Geoffrey Kirk on attempts to deploy supposedly catholic arguments in favour of the ordination of women

Veteran readers of New Directions will remember early attacks upon its ‘tone’. I recall giving evidence, long ago, to the Blackburn Commission on the working of the Act of Synod. Before we could get down to the mandated business, the then Bishop of Blackburn – no supporter of women priests he – treated us to a lengthy tirade on the ‘tone’ of this magazine. So much so that I was obliged to remind the stenographer that the content of ND was not part of the remit of the committee and that any allusion to it should be stricken from the record.

Perhaps the ‘tone’ of this magazine has become more emollient over the years (too emollient, some would say; I couldn’t possibly comment). But if so it has forsaken part of the great tradition of Anglo-Catholicism: its propensity for irony and satire. In a still underestimated essay by the Blessed JHN (the snappily titled Lectures on certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in submitting to the Catholic Church) I recently came across the following on the role of the Bishops in the debacle following the publication of Tract XC:

‘The authorities in question gladly availed themselves of the power conferred on them by the movement against the movement itself. They fearlessly handselled their Apostolic weapons upon the Apostolical party. One after another, in long succession, they took up their song and their parable against it. It was a solemn war-dance, which they executed round victims, who by their very principles were bound hand and foot, and could only eye with disgust and perplexity this most unaccountable movement, on the part of their ‘holy Fathers, the representatives of the Apostles, and the Angels of the Churches.’ It was the beginning of the end.’

Now there’s ‘tone’ for you! And accurate to a degree. The argument, moreover, can be extended. It is one of the characteristics of our opponents in the matter of women’s ordination that they have consistently marshalled what they supposed to be catholic arguments against us.

Not long ago our self-appointed nemesis, the double-barrelled Archdeacon of Lewisham and Greenwich, told me that she could not acknowledge the Church of England as a real Church if it did not have the authority to ordain women to the episcopate. I replied (as I am sure you would) that I had never even considered the possibility that the CofE was a ‘church’ in that sense (if sense there was); it could claim, at best, to be a part of the Church Catholic.

But her line of argument, though myopic, is perspicuous.

It is rooted in the oft-cited objections to alternative episcopal oversight. Catholic understanding of the episcopacy, it is said, requires that the bishop is a ‘focus of unity’ for all in his diocese. There can be no episcopal provision which compromises that fundamental principle. How true! But if true, another principle applies (obligingly enunciated for us by no less a person than Rowan Williams): ‘it would be anomalous to appoint as a bishop one whose ministry would not be received by many in the diocese or the wider Church’. The understanding of the role of the bishop as ‘focus of unity’, then,’ is an argument not against PEVs, but against women bishops themselves.

The bishop, in Catholic teaching, is a focus of unity in his diocese, an instrument of unity between dioceses and a symbol of unity, diachronically, down the ages. Whilst significant opposition to the innovation exists within dioceses and provinces and between provinces, a woman bishop cannot presently discharge this primary function. And, since the justification for female ordination is that it corrects and undoes the errors of a patriarchalist past, it is hard to see how women bishops could ever be a symbol of continuity with historic Christendom.

The notion that a church is only a Church when it can dispose its orders according to its own discretion is, of course, a mirror image of catholic teaching: that is to say, its exact opposite. For catholic Christians orders are not at the disposal of the Church, they are an apostolic donné: a given part of its nature and existence. In the words of Pope John Paul II: ‘in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great impor tance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself [quae ad ipsam Ecclesiae divinam constitutionem pertinent], in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever [facultatem nullatenus habere] to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be defini tively held by all the Church’s faithful.’

The deployment of cod-catholicism as a weapon in the struggle for women’s ordination deserves a degree of rage not less than Newman’s feisty response to the activities of the Heads of Houses and bishops in 1841. The action which these arguments seek to defend and uphold is, after all, one with dire consequences both for the unity of Christendom and the catholic claims of the Church of England.

But, perhaps inevitably, there are presently in the Catholic Movement in the Church of England more Kebles than Newmans. Entrenchment, stasis, rather than controversy is the mood of the moment. Said Keble after the Gorham judgment: ‘if the Church of England were to fail, it would be found in my parish’. It was a statement hardly more Catholic than the specious arguments of the proponents of women’s ordination. ND