David Houlding considers the concept of Sacramental assurance

The Church of England is catholic before it is anything else, part of the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, world-wide and throughout all ages. We are all catholic Christians and we find a mark of our identity as such in the apostolic ministry, as we believe the Church of England to have traditionally received it.

Our identity

It may or may not be right that women should now be ordained – I cannot answer that question – what is clear is that the Church of England must have women as bishops in due time, because you cannot admit them to two orders only. Justice demands that women should be ordained as bishops, i.e. to all three orders. So the question turns on how to preserve those links with our catholic roots, which are recognizable within the life of the Universal Church?

Equality for everyone

In no sense can the proposals before Synod, as drafted, be adequate to enshrine this position theologically. Let’s be clear, the Measure that came out of the Revision Process is not the same as the legislation that Synod originally accepted. Before any practical arrangements are put in place, there must be acceptance of the principle, ‘that for those who dissent from as well as those who assent to the ordination of women as priests and bishops are loyal Anglicans’ (Lambeth Conference resolution, affirmed by my amendment in Synod, 2006).

This must mean a place of parity and equality for everyone. The legislation denies that most emphatically by relegating the provision to a code of practice and by the means of delegation, without ‘transferring’ proper episcopal authority to a recognized person so ordained in the traditional manner.

Introducing doubt

This means there must be bishops to hold authority and to minister to those who request it – bishops who would have the confidence of those to whom they might minister, in order to guarantee the sacramental life of the Church. That other communions of East and West may have difficulty accepting Anglican orders is not the point at stake here. We must be clear about what we are doing, for us to have confidence in our orders.

That the ordination of women brings about dubiety in our orders is at the heart of the problem – and the one thing that you cannot have with the sacramental life is doubt. Sacraments are not experiments, you cannot ‘try them out’ (Bishop Kenneth Kirk), they are sure and certain signs of God’s presence and involvement in the world.

If gender is not a problem, then the sacraments will not be affected; if it is, then this doubt will undermine the whole life of the Church. No Eucharist – no Church! The legislation provides no ‘sacramental assurance’ for those who in conscience doubt the rightness of the decision to proceed with women ordained as bishops. It simply permits a man to stand in for a woman when so requested. That in itself is sexism in reverse.

It takes no account of the manner in which someone, male or female, might be ordained. The problem is not solely of ‘gender’, but because the person, so consecrated, may not be a bishop, according to the traditional interpretation and practice of the wider Church.

Delegation cannot work

It also follows that without a place for theological conviction and sacramental assurance, the model of delegation cannot work. A male bishop standing in for, acting on behalf of, substituting for a woman bears the same authority. Being given by means of a code of practice weakens it still further – in the end it cannot be enforced.

The evidence of the last fifteen years is that many of the diocesan bishops have resented operating the Act of Synod and recognizing parishes that have exercised their statutory right to pass resolutions (A and B) not to receive the ministry of women priests.

All such rights are now removed, which means that there will be one ‘official’ view of the Church of England, with tolerance (or not) for those who dissent – the ‘non jurors’, second class bishops, clergy and laity – and for how long will that last?

Embracing diversity

The Church of England is seeking to impose ‘conformity’ – in order to achieve unity, as if this is the final word. Embracing the diversity, in a spirit of generosity and flexibility in relation to episcopal authority, is far more likely to achieve a model closer to one enjoined upon us by the Lord himself in John 17. The Archbishops have seen that. The General Synod failed to accept their lead. But in truth we need to return to that model of shared authority by means of ‘transfer’ in order to attain the settlement we are all looking for.

Conscience above all must be respected; full and proper provision must be made for the sake of the Church of England’s identity, because it goes to the heart of the question ‘what sort of Church we want to be?’ (Bishop Nigel McCullough).

Alas, I feel we have a long journey ahead. We are facing in the wrong direction, so do we have the courage to turn round and get ourselves on the right road – before it is too late? If not, I fear the crash coming down.

A version of this article appeared originally in the Church Times ND