Mark Stevens assembles some of the essential elements of the controversy in order to consider the practical options that are set before us and where and how we should be going forward to fulfil our commission from the Lord

‘It ain’t over till the fat lady sings’. That is the message which is being regularly retailed to Catholic Anglicans in the wake of the General Decision of July 7, when adequate structural provision for those opposed to women bishops was definitively rejected. What is meant by the phrase is that the synodical process was not necessarily determined by that one vote and that developments (compare 2008 with 1992) are still possible – even, perhaps to be expected.

I have a great deal of sympathy for such a view. It is true that what emerges at the revision stage of this or any piece of legislation is will be unpredictable. It is true that the synodical process has been entered upon and for reasons of consistency and integrity has to be pursued to the end, whether bitter or not.

But it is also true that the writing is on the wall. As the National Assembly of Forward in Faith meets again in the Emmanuel Centre, Westminster on October 10-11 it would be tragic were the bitter realities of the present situation to be ignored or overlooked. The present predicament of traditionalists in the Church of England is, after all, not strictly comparable with that of 1992. In many radical ways it is very different indeed. And those differences need to be digested.

The problem over women bishops has been well understood by the proponents. And they are right in what they say. The Church must not (in a very real sense cannot) create second class bishops. To ordain women to an episcopacy different in any respect from that of men would be a disaster for both the women’s ordination and the Church of England. It would proclaim in terms both loud and certain that any pretence to have continued the Apostolic Ministry handed down from the Apostles’ time’ had been summarily abandoned.

Opponents of women’s ordination are obliged, of course, to agree wholeheartedly with these conclusions. The creation by the Act of Synod of a purpose-built sub-species of suffragan bishops (the PEVs) was imaginative, but it stretched credible ecclesiology to its limits. To create a new genus of diocesan bishop
– one with limited powers and delimited jurisdiction – would be an action as destructive of historical continuity as the ordination of women itself.

The truth, which traditionalists have been slow to acknowledge and revisionists to admit, is that the major innovations of the liberal agenda – women’s ordination and homosexual equality – are cuckoos in the theological nest: they need for their own well-being to oust the legitimate occupants. Precisely because they are adventitious and unprecedented they have to claim historical and doctrinal authenticity. That is why, despite the paucity of evidence, the search has been on for women office-holders in the church of the first three centuries, and why shadowy figures like Mary of Magdala and the putative ‘Joanna’ have assumed a sudden and unwarranted importance. Precisely because the Church has roundly rejected them in the past they need to claim to be logical and legitimate developments in the present.

All this involves two things. First, that those ‘developments’ must boldly masquerade as catholic orthodoxy; second, that they will necessarily be radically inimical to the orthodoxy they attempt to mimic. No attempt, however well-meaning, to accommodate in the same nest both the cuckoo and the original occupants can, it seems, ever succeed. All endeavours to do so will result in confusion and self-contradiction.

So, the doctrine of ‘reception’, which left open the question of the authenticity of women’s orders to some unspecified future time in the life of the universal church, required the Church of England in present time to embrace a contradiction. Sacramental assurance is one of the reasons for which orders exist; and yet the Church of England was obliged by this strange doctrine to authorize a ministry of which the best that it could itself say was that its validity was uncertain! Catholics, alas, went along with this charade on the rather ungallant grounds that at least it was not their orders which were in question!

A similar self-contradictory absurdity is apparent in the attempts of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church to cleanse that body of it orthodox dissidents. The Bishop of Pittsburgh has been accused of ‘abandoning the communion of this church’ because of an expressed intention to transfer his diocese to another church with which The Episcopal Church is in communion. Either the charge is nonsensical or The Episcopal Church has a very Humpty-Dumpty notion of ‘communion! But in another sense the contradiction is both necessary and inevitable.

In order to legitimize the novel ‘inclusivity’ which has become the primary distinguishing mark of her church, Mrs Schori has both to assert her province’s good standing within the Communion and to repudiate the traditional stance on sexual ethics taken by most of that Communion’s constituent churches. To do otherwise would be to admit what is undoubtedly the case: that The Episcopal Church has long since lost the right to claim continuity with the faith of the first millennium and is merely one more manifestation of a late-flowering Protestant individualism.

In short, it seems, there is no acceptable internal ecclesiological solution which will accommodate traditionalists and revisionists within the same structure. The Church of England and Anglicanism as a whole has ceased in any meaningful sense to be a church: nothing unites it but the tenuous bonds of history and affection. There is no common tradition of scriptural exegesis; no common orders, common doctrine, or common ethical teaching.

