Resources for reflection on women in the episcopate

Edited by Colin Podmore

Canterbury Press Norwich, 272pp, pbk

978 1848258266, £19.99

Since I cannot claim to be an impartial reviewer of Fathers in God?, let me begin by quoting from the impressive foreword by the Bishop of Coventry. Dr Cocksworth is not an impartial observer either; but his contribution is a valuable one, since he dissents from the body of teaching which forms the bulk of the book, and yet has graciously agreed to contribute to it. He writes that ‘Undoubtedly Fathers in God will be uncomfortable reading for many of us. It will rekindle feelings that we would rather avoid’. Yet Dr Cocksworth has contributed a foreword because of the respect he has for the Catholic Group on Synod, and the generosity he sees in its members in working to create the new settlement under which we now live and (God willing) will flourish.

But this alone, nice as it is, is not sufficient reason to recommend this book. The real reason why Fathers in God? is important is because, as Dr Cocksworth goes on to say, the arguments within it ‘constitute a carefully argued theological case that reveals the reasons why some people remain opposed to the priestly ministry of women and, even more so, to their episcopal ministry, reasons rooted in the doctrine of God’. Furthermore, ‘it is important for everyone in the Church of England, whatever their position on the ordination of women, to understand the[se] views … [and] to rebuild the relationships that the Church of Rome warned … would become more strained if we were to take the decision that we have taken’.

Let us hope and pray that the rest of the Church of England takes this as seriously as the Bishop of Coventry. If we are genuinely to thrive in the future, then the views we hold must be taken seriously. For our part, we must take seriously the duty to go on teaching and preaching and living the Catholic faith in its fullness. It is in this spirit, and for this reason, that Fathers in God? is to be welcomed as a valuable resource for the whole Church.

The centre-piece of the book is the theological report from Consecrated Women?, published by Forward in Faith and Canterbury Press in 2004, together with some of the papers submitted to the working party that produced it. It is, in other words, the theological sections of that book (which were by far the most substantial theological contributions to the debate at the time) but not the political or practical elements of it. Inevitably, these have dated in a way that the theology has not. As Colin Podmore notes in his introduction, ‘It is remarkable that, a decade after it was published, only three sentences in this 100-page report require editorial qualification’.

Fathers in God? also includes the section of the 2004 Rochester Report which summarises Catholic arguments against the ordination of women to the episcopate, prefaced by the address with which Bishop Geoffrey Rowell presented it to the General Synod. Cardinal Walter Kasper’s important 2006 address to the bishops of the Church of England, ‘The Mission of Bishops in the Mystery of the Church’, is also included.

In one of three entirely new essays that make up the first part of the book, Colin Podmore surveys Catholic contributions to the theological debate. He notes that despite the efforts of the working party that produced the Rochester Report, and despite the valiant attempts of the then Fr Jonathan Baker and others in General Synod, the Church of England as a whole showed little appetite for genuinely engaging with the theological issues at stake. The failure of the legislation in 2012 had its roots in this lack of theological engagement, and was signposted by the voting figures at every earlier stage of the process. The fact that the 2014 legislation passed was the result of a different approach, ‘based on conversation and consensus’, being adopted from the outset.

In another stimulating new essay, Emma Forward suggests that in a post-feminist society, the ‘possibility of justified reasons for gender distinction’ can be viewed in their own context and on their own merits, rather than as ‘a continuation of past gender oppression’. She notes that ‘those who question the innovation of women bishops are just as likely to be young or female as male and ordained’, and rejoices in the fact that the new settlement summarised in the Five Guiding Principles gives ‘high regard to notions of equality, meaningful accommodation and integration that people a few years previously had not thought possible’.

Finally (though it comes first in the book), the Bishop of Chichester takes the Book of Common Prayer and the diary of Samuel Pepys as the starting point for his discussion of how we might live in love and charity with our neighbours, and suggests that we must go beyond mere courtesy to those with whom we disagree, to the extent that we become ‘a presence that intensifies reference to ecclesial life within and beyond our own’. He asks what we can contribute to the corporate life of the Church.

It is clear that we are currently in the very early days of a new settlement. Fathers in God? will be an important contribution to the living-out of that settlement, and is in itself an important contribution to the life of the whole Church of God. ND Ian McCormack

Fathers in God? is available to members of Forward in Faith at the reduced price of £12.50 (inc. p&p). Please send a cheque, payable to Forward in Faith, to the office.