With simple clarity Margaret Laird outlines some of the confusion felt by Church of England lay people in the interminable debates over women bishops

When both sides support their claims from Scripture, it is not surprising that many Anglicans feel like one General Synod member who declared in 1992 that he ‘had not been given the wisdom to decide which way to vote’.

What many of the laity do not realise is that Synod’s acceptance of women priests and now bishops, undermines two main principles of the Church of England. No longer can Anglicans claim that they are required to receive ‘nothing as of faith save that which is upheld by Scripture and the tradition of the early Church’, nor that they are held together by a commonly accepted ministry, for no longer do all priests recognise each other’s orders.

Deeper thinking needed

That those who refuse to accept women priests can still be recognised as ‘valued and loyal Anglicans’, with pastoral provision being made for them, causes further confusion for the laity. As the matter is so unclear, many believe that it would have been wiser to have postponed the vote until theological and ecclesiological questions had been probed more deeply.

If statutory provision is not forthcoming, traditionalists will find themselves questioning once again whether the General Synod has the authority to change the nature of the historic ministry. Is this merely a matter of ‘order’ or of ‘doctrine’? Does ‘order’ reflect ‘doctrine’? Answers to these questions require some knowledge of church history and doctrine, and this puts many of the laity at a disadvantage.

Reading books about the English Reformation can be confusing, for historians differ in their interpretation and in their definitions of the Church of England. Consequently most lay people are dependent upon the interpretation they are given – usually by their parish priests. That the Church of England is both Catholic and Reformed is generally accepted, but what exactly does this mean?

One interpretation is that, at the Reformation, there was no desire to sever the CofE from her Catholic roots, but only to return to the faith as revealed in Scripture and in the received traditions of the early Church. Another, favoured by the proponents of women priests and bishops, was promoted by certain seventeenth and eighteenth century historians who, unlike Bishop Jewel and Archbishop Laud, claimed that the Church of England was an innovation with unrestricted authority to determine her own faith and order.

Wisdom unheeded

Many of the laity, with the Englishman’s deep-seated mistrust of Rome, favour the latter. This, together with Rome’s failure to recognise Anglican orders means that the ‘Catholic’ claims of Archbishop Fisher that ‘we have no doctrine of our own; we only possess the Catholic doctrine enshrined in the Catholic creeds, and those creeds we hold with no addition or diminution – on this rock we stand’ goes unheard.

The comment attributed to Bishop Hensley Henson that ‘the only doctrine peculiar to the Church of England is that there is no doctrine peculiar to the Church of England’, also fails to carry weight in General Synod debates. Forgetful of the rock from which she is hewn, the Church of England is in danger of becoming a church uncertain of her authority, unclear about her doctrine, and unsure about her claim to possess the historic ministry.

People in the pew are further perplexed about what is meant by the Church of England’s comprehensiveness. Evangelicals prefer to call their incumbents ‘ministers’, for their concept of priesthood is totally different from that of the AngloCatholics in the next parish. Until 1992, these two extremes were held together by the commonly accepted ministry. The sacramental rift then created is impossible to heal and the consecration of women bishops will give rise to further complications, for once this happens, the orders of male priests ordained by women bishops will not be recognised by all.

A divided church

The religious battles of the seventeenth century led to a more enlightened attitude to religious toleration and from the 1660s, the Church of England was held together by the Prayer Book and her ministry. As this is no longer possible, it means living in a divided church, and this will require great sensitivity and Christian charity.

If no statutory provision is to be provided for traditional Anglicans who oppose women bishops, there will be those amongst the Anglo- Catholics who will respond to Pope Benedict’s generous offer, while groups of conservative Evangelicals will probably seek refuge elsewhere. Consequently, all who have a deeply rooted affection for the Church of England will feel a terrible sense of loss as they watch (from within or from without) what they perceive to be the very essence of that church in danger of destruction.

The laity who choose to remain within the Church of England – and it will be the majority – must face up to the anomalies of the present and the ambiguities of the future. They must acclimatise themselves to the prospect of living within a divided church, with the realisation that harmony can only be achieved if both sides are prepared to show a sympathetic understanding of the issues at stake and by calling to mind the words of Jeremy Taylor, ‘It is also part of the Christian religion that the liberty of men’s consciences should be preserved in all things where God hath not set a limit and made a restraint.’ ND