The question for traditional Catholics in the Church of England is not so much whether there is a will on the part of the General Synod and the House of Bishops to ensure a future for them – nor even whether such a future in a revisionist church is desirable – but whether it will prove structurally possible to provide it. The recent decision of the Welsh Bench of Bishops to discontinue the role of the Provincial Assistant Bishop in Wales was not unexpected; but the terms in which it was expressed were significant. The PAB was said to be ‘unnecessary and inconsistent with Anglican ecclesiology’. Precisely so: if women priests (and more importantly bishops) are consonant with the tradition of the Apostolic Ministry, then episcopal provision for those opposed is not only not needed, but positively undermines the purpose for which orders were instituted in the first place.

Members of Forward in Faith need to take on board the simple fact that it may not be possible, with the advent of women bishops, to make provision for their continued existence in the Church of England. They will need to fight their corner in the Synod and at other levels in the life of the church. But that struggle may turn out to be not for the structural provision they need but for other equally practical necessities: for a financial settlement for clergy forced out of their livings and for generous arrangements for parishes seeking a life in another communion to depart with their property and assets.

The real scandal of July 7 was not simply the way in which the recommendations of the Manchester Group were rubbished or ignored, but also the absence from them, and from the Synod debate itself, of any acceptance of the need for financial provision. It is culpably disingenuous of Christina Rees to write (as she did in this magazine a month ago) that Synods cannot be bound by past assurances. The Act of Synod was a solemn undertaking; the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament was given repeated assurances that it had binding moral force. Whilst no one doubts that a Synod which can alter the ministry which it claims to have received from the Apostles’ time must be equally competent to overturn declarations and assurances scarcely two decades old, it should not be allowed to do so.

Parishes too deserve some acknowledgement of the shabby deception which has been played upon them. It proved difficult, in 1993, to deal with the pain and hardship of faithful lay-people who felt betrayed and ejected. We must see that the Church of England does better this time; and the way to help faithful lay people is to help faithful parishes. They must be enabled to make a new life for themselves outside the Church of England with their assets intact. A simple principle would suffice: that a parish is what has been bequeathed to it, and owns what it has willingly and consistently insured.

The synodical battle within the Church of England cannot, in my view, now be won: there has been a fundamental change of mood and attitude in the last fifteen years which is less sympathetic to our views and less supportive of our presence. But the synodical battle can be lost, in the sense that we could still be left without any provision at all, structural or financial. The paradox is that we have probably reached this impasse because we have been too successful; our numbers have not declined and we have staked out the intellectual terrain carefully and effectively It is
the proponents of women priests and bishops who are looking tired and repetitive. But they are now the beneficiaries of institutional inertia. What has been done cannot easily be undone, and has to be pursued to its final conclusion.

Forward in Faith was begun with a vision for unity and truth, and with a determination to secure an ecclesial future for our children and grandchildren. Those aims are constant. What we must now do is to imaging how those objectives can be achieved without the assistance (and probably with the animosity) of the majority in our church. Sympathy, support and welcome from our Roman Catholic colleagues will be crucial; but it cannot be taken for granted.
Though winter has descended upon ARCIC, the Roman bishops of England and Wales nevertheless enjoy a cosy relationship with their Anglican counterparts which they will be loathe to surrender (as they would undoubtedly be obliged to do were they to start welcoming ex-Anglicans in any significant numbers). And the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity is still struggling hard to catch up with the game. It operates, for the most part, on the now untenable assumption that the Anglican Communion is one united body. It is, of course, more like a loose association of doctrinally conflicting sects. But Rome (or at least the CCU) has, at the moment, no appetite for negotiation with individual groups of Anglicans – for the understandable reason that it is not in a position easily to discern the differences between them.

Asked by a canny enquirer at a recent Lambeth Press Conference whether the Anglican Communion was a church’, Rowan Williams opined that it was more like a church than the World Lutheran Federation and less like a church than the Roman Catholics. The truth is that the ecclesiological ball is still in the air, and it is by no means clear whether it will even fall within the court. Rome is wise to be cautious; but the victims of that caution may well be Anglican Catholics.

All this, I realize, is not cheerful news for those who are preparing for the Forward in Faith National Assembly. We pledged ourselves long ago to seek an ecclesial future for our children and our children’s children; and there does not presently seem to be a clear way forward – at least not one without serious attendant dangers and pitfalls. But one thing is certain. It is this: that our position is based not upon opinion but upon obedience.

Those in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate are in the business of objectifying an opinion. They are either contributory towards the current majority or prepared to go along with it. They believe that Orders are the possession of the Church and that the Church can do with them what she wills. They can change their position, they live in the confident hope that, given time, we will change ours.

But we have no opinion that we can change. We hold that Orders are a gift from the Lord of the Church; they are his. We can no more change the thing given than command the sun not to rise. An important consequence follows. Those in favour of women’s ordination are necessarily a mere coalition of the like-minded. We, on the contrary, are a people bound together by faith and obedience. It is as such a people that we must now behave and act.