Arrangements, whereby provision was to be made for those who cannot accept the authority of women bishops to worship and minister within the provinces of Canterbury and York. I have found the provisions of the Act of Synod helpful in my own ministry, where parishes under the Episcopal Care of the Bishop of Beverley remain a vibrant part of their deaneries and of the diocese. I do not want to lose this for the sake of the Gospel, the Church of England and (I believe) those parishes themselves.

I firmly believe that God has called women to ordained priesthood in the Church of England, and if that is so, I believe, too, that he will call them as bishops within the Church. I also need to learn from those who profoundly disagree with me, and work with them for the sake of the Gospel.

I was disappointed that the TEA proposals got such short shrift, not only from those firmly supportive of the ordination of women as bishops, but from those opposed. The editor, in his letter to me, says that, ‘the failure of the TEA proposals was surprisingly disheartening.’ I agree, but there was so little enthusiasm for them from those they were designed to include that it became inevitable that Synod would not see them as the way forward.

Coping with dissent

If those opposed to women bishops find it necessary to create a Continuing Church, or a third province, that will be to the immeasurable detriment of the Provinces of Canterbury and York. For some years in the 1980s, I was Rural Dean of Wath in the Sheffield Diocese, which some readers of New Directions will know epitomizes many of the divisions in the Church of England. For me that was an exciting time – including being taught how to preside at Mass using the Missal at Bolton-on-Dearne.

The Church of England needs to demonstrate that principled inclusiveness which other Christian traditions seem to find it hard to imagine. So Roman Catholics tell me that if women were ordained in the Communion, all would need to accept their ministry; Methodists tell me that the Church of England needs to put into practice what it claims to have affirmed, that women should be able to be appointed to any post in the Church of England, and that those who cannot cope with that should go elsewhere. I disagree. We need the facility within the body of Christ to dissent profoundly from one another’s views without cutting ourselves off from one another. We need the mutual support of those in favour of and those opposed to the ordination of women. We need the ways in which the inner urban ministry of so many traditional Catholic parishes in dioceses such as ours can be encouraged by working together with parishes of different persuasions, and can also enhance the ministry of the whole diocese. Whether God calls us to himself through evangelical charismatic worship or through pilgrimage to Our Lady of Walsingham, through the Calvinistic witness of the Reformation fathers or the Catholic tradition of the Caroline divines, we need one another in one Faith and one Lord.

The way forward

So we need to find a way forward which provides a structural solution for our differences. We do need to do more work on what constitutes a ‘secure sacred ministry’. Within a fractured church, it is not easy to see what that means. A recent Roman Catholic correspondent has no time for Forward in Faith because, he argues, secure sacred ministry means that which is in communion with Pope Benedict and cannot be found elsewhere. Anglicans cannot believe that. Such ‘security’, if it ever existed, must have disappeared at the Reformation. Sacramental assurance cannot simply (can it?) be a matter of who has touched whose head in ordination, regardless of intention or the communion of the Church.

I hope that the Bishop of Manchester’s group, and the subsequent discussions, will produce proposals which lead to the ordination of women as bishops because that is how I believe God is leading a majority in the Church of England and endless delay is disquieting to everyone. I also believe it is right! I hope, too, that sufficient sacramental assurance can be provided for those with whom I disagree and from whom I need to learn. The assurance cannot be total – that is not obtainable this side of heaven. It can provide space for us to live and grow together.

The proposals cannot provide ‘what we want’ for everyone -or indeed for anyone. They can enhance the good news of the Gospel. They could demonstrate how as Anglican Christians we live and work together, led by God in our variety – and that is a witness our world desperately needs. They might even look rather like TEA – but if that is to be the way forward, it will need a good deal more enthusiasm from those it is particularly designed to include. I