Much has happened recently in church affairs, and each week brings a fresh surprise, but perhaps the most surprising, even shocking development in the long running, exhaustive debate about women in the priesthood and the episcopate is the recent return to the assertion that it is merely a second order issue! Archbishop Rowan Williams, it appears, in an extraordinary speech on his recent visit to Rome, made just this claim.

Frankly we are puzzled. The status of the question was a topic dealt with as long ago as 1988 by the House of Bishops in their Second Report on the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood [GS829]. They said:

As we considered the arguments for and against the ordination of women we found ourselves asking, what is the status of the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood? It is sometimes argued that this is a second order’ question, such as obligatory clerical celibacy, not impinging directly upon ‘first order’ questions, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, or of the Person of Christ, or of the Atonement, where the central tenets of the Christian faith are plainly at stake. However, we have come to doubt whether in this context such a distinction is useful.

This for two reasons:

(a) For many of those who favour the ordination of women, as well as for many of those who do not, the question is not one of comparative doctrinal indifference. It is seen as closely bound up with what is believed about the nature of God, about Christ and about the Church and about creation. It is thus intimately related to the centre’ of the faith.

(b) The distinction is also unhelpful insofar as it may appear to imply a distinction between matters of faith as primary and matters of order as secondary. But it is an article of faith that the Church is a communion of saints. The ordained ministry is a principal instrument given by God for the maintenance of true communion. In this way questions of church order touch upon matters of faith.

New Directions has never supposed the Bishops of the Church of England to be infallible. But this does seem to us to be a fair assessment of the state of play, and appeared in a report which was claimed, at the time, to be unanimous. It has been on this understanding that all the subsequent resolutions of General Synod have been based.

Why now the sudden change of heart?

How, if as so many have claimed (notably Bishop Roy Williamson in his Speech on the afternoon of 11 November 1992), that women’s ordination is a matter of fundamental justice, is justice now deemed to be a second order issue’ for Christians of whatever theological persuasion?

And how can it be a second order issue’ if, as Rowan claims, the failure to ordain women undermines – or even negates -the fundamental equality of the redeemed which is the fruit of common baptism?

One could be excused for thinking that women’s ordination is a ‘first order issue’ when the proponents want to do it, and a second order issue’ when they want to mitigate the consequences of what they have done.

In a world bedevilled by an injudicious confidentiality [see Secret! p. 11] it is hard to discern the truth. The emergence of Anglicanorum Coetibus has been the subject of Speculation and recrimination. The Archbishop of Canterbury, it is said, looked mightily peeved at the joint press conference with the Archbishop of Westminster. And the Archbishop of Westminster has now claimed that the problem lay with Rowan’s own bishops, who failed to keep him informed of the contacts they were making.

Perhaps we can clear the air by breaking a few confidences of our own. We are in no doubt that the Archbishop of Canterbury was well briefed by those -and in particular those PEVs – who had dealings with the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We are equally confident that contact took place between a bishop of the Archdiocese of Westminster and those who went to Rome in April of last year.

It is unkind at this stage to blame anyone for the failings of the culture of secrecy in which all live, and from which all suffer. And fruitless to blame anyone for not revealing details of the Apostolic Constitution which none of them knew until they were unveiled.