Reception and memory

Dame Mary Tanner reminds us how important is the notion of open reception, with its biblical origin, how central to Anglican thinking, and why it should not now be abandoned

Institutions, like individuals, often suffer from a loss of continuing memory. As the General Synod in July comes to respond to the Report of the Revision Committee for the draft legislation on the admission of women to the episcopate, it is important to remind ourselves how we reached this place.

The Anglican Communion and the Church of England have been for more than forty years intensely concerned with the matter of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. The debate can be followed through the reports and resolutions of Lambeth Conferences since 1968, as well as the reports and motions that have been before our own General Synod. Both the discussions in the Communion and in the Church of England show how the notion of reception played an increasingly important place in the Eighties and Nineties in responding to the question of whether women should, or should not, be ordained and had a consequential effect upon the legislation put in place.

The impulse for the interest in reception came from studies on reception in Vatican II as well as the intensifying ecumenical discussion concerning how the convergences and consensus of ecumenical agreed statements might be ‘received’ into changed lives and relationships by churches in the advance to Christian unity. This led to a growing realization of the reality of reception in the life of the Church from the New Testament onwards.

Acts 15 was seen to illustrate how an issue which arose locally, and which affected the unity of the Church, was referred to a decision of the wider Church. When the Council determined that ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’, the decision moved to a period of reception. In time, in this instance, there was a positive reception of the mind of the Council.

The emergence of the threefold ordering of the ministry and the canon of Scripture are often cited as further examples of the process of reception. The witness of the Ecumenical Councils is also taken to be important evidence of the way of reception. The deliberations of Nicaea, for example, were received years later by Constantinople. It came to be acknowledged that things are not simply true because a Council speaks them, but rather that the truth of conciliar statements is seen to be true in their positive reception by the faithful. There might also be a negative reception, non-reception, as in the case of the christological decisions by the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

So, the ‘new holy word’ of the twentieth-century ecumenical discussions might be thought to be new, but the reality it referred to was acknowledged to be as old as the Church itself. ‘Reception’ described the process of acceptance, or indeed non-acceptance, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of a particular conciliar decision by local churches within the one Church of Christ. One feature of these early examples of reception is that the process was within a united Church, hardly possible today.

While Anglicans have insisted that the ministry presently under discussion is not that of the Church of England, or the Anglican Communion, but the ministry of the Universal Church, the fact is that in a divided Christendom there are no conciliar structures through which a process of discernment and decision making can occur for the whole Church. It is for this reason that Anglicans have been careful to insist that the matter be tested out, not only in the Anglican Communion, but with our ecumenical partners, in a continuing process of open reception.

The bishops at the 1988 Lambeth Conference approached the matter with this broad perspective in mind. The Conference made no attempt to state whether it was right or wrong to ordain women. The Conference was, however, clear that if a province were persuaded for compelling doctrinal reasons, by the experience of women in ordained ministry, by the demands of mission in its region, and if it had the overwhelming support of its dioceses, then a move to consecrate women should be offered for reception in the province itself, in the Anglican Communion, and in the Universal Church and that the churches of the Communion would remain in the highest degree of communion possible.

Ecumenical dialogue and reflection needed to continue. The matter of women’s ordination could not be declared to be settled, beyond any shadow of doubt, until it was received by the ‘whole Church’. Anglicans, holding different views, were urged to go on respecting each other’s deeply held convictions, acknowledging each other’s integrity in holding their views, allowing room for conscience to be protected, and remaining in the ‘highest degree of communion possible’. This was described as the way of ‘open reception’. Having studied the range of doctrinal, practical and ecumenical issues, this nuanced position taken by the bishops at the 1988 Lambeth Conference was hailed by some as ‘typical Anglican fudge’ and by others, more crudely, as ‘suck it and see theology’.

One of the most memorable things ten years on, at the 1998 Lambeth Conference where for the first time women bishops were present, was the way in which some of the twelve women bishops from the United States, Canada and New Zealand, with some of those deeply opposed to the consecration of women as bishops, worked together to produce a resolution calling on provinces to uphold the principle of ‘Open Reception as it relates to the ordination of women’, noting that reception ‘is a long and spiritual process’.

They affirmed ‘that those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to, the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate are both loyal Anglicans’. They asked that provinces ‘make such provision, including appropriate episcopal ministry, as will enable them to live in the highest degree of communion possible, recognising that there is and should be no compulsion on any bishop in matters concerning ordination or licensing’. The resolution was carried by the Conference.

