Jonathan Baker takes another route to the meaning and significance of Holy Order to the one taken by Dr Rowan Williams

In his lecture at the Symposium at the Gregorian University in Rome on 19 November in honour of Cardinal Willebrands, the Archbishop of Canterbury argued that differences over the ordination of women should not, or need not, cause churches to be out of communion with one another. Using the language of first and second-order issues, the Archbishop suggested that once agreement over the nature and purpose of the Church has been reached (and the defining contours of its ministry likewise having been agreed), there ought to be a presumption that the question of who may exercise particular ministries is not a matter over which churches need divide.

Specifically, the ‘catholic shape’ of the ministry in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion means that what is common to each ought to be of far greater significance than the points of difference that separate them.

The matter of the sacrament

This is a promising ecclesiological argument. The difficulty with it, however, is that the disputed question of the ordination of women is not only (or even chiefly) about the mutual recognition of ministries, whether within a single church or communion, or between churches.

It is rather a dogmatic question, a fundamental question in sacramental theology: fundamental because it concerns the matter of the sacrament. Archbishop Rowan passes over this question in silence: save in one respect, itself highly disputed, to which we shall return in a moment.

Despite the years of discussion and debate about the ordination of women, their remains, sadly, a huge gulf of understanding between those Anglicans who (agreeing with the clear teaching of the Roman Catholic Church) see something sacramentally significant in the reservation of the priesthood and episcopate to men, and those who do not.

Put simply, the (Roman) Catholic position is this. Ordination confers on the candidate a distinct gift or charism, given by the Holy Spirit, whereby the newly ordained man is distinctively configured to Christ, in Christ’s particular mode as Head of the (Eucharistic) Body, the Church, and its (or better, her) Bridegroom and Spouse. Because women are capable neither by sign nor nature of being Head or Bridegroom, the recipient of the sacrament of Holy Orders must be a male.

Agreed long ago

True, this account, in sacramental theology, of the reservation of the priesthood to males is not the ultimate ground on which the Catholic position rests; that, of course, is the dominical foundation of the apostolic ministry and the unbroken nature of the Church’s Tradition, which no-one (not even the Pope) has the authority to amend.

But it is a dogmatic account of the Tradition which is thoroughly established in Roman Catholic teaching and not (contrary to some suggestions) an argument which has been ‘dreamt up’ in the recent past to shore up an otherwise arbitrary practice.

Inter Insigniores, the Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved by Pope Paul VI, on the reservation of priestly ministry to men, was, after all, published in October 1976, and therefore can be said to belong to the era of the early years of the ARCIC process.

Likewise, in the Observations published by the CDF on the Final Report of ARCIC I (1982), the ordination of women is noted as one of the obstacles to further unity, andis identified as being ‘of a doctrinal character [my emphasis], since the question whether one can or cannot be ordained is linked to the nature of the sacrament of Holy Orders.’

Of course, many Anglicans would share neither wholly nor even partially the account of sacramental symbolism, Eucharistic presidency and ministerial priesthood which informs Roman Catholic teaching. But neither can such an account be considered unequivocally to be contrary to an Anglican understanding of these matters.

Indeed, despite the resolution of the General Synod in 1975 that there are ‘no theological objections’ to the ordination of women, Anglican praxis, whether via the package of provisions for those opposed which accompanied the 1993 Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure (and ensured its passage through Synod and Parliament), or as embodied in the careful and wide-ranging discussion contained in the Rochester Report (of which the Synod overwhelmingly took note) has continued to indicate that there is a legitimate diversity of theological understanding in play within the parameters of Anglican discourse.

A false Anglican tradition

I said that, in one respect, the Archbishop of Canterbury did engage with the approach to the question of the ordination of women via sacramental theology (rather than as a purely ecclesiological crux) in his Rome speech.

This was when he indicated that for some Anglicans, the restriction of ordination to males only implies an unhappy distinction between the status, within the Body of Christ, of baptised women and baptised men. Crudely, this argument has been summed up and advanced under the banner, ‘If you can’t ordain us [women], don’t baptise us.’

This slogan wholly neglects the fundamental argument in Catholic teaching, and which is surely not inimical to a classically Anglican theology of ordination, that the ministerial priesthood (and, par excellence, the episcopate) is at the service of the royal priesthood of all the baptised, and is not simply an extension of it. It belongs to a different arena of the gifts of the Spirit.

Witness of the liturgy

Again, put crudely: ordination is not about the ‘promotion’ of certain Christians to positions of leadership and seniority (from which it would be wholly inappropriate to exclude some on the grounds of gender alone), but rather about a distinctive role within the (divinely appointed) sacramental economy.

Interestingly, the texts of Common Worship ordinal would appear to have been carefully composed to accommodate just such a view of the relationship between the royal priesthood of the baptised, and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained. In the introduction to each the three ordination rites (bishop, priest and deacon), the bishop who is presiding gives an account of the Church as the whole people of God.

This sentence then follows: ‘To serve this royal priesthood [my emphasis], God has given a variety of ministries.’

A ministry of service

There is no suggestion here that the gift of ordination is simply a superior form of the gift of baptism; quite the reverse. Again, no doubt there are plenty of Anglicans who would wish to put a different construction on this text. But must it not be agreed that a ‘plain reading’ suggests entire compatibility with Catholic teaching?

The ordination of women as priests and bishops cannot simply be considered under the heading of ‘ecclesiological questions’. It is also a dogmatic and a doctrinal issue: and one which not only separates us from the Roman Catholic Church, but which continues to be an open question in our own church and communion.

Not the least consequence of this is, surely, that the Church of England must continue to give space for different conclusions about such an unresolved question to be held with integrity and confidence. ND