Jonathan Redvers Harris looks at the continuing importance of the doctrine of reception, and why it rules out a Code of Practice

When the General Synod decided to open the priesthood to women, we heard a great deal about ‘reception. The doctrine of reception was a vital element in securing approval of the legislation.

But many had never heard of a ‘period of reception before, while some misunderstood it, and others cynically claimed that it really meant predetermined acceptance (‘Oh, they’ll come round to it in the end’).

We do not seem to have moved on much further in our understanding of what an open process of reception means. Some even seem to think that the period of reception has run its course already, in the fifteen years since women have been admitted to the presbyterate (‘They’re a fact; we’re used to them; it’s been received’).

This brief article aims to remind us of what the doctrine of reception is and what its significance is in the discussion about making proper arrangements for those opposed to admitting women to the historic episcopate.

Root of the doctrine

Recent decades have witnessed renewed use of the notion of reception in ecumenism, to describe the way in which participating churches receive and assimilate the fruits of ecumenical discussions.

But this is more a borrowing of the doctrine rather than a rediscovery, because by the historic doctrine of reception (which may be traced back to the twelfth-century canonist Gratian, if not earlier) is meant the acceptance, or rejection, by the Christian faithful of a doctrinal definition contained in promulgated legal formulation, on the basis of its consonance with apostolic faith.

At root, reception is theological. The flock of the faithful, by virtue of incorporation through baptism into Christ, and indwelt by his Spirit, has the capacity to recognize and discern the voice of the true Shepherd.

One of Christ’s offices in his Church is that of governance, which includes rule-making, and in this the whole people of God participates actively. Far from being a passive subject of laws issued, either by a magisterium or a legislative synod, each of the faithful has an appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) which, when exercised by the whole community, becomes the corporate instinct of the faithful (consensus fidelium).

The doctrine of reception is not about encouraging subjectivism (T don’t like that law, so I won’t receive it’). Nor is it to claim that a doctrinal definition from a church’s law-making body is only given validity subsequently by its subjects. Reception does, however, mean that a church’s law, while complete and valid at its point of promulgation, nonetheless -because it exists for the flourishing of the Christian faithful – contains elements of provisionally.

At the end of the day, if General Councils ‘may err’ [Article XXI], then so may governing bodies or synods. A human birth is a complete and contained act, yet continuing nurture and a good environment are needed if the child is to prosper in life. A law is only beginning at the point of promulgation; it is set in a context of the society of God’s people.

Recent revival

So to the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993, and the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 (a piece of quasi-legislation, necessary to secure the passage of the main Measure). This set of legislative arrangements emerged from reports which specifically prayed in aid of the notion of reception.

When the Rochester Report [Women Bishops in the Church of England? 2004] speaks of this as the ‘current Anglican concept of reception’ [para. 3.6.18], it is nothing more than the ancient principle of reception, but with a self-conscious, deliberate engaging in an open process from the very beginning of the development’s formulation.

The Lambeth Conference of 1988 recognized the importance of reception in relation to the issue of women’s priestly and episcopal ordination, and acknowl-

edged that the process was about the continued testing of the issue until it came either to be accepted or not accepted by the whole Church.

This Conference set in train the work of the Eames Commission, whose first report stressed that synodical decisions did not foreclose a matter and that the whole people of God were involved in discerning whether a particular decision was consonant with the faith of the Church.

Rochester Report

Eames used the term ‘provisionality’, and a second report of the Commission sought to clarify this, arguing that provisionality attached to the development, but not to the orders of the women forming the subject of the development. Rochester picked up this, noting that ‘it may sound paradoxical, if not contradictory, to say that the decision to ordain women priests is open to question, but the orders of those women who have been ordained are not’ [para. 3.6.26].

But this ‘apparent paradox’, according to Rochester, could be explained by proposers of the change as ‘simply the result of the fact that the Church of England has to act on what it believes to be right at any given time, while at the same time remaining open to the possibility that its decision might in the end be judged unacceptable by the universal Church.’

Rochester describes that exactly the same approach could be taken in relation to women bishops [para. 3.6.36].

We in the Legal Working Party of Forward in Faith, in a submission to the Manchester Group, disagreed with this having-your-cake-and-eating-it understanding, being based on too artificial a distinction. Indeed, this fine distinction was highlighted by the English and Welsh Roman Catholic bishops’ response in 2005 to the Rochester Report:

‘If there are doubts about whether women can he ordained bishops, and whether the decision to do so was right, then there are inevitable consequences for doubts about the validity of the orders and ministrations of those bishops. It cannot be held, as suggested in 3.6.36…that if the decision is found to be wrong to ordain women bishops, the orders of those women bishops would not be in doubt’ [para. 30].

The same applies to women priests: if the decision carries an element of provi-sionality, then so must the orders.

To return to the present arrangements, it is the Act of Synod which deliberately and specifically speaks of ensuring that ‘discernment of the Tightness or otherwise of the decision to ordain women to the priesthood’ should be ‘as open a process as possible.’

Yet the primary witness to reception lies in the Measure itself, with its indefinite provision (not limited to any ‘sell by’ date) enabling parochial church councils to pass resolutions A or B that they ‘would not accept’ the priestly ministry of women.

A continuing process

The question needs to be asked, as it was in Rochester, whether the consecration of women as bishops would bring the process of reception to an end. Rochester leaves the question technically open, though it seems to come down on the side of reception continuing, as a matter of theological consistency [3.6.35 and 3.6.36], and certainly it would follow from its assertion that ‘while there is still substantial opposition to or hesitation about the ordination of women both within the Church of England and ecumenically the process of reception is not complete’ [3.6.33].

Yet the question remains. Indeed, the authors of the theological section of Consecrated Women? wonder whether it can be right ‘to proceed with a second development (the ordination of women as bishops) when the first, upon which it is consequent, is still in doubt.’ To do so, they suggest, ‘would bring to an abrupt and premature end any sense of the ordination of women as a development which may or may not be received by the whole Church’ [para. 8.4.4].

And so one of concluding questions at the end of that first section is: ‘how can the Church proceed to the ordination of women as bishops, and still hold true to the assurances of 1992-4 and honour the process of reception?’ [10.5].

Our Legal Working Party’s contribution to the second section of Consecrated Women? took the line that there must be a continuing period of reception, which is why we suggested the creation of an additional province of the Church of England as the way forward, submitting that such provision ‘would enable the period of discernment as to the Tightness or otherwise of the decision to ordain women to continue for as long as necessary’ [6.1].

I do not accept that reception ends upon the consecration of women. True, it becomes even more hypothetical and difficult to reverse the development being tested, but the original process with regard to women priests is still continuing to unfold, and certainly a new development – again proffered to the wider Church for its ultimate judgement -brings the complication of an additional layer of development. But the process can only continue, despite the difficulty and complexity.

Code of practice

If the process of reception continues upon the consecration of women, then it is absurd even to talk about a code of practice making provision. It matters not how apparently generous its terms are, nor whether there is a statutory duty to ‘have regard’ to it.

A code of practice, of course, would have several obvious shortcomings: it could not be enforced directly, it could be amended subsequently, and it could not address primary legislative matters such as Sex Discrimination. But the principal reason for a code being a total non-starter is theological, flowing from the doctrine of reception.

A genuinely open period of reception, to enable the process of discernment to continue, requires full parity both for opponents and for proponents of change. A code of practice is a permissive, temporary deviation from the norm.

Reception, if it is to avoid the charge of being no more than a cloak for predetermined acceptance, demands that full, normative status be accorded to those unconvinced by the change, to enable their sacramental life (and, in the context of women bishops, their jurisdictional life as well) to flourish while remaining the ‘control’ in the continuing experiment with Holy Order.