As at Lambeth 1988, stress was laid on the qualities needed to live in the highest degree of communion possible, recognizing the integrity with which different views are held: courtesy, tolerance, mutual respect, a willingness to think the best of one another, and a commitment to pray for one another. We belong to one another in a single communion of God’s life and love, in a single, dynamic community of discernment, interpretation and reception, open to the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Among the bishops there was generosity and genuine mutual support, in spite of acknowledged deep difference. We ought not to underestimate this, even if in parts of the communion such a way has not always been honoured in the years that followed.

When the Church of England moved to ordain women after 1992, our legislative provisions were drafted with the same principle of ‘open reception’ in the Universal Church, and with the understanding of provisionality in the development concerning the ordering of the ministry of the Universal Church, as had been espoused by the Lambeth Conference. Only in this way could faith be kept with the Anglican understanding of itself as part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, in a process of discerning the mind of Christ for the ministry of the Universal Church.

As the Synod this coming July considers the ordination of women to the episcopate, we need once more to find a framework that will enable us to live in the highest degree of communion possible, knowing that in God’s own life and love, we do belong together and really trusting that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth – in God’s time, which is not our time.

When the General Synod made its decision over women and the priesthood, the bishops talked of making space for those of differing views while the Universal Church comes to a common mind. They talked of the importance of recognizing the integrity of those who hold different positions.

We need now secure and generous provision that makes sense, in a Church of England where the majority support and rejoice in the ordination of women, as I do, but where a significant loyal minority are opposed and deeply troubled on the grounds of confidence – namely that ordination and the recognition of orders are among those elements of our common Christian inheritance about which there is no room for doubt and who believe that they simply must know that those from whom they receive the sacraments and the Word of God have the authority of Christ and his Church to administer them.

We need to create a situation where we do not define ourselves over against one another on this issue alone, but are prepared to go on explaining to one another why we hold the views we do, as Jonathan Baker did so clearly in his article in New DirecTions in January. We need to go on explaining why it is Gospel truth for some that women should be ordained, and why it is Gospel truth for others that women should not be ordained. The discussion in the end pertains to our faith in the mystery of creation, redemption and abundant life in the Kingdom of God.

If we are to live into the future in the highest degree of communion possible, in spite of difference, then it will require of all of us – those in favour and those opposed – respect, generosity and mutual trust. We shall have to provide proper space to one another to flourish, to live with confidence in receiving God’s gracious gifts of Word and Sacrament. At the same time we shall have to take care that we do not seal ourselves off from one another in watertight compartments.

The Eames Commission, which offered guidelines to the Communion between 1988 and 1998, was clear, for example, that it would be impossible to live, even in restricted communion, if either side were to refuse to sit round the same synodical tables. Within a single synodical fellowship it meant the costly way of attentiveness to the other, listening to and understanding the position of the other.

In transformative conversation, in the space between testifying and listening, listening and testifying, we prepare together a space for the Spirit to guide us together into all truth. We all have to be open to think the impossible – that I might just be wrong and the other right. At the same time we need to recognize the cost that this entails for all of us. There is an almost unbearable cost for ordained women who hear their ministry called into question and refused. There is huge cost too for the significant minority for whom the efficacy of the sacraments is called in question.

The potential for wounding one another is immense. Elizabeth Templeton, a Reformed theologian, speaking to the bishops at the 1988 Lambeth Conference, spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. She challenged the bishops to see the struggle as gift: ‘It is gift … because it touches the levels of pain and passion which test what it means that we love our enemies.’

The world is used to unity of all sorts, solidarity in campaigns, unity in resistance, communities of party, creed, interest. But it is not used to such possibilities as this; that, for example, those who find the exclusion of women from the priesthood an intolerable apartheid and those who find their inclusion a violation of God’s will should enter one another’s suffering. Somewhere in there authority lies.

This is not an internal churchy matter, though how we conduct the conversation often makes it sound as if that is what we think. It is about how God is at work in the Church for the sake of the world. It is a matter of unity and mission. How we in the Church of England live with difference has significance not only for ourselves but also for the wider Church, and for a world which desperately needs to learn the art of living together generously with difference.

As Archbishop Rowan has said, ‘in what is still formally acknowledged to be a time of discernment and reception, is it nonsense to think that holding on to a limited but real common life and mutual acknowledgement of integrity might be worth working for in the Anglican family?… At least, by means of some of the carefully crafted institutional ways of continuing to work together, there remains an embodied trust in the possibility of discovering a shared ministry of the Gospel; and who knows what more, ultimately, in terms of restored communion?’

Members of the General Synod will need to weigh up carefully the proposals of the Revision Committee to see if they make it possible for those who hold their views with integrity to live together in the highest degree of communion possible in a process of ongoing ‘open reception’. ND