The 1992 vote was, for Frances Ward, a moment of breaking and remaking still with us today
Those heady days of 1992! Now seems an age away from that younger deacon me, living with the intense frustration at not being ordained priest. The horrible misogyny of taint talk with its barely-disguised purity codes that Jesus did so much to challenge. The polarisations of the Church on the issue, with vicious asides, spitting and scratching. The intense delight and surprise of that positive vote – followed by the ongoing wait until ordination in April 1994. A large mixture of feminist ‘right’, stirred in, too, then.
Thirty or so years on, with a rich and varied ministry behind, I know now that priesthood is not a right, but a gift and a privilege. It is the highest calling: to be called to represent God to humanity and humanity to God in his universal Church, which is the means of his grace through Word and sacraments. It is to be ‘in persona Christi’, presiding as the bread and wine are consecrated by God to become the Real Presence, equipping the Body of Christ to take forward the mission of God.
Today the Church is riven by other matters, no less divisive. The complex issues of sexuality and gender, of course. But actually, to my mind, the more profound divisions are ecclesiological. Are we a living and witnessing part of the one, true, Catholic and apostolic Church, seeking to be faithful to the God who calls his Church to be holy and sacramental in the world? Or are we some Pelagian gathering that believes by its own efforts of growth and pioneering zeal that the kingdom of heaven will be ushered in? By its own Gnostic fantasy of renewal and reform that we will reverse the social trends of atheism in the twinkling of any eye?
There is a challenging apologetic, theological, ecclesiological, and pedagogical task before the Church today. She needs to be holy and prayerful, with a sophisticated theological understanding of contemporary culture and its pitfalls, able to communicate the joy of the Gospel. We, who represent the Church, need to be holy priests, preachers and teachers who can give the world what it is hungry for: the sacraments of grace that illuminate and draw lives more deeply into God.
That word ‘Growth’. It’s everywhere – on websites, leