Geoffrey Kirk looks at the difficulties faced by US opponents to women’s ordination, and assesses the options now available to the orthodox
Has Forward in Faith North America gone soft on women’s ordination? There is certainly some evidence to that effect. The Diocese of San Joaquin has voted to secede from The Episcopal Church and is going to the Province of the Southern Cone, which, whilst it does not ordain women, will be happy to accept the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which does. The FiFNA bishops are enthusiastic members of the Common Cause Partnership and of the Network, both of which espouse a mixed economy in the matter.
I believe that the short answer to the question is ‘no’; but a long answer is necessary in order to explain the difficulties of conscientious objection to women’s ordination in the USA. The American church, as many have remarked, has espoused a New Religion, one which differs in important ways from Christianity. But the descent has been gradual, and it has not been easy for even the most orthodox believer to know when to get off or get out.
The process began with the wholesale adoption into the church of the secular culture of divorce and remarriage. The decline in membership of TEC in the Seventies and Eighties would have been even more precipitous had it not been for this divorce culture, which attracted significant numbers of ex-Roman Catholics. These cultural refugees entered a liberal church which had significant numbers of divorced and remarried priests and bishops and effectively consolidated its position.
Not surprisingly, there was a clear correlation between divorce and remarriage among the clergy, and heterodoxy in other matters. The Rt Revd James Pike (an ex-Roman Catholic thrice-married alcoholic) and the Rt Revd Walter Righter (thrice-married, the third time outside the Church) are obvious cases in point.
Guilt was, no doubt, a major factor in the support given by divorced and remarried bishops, clergy and laity to women’s ordination and gay rights. Having knowingly transgressed a solemn and repeated injunction of the Lord himself [Mark 10.11], these clergy were in no position to stand firm on matters about which Jesus is silent and the New Testament arguably ambiguous. Because they had themselves rejected permanence and stability in family life, they could not uphold any notion of given social roles for the sexes. They were feminists by mores, if not conviction, and gay liberationists by complicity, if not explicitly.
At the same time as TEC was undergoing its crisis of marriage discipline, it also became belatedly involved in the nationwide Civil Rights Movement. In both racial and sexual discrimination, TEC (an overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon body) had a bad record. The last diocese to exclude blacks from membership of its Diocesan Convention only rescinded the rule in 1954. As late as 1964, nearly half the dioceses admitted only men as members of parish vestries and diocesan conventions. In the mid-Sixties, however, Episcopalians suddenly became heavily (if somewhat paternalistically) involved in programmes to aid and enfranchise blacks. The women’s movement was seen as a logical extension of that involvement.
Again guilt rather than theology was the engine of development. By 1976, the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate had been approved; by 1988, Barbara Harris (crucifer at the original illegal ordinations of women in 1974) had been elected bishop.
Gay rights followed a similar, if slightly slower, trajectory. Louis Crew founded Integrity in 1974. Gay and lesbian ordinations, without censure or even comment, were common by the mid-Eighties. The election of an out-gay bishop was only a matter of time.
In twenty-five years, TEC had changed beyond recognition. Small wonder that traditionalists who had remained in the Church in 1976 wondered what to do and how to do it. Many hoped that TEC was still reformable. For the dwindling numbers of dioceses opposed to women’s ordination (and the other inevitable ‘developments’), secession became a recurring dream.
The then Bishop of Fort Worth, Clarence Pope (now a Roman Catholic), floated a scheme in the early Eighties to affiliate his diocese with the Province of Papua New Guinea. It met with some support from the then Primate, Bevan Meredith, but foundered on a lack of resolve and the inherent difficulty of persuading prosperous Texans that their natural spiritual home was with Anglicans in loincloths whose immediate ancestors had been head-hunters.
The advent of Katharine Jefferts Schori has been an unmitigated boon to the three remaining FiF dioceses. She incarnates the New Religion of Radical Inclusion and, at the same time, demonstrates by her words and every action that talk of ‘inclusiveness’ in the modern Episcopal Church is mere cant. The offer of temporary domicile in the Province of the Southern Cone is one which cannot be refused, despite problems and theological compromises.
But what of the future beyond the immediate moment?
That depends, to a large extent, on the future of the Anglican Communion itself. Many American traditionalists have pinned their hopes on Africa; but a continent so politically volatile is not likely to sustain stable, orthodox Anglican life for long.
Already CANA, the Nigerian offshoot in the USA, is proposing, unlike the parent body, to sanction a mixed economy over the ordination of women. The danger, clearly, is that these African colonies – AMiA, CANA and the rest – will be the carriers by which the TEC virus reaches the parent body. Divorce and remarriage, women’s ordination, gay priests and bishops, and finally the doctrines of universalism and radical inclusion have already gained a beach-head in the Church of the Province of Southern Africa. In the Province of Central Africa, the weakness and perceived venality of the former Archbishop, the contentious election of an English revisionist to the diocese of Lake Malawi, and the murder of traditionalist Fr Rodney Hunter combine to presage a stormy future.
Are there sunnier prospects in South America? I doubt it. The lure of the culture of the US is great, and the Anglican Church is small and inevitably enmeshed with things Northern and Western. I find it hard to imagine the long-term survival of orthodox Anglicanism there either.
The American dioceses (four? five?) who affiliate with the Southern Cone, I suggest, have not found a home: they are still on a journey. Their resting place will inevitably be the Catholic Church, which alone can stand against the noxious version of Gnosticism which Harold Bloom persuasively calls ‘The American Religion.