As the CofE replaces Resolutions A, B and C, Adrian Pearce explains that Scripture and tradition provide us with the map for the journey ahead
It is sometimes said that ‘women are from Venus and men are from Mars’, the sexes seemingly to inhabit very different worlds. The scenario of a man asking a woman why she is so upset with him and the woman replying: ‘Well, if you don’t know I’m not going to tell you’, whilst being comical, is frequently a reality. Gender differences are often revealed in journeys. Apparently men won’t look at maps or stop to ask directions; they know how to get from A to B. Hours later and completely lost, it is the woman who gets out the map whilst the man turns the car around! Thank goodness today for GPS machines.
This year, the Church of England embarks upon a new direction in its own spiritual journey. Resolutions A, B and C are to be rescinded and the Bishop of Richborough has asked that our PCC votes to decide whether this parish is to continue under his pastoral care or whether it is to return to that of the Bishop of Winchester and to accept the ordination of women as priests and bishops. It is about this that I have been asked to preach and, having then done so, I encourage you to talk to your PCC, with whom I have already spoken, to express your feelings about your future at St Ambrose’s Church. The future direction of this church, in this instance, does not lie with me but with you and with your deciding vote through your PCC, so please be sure to discuss this urgent and defining matter with them.
As Christians we are all on a journey needing direction. We rely upon each other for help in this, and that was so from the very beginning of the Church. St Paul highlights something fundamental to what the Church is today; that it is a gift of a received and an agreed faith, passed down through the generations; a journey with a known beginning and a hoped for end, but one that needs guidance and mapping.
Foundation of our faith
St Paul is clear that it is God who initiates the journey, as he says it is ‘the power of God who saved us and called us…not according to our works but according to his own purpose…given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began’. It was for this that St Paul declares he was appointed an Apostle, an office we refer to today as ‘Bishop’; one who oversees the Church, steering it in the way that the Lord has revealed it to be, and he issues a warning to the Church of his day: ‘Hold to the standard of sound teaching…the good treasure entrusted to you’. He makes it plain that Jesus has laid the foundation of our faith and that the Church’s direction comes from him and from those whom he has appointed as Apostles. St Peter too answers his questioners when they ask him on whose authority he acts. Filled with the Holy Spirit he tells them that it is in the name of Jesus and he reminds them that ‘the stone that was rejected by you…has become the chief cornerstone’.
What we have received through Christ and his Apostles is the map that guides our faith-journey now, and the authority we are called to follow today, just as it was in St Paul’s time. Taking any other starting point or route diverts us away from Jesus and is guaranteed to get us lost.
The Church of England, only recently since 1992, has been divided over this received authority concerning the question of whether or not it is God’s will that priestly and episcopal orders should, after two thousand years of existence as a male preserve, be opened to women as well as to men. It is sad that the Church has had to endure division, not only between denominations over the centuries, but also, through this very issue, within our own Church of England today. The subject is both deeply contentious and divisive and I perceive that the problem has arisen from the erroneous conflation of two different sets of arguments whose starting points arise from distinctly different premises.
In today’s world, it is right that we stand against prejudice and inequality and I rejoice that we live in a country that advocates equal opportunity amongst the sexes and races which constitute society. That women should receive less pay than men for doing the same job is shameful. That women should be prejudiced against from entering certain occupations is also equally shameful. The law of the land rightly addresses all such instances of inequality in order to eliminate the ignorance which fosters prejudice. Civil and constitutional law provides a framework of direction for men and women, black or white, able-bodied or disabled, to enjoy parity and equality of life and work.
So can the same arguments be applied to the Church? Well, there is a significant difference in that the Church is in the world but it is not of it. Ordained leadership is not a matter of one’s choosing, but of God’s calling.
When Christ chose the Apostles to establish the Church in his name, he selected twelve men, representing the twelve tribes of Israel; the Gospels record their names. Now if I had been Jesus, I would have included in my selection, Mary, his mother, for she is the supreme example of faith and without her ‘yes’ to God’s call, the covenant of redemption between God and humanity would not have been possible. I would also have included Mary Magdalene for she was such a close friend of the Lord’s and is the prime example of someone who has turned their life around in obedience to God. There are also a number of other women whose faith and faithfulness shines considerably brighter than the ‘rag bag’ of men, especially Judas, whom Jesus chose. So it remains a mystery to me why the Lord selected as he did, but then I don’t have the mind of God. It isn’t my task to map out the route to salvation; it is mine simply and obediently to follow it.
Obedience to God’s will
It is said by some that Jesus was a product of his time and culture, and that today he would have chosen differently. That argument is untenable because Jesus was an exceptional lawbreaker in his time and was certainly not constrained by either the cultural or the religious mind-set of the day. He lived and dined with prostitutes and adulteresses and with women who were deemed ritually unclean. He spoke to Samaritan women; those considered to be outcasts from the Jewish faith, and he received water from one of them. All of these incidents would exclude Jesus from acceptance within the culture and religion of Judaism and would have breached many Gentile codes of conduct too, but that didn’t worry him in the slightest. His thinking and actions were not moulded by the culture of the times.
This Jesus who turned the religious, social and cultural ‘tables’ upside down is understood, by Christianity, to be God, not just two thousand years ago but now and evermore. The example he set then was also for the world to follow now and for the future. If we don’t accept that, then the only conclusion we may draw is that God in Jesus Christ, who was and is and is to come, made a mistake and got things wrong. If that is the case, then we are following a fallible God and the foundation of our faith is worthless and, if that is also the case, the Scriptures are not representative of God’s will today, and the tradition of the Church, founded upon those Scriptures, is nothing more than a construct of human fallibility founded upon the teachings of a God who was seriously mistaken. If I believed that to be so, I would have packed up and gone long ago and bought myself some normal shirts!
It isn’t mine, or anyone else’s place, to either rewrite Scripture or to reinvent the way in which God has revealed himself to us through history. In our obedience to God’s revealed will, as the Gospel puts it: ‘we have done only what we ought to have done’. Disobeying his revealed will must therefore mean doing what we ought not to have done.
I have been asked what it means for us as a church to be described as ‘Forward in Faith’ and, in particular, what relationship that bears with the Resolution under the House of Bishops’ Declaration which is to replace the current ‘Resolution C’ that we have passed. For those who are unclear, ‘Forward in Faith’ is a Church of England organization which arose in 1992 to uphold the traditional Christian adherence to what the Bible teaches as well as an adherence to the traditions of the Church which have their foundation in biblical revelation. ‘Resolution C’ and its successor, the new Resolution, declares that, because we have no divine mandate to remodel the Church in alignment with secular legalism, but do have a duty of obedience to the revealed will and word of God in Scripture and tradition, that we cannot accept that there is any God-given authority to legislate for the consecration of women to the episcopate. The Resolution upon which we are to vote, therefore, defends the infallibility of both God’s revealed will and word, and of our right to be obedient to Christ’s teaching now as when Jesus and his Apostles walked this earth.
Choosing our route
William Tyndale was the first translator of the Bible from its original languages into English. What Tyndale was not was a re-writer of those scriptures. He worked tirelessly to produce a faithful and an accurate translation, being careful not to distort or corrupt the meaning of the original words to accommodate the whims of the secular world of his day. However, if the Church of England falls into that trap and proclaims that these new innovations, such as we have seen with the recent legislation to consecrate women in the episcopacy, then we also have to accept that Christ made a mistake and that the Church’s teaching has been completely wrong for the last two thousand years, but we can’t have it both ways and we have to choose which route we follow. We have Scripture, tradition founded upon that Scripture, and the power of reason to interpret both of these pillars of faith. The new Resolution, replacing Resolutions A, B and C, defends the integrity of our received faith.
Losing the connection
If consecration of women as bishops is not the will of God, then they are not ordained and those whom they then choose to ‘ordain’ as priests are also not ordained and the historical, spiritual connection and authority which validates and confirms the future priesthood of the Church is lost forever and the Church’s sacramental life is killed. St John tells us: ‘there will be one flock, one shepherd’.
So, the journey we take as Christians has a start and a finish in Jesus Christ, and the map for the journey from that start to that finish is provided by both Scripture and a tradition which has evolved from God’s word, and we read that map with the God-given gift of reason which enables us to discern truth from fiction in God’s revealed will and word.
Cementing our position
The Church of England is a very small part of Christendom; the Orthodox Communion of the East and the Roman Communion of the West form, by far, the majority of the Christian Church, of which we as Anglicans profess a shared authority and belief. Let us make sure that what we do is in keeping with the wider Church of our birth; that we look to her for guidance and defend against becoming nothing more than a break-away sect. There is neither room nor need for new innovations. God either got it right or he got it wrong; both cannot be the case. The consequences of the latter being so do not bear thinking about and nor do the consequences of us getting it wrong either!
Passing the Resolution does not separate us from the Church of England; it cements our position within the wider Church as Anglicans, faithful to the teaching and gift of Christ and his Apostles. Such a traditional position is supported by two thousand years of belief and practice. The minority view encouraging new innovations within the Church of England has only twenty-three years to support it and it is certainly not a position that is upheld by all.
Study and pray
The Archbishop of Canterbury has made it quite clear that those upholding a traditionalist position, as well as those who support the new movement, are equally Anglican, and that it is authentic to the nature of Anglicanism that diverse views should be held in dynamic tension.
Standing by the truth, we need not get lost in our journey of faith; it is all mapped out over two thousand years and the directions can all be found in the Bible. Make sure you don’t get lost, for you have no excuse to. The Church is not an organization in evolution, it is the revelation of the eternal presence of Jesus Christ, once and for evermore. Now it is over to you. Study the Scriptures and the history of your faith and pray about how you want your PCC to vote on this issue and on the future of your Church. It is entirely in your hands.
Statement presented by Fr Adrian Pearce, parish priest of St Ambrose Church, Bournemouth, on 10 May 2015