Sr Anne Williams CA explains why she cannot accept the usual justice argument in favour of women bishops, and why a promise once made should also be regarded as a matter of justice
The question that I have been asked most often about women’s ordination is ‘How can you not agree with it?’ Often this has come from people who have known me for many years and remember how I fought for equal rights for women in the workplace.
It was particularly hard for me more than thirty years ago when as a lone parent I had to work to support my daughter, and found that male work colleagues doing the same job were receiving much higher salaries.
So I took up the fight (now there’s a surprise). Sadly in the early 1990s the ordination of women to the priesthood seemed to me to be treated by many as a matter of equality, hence the questions as to why I was unable to be supportive.
Understanding of equality
Of course for me it was never a matter of equality – we are all equal in God’s eyes through baptism, but this does not mean that we all have exactly the same function or calling. I am grateful to have been brought up in the Anglo-Catholic tradition with priests who encouraged me to use my God-given gifts in God’s service, and I often wonder if part of the problem is that many women have not been encouraged in this way, and so feel the need to struggle for equality and sameness.
It continues to sadden me that as a national church we did not take the time to really study the theology of women in the priesthood, but instead made the decision based on equality and justice issues, because we had to be seen to respond to the spirit of the age.
I remember being told, ‘If you marry the spirit of the age, you will find yourself divorced in the next age’. A good reason I think to base our decisions on what we understand of God’s will from Scripture, Tradition and Reason, and not on what society sees fit to do.
The church, having made its decision to ordain women to the priesthood, did recognize and value the integrity of those who on theological grounds were not able to accept such an innovation. The Act of Synod with the Provincial Episcopal Visitors enabled us to remain as loyal members of the Church of England and to continue to respond to God’s call for us to join him in his Mission of Love to the world.
The Great Commission (Matthew 28) calls us all to do just that – to make disciples of all. And so it has been possible for many of us to work together with ordained sisters through our differences in the call to Mission.
How to break a promise
It did not take long however for there to be a call to rescind the Act of Synod, the very thing which strengthens us to continue God’s work in our beloved Church of England.
Last month, in this magazine, Christina Rees told us that a vote taken in one Synod cannot ‘promise’ something in perpetuity and yet we heard over and over again in July when debating a code of practice, ‘Trust us.’
It is of course logically and intellectually thin to say that promises in one age are not binding on another – what about housing and stipend promises made to clergy? Is it right to go back on those on the same basis? I think not.
A promise made is just as much a matter of justice as anything else. How can we trust those who cannot keep the synodical promise made to traditionalists, when they say that they recognize us as having an honoured and rightful place in the Church of England?
So what of women bishops and Synod’s call for a code of practice? Well, first of all, let me say that as I see it the Church of England having agreed that women can be priests cannot now say that they cannot be bishops; it really has become a matter of justice. It is a matter of justice also that those who are recognized as having an honoured and rightful place, despite their inability to recognize such orders, should continue to have adequate provision made for them.
We need to remember that not only are we unable to recognize the orders of women priests and bishops but also of any man ordained by a women bishop. A code of practice which enabled a woman diocesan bishop to delegate some functions to another ‘complementary’ bishop does not meet the bill either. Delegated functions would be carried out under the authority of the diocesan whose orders we did not recognize.
The work of mission
What is essential for us is that others recognize the depth of our faith, of our understanding of God’s call, our need to hold firm to orthodox truths and our need for certainty of orders. As Archbishop Rowan pointed out, it is not a matter of opinion but of obedience.
As catholic Anglicans we must be obedient to the tenets of our faith, as we have received them. We need this to be recognized, for there to be adequate provision made for us to function within the Church of England so that we can continue the work of mission in our parishes.
What a wonderful message that would send to those who are exploring faith in this land – it would really show how Christians can work together, can find a way through their difficulties and can put God’s Mission to the world above all else.
If only partial provision is made, which can be easily changed or ignored and left open to challenge, I am afraid I and many others will have no option left but to look elsewhere for a spiritual home which will enable us in conscience and obedience to fulfil our calling.
This is not, as some would call it, a threat. It is for me my worst nightmare, because the last thing I want is to leave the church of my birth, and indeed to leave the missionary work that I love and for which Church Army has trained me. I will not leave lightly but I will feel unable to stay and serve in a church which does not sufficiently value traditional needs.
Please keep in your prayers the work of the Manchester Group, the deliberations of the House of Bishops and of General Synod that a way may be found to hold together Christ’s Church in England.