John Shepley explains how the resolution to the crisis of women’s ordination within the Anglican Communion was almost worse than the original problem

I think that Lambeth 1968 erred in giving power to the I Anglican Consultative Council’was Michael Ramsey’s I considered opinion after the Limaru meeting and its decision to encourage diocesan autonomy in Orders and the ordination of women to the priesthood. But there is no evidence that giving power to Ramsey’s preferred alternative [‘it was a poor substitute for a meeting of archbishops’] was any better or more effective.

The Primates’ Meeting was established after Lambeth 1978, and was immediately plunged into the controversy over women bishops. By 1978 Hong Kong, Canada, the United States and New Zealand had all ordained women and eight other provinces had approved the innovation in principle. The Conference passed a wordy resolution which accepted this fait accompli. Resolution 21 went on to state that ‘the Conference also recognises… (3a) the autonomy of each of its member Churches, acknowledging the legal right of each Church to make its own decision about the appropriateness of admitting women to Holy Orders.’ It went on to state what was obvious but now superfluous: that such provincial action ‘has consequences of the utmost significance for the Anglican Communion as a whole.’

The next stage

In 1985, as had been confidently expected for some time, the Convention of the Episcopal Church gave notice of its intention ‘not to withhold consent to the election of abishop on grounds of gender! The announcement was acutely timed. It prepared the sides for battle at the 1988 Lambeth Conference – if battle there was to be – and it challenged the fragile authority of the newly established Primates Meeting.

Like the other so-called ‘instruments of unity’ the Primates’ Meeting had an initial remit of studied vagueness. Lambeth 1978 had called on the Archbishop of Canterbury to work with all the Primates of the Anglican Communion ‘to initiate consideration of the way to relate together the international conferences, councils and meetings within the Anglican Communion so that the Anglican Communion may best serve God within the context of one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.’

Though at a later Conference (1988), and in the widely circulated paper To Mend the Net, the suggestion was made that the Primates should have an enhanced responsibility in offering guidance on doctrinal moral and pastoral matters,’ such was never the original intention. Nor was it possible, faced with the gun-to-the-head presented by the American ultimatum, that such a role would realistically emerge.

Ham-strung by the wording of the 1978 statement on the ordination of women to the priesthood, the Primates took the line of least resistance and established a Commission which would consult widely and report back.

The task of those who drafted the Grindrod Report was in truth an impossible one. Unilateral decisions by individual autonomous provinces had already ended the traditional role of Orders as an effective sign of Unity: the orders of some provinces were now, in a new and fundamental way, unacceptable in others. And it was clear that this division was soon to be rendered graver, and perhaps permanent, by the ordination of women as bishops.

Invention of reception

The Grindrod solution’ came in two parts. The first was uncritically to embrace a doctrine of ‘reception’ developed from discussions in the more rarefied atmosphere of ecumenical diplomacy. The intrusion of women into Holy Orders was to be understood, it was claimed, as an experiment the success or failure of which could only be determined after a considerable passage of time. In the meantime, the opposing parties should respect each other’s integrity and autonomy of action. They should maintain ‘the highest possible degree of Communion.’

The second part of the solution’ was to initiate a new understanding of’communion’ which did not rely on or even employ the notion of the universality and interchangeability of orders, which had just been abandoned. This was expressed in the title of the first chapter of the Report ‘Listening as a Mark of Communion.’ The title was in one sense unexceptionable. Those who are ‘in communion’ are bound by their very mutuality to be attentive one to another. But responsive listening is a fruit of communion, not the cause or ground of it.

Both these attempted solutions to the problems of unity and catholicity which the ordination of women presented (and which in its faltering way the 1978 resolution had identified) proved both plausible and fatal. The two notions were enthusiastically adopted faute de mieux. But their consequences, considered away from the heated atmosphere of ecclesial politics, were arguably more destructive than the innovation they sought to accommodate.

Further destruction

The Grindrod Report took a further destructive step. It affirmed not only the right of autonomous provinces to ordain women (rendering Orders local and not universal), but also the necessary provisionality of the decisions taken. From being a haven of assurance, the Orders of the Church had now been turned into an arena of daring experiment.

Anglicans, in search of a unity which proved ever more fugitive, had wilfully negated the nature and purpose of the very Orders into which some of them had admitted women. Having done so it might reasonably be asked: what purpose did Orders nowserve in the Anglican polity? An answer was emerging; and another international Report – the Windsor Report – would be set up to deal with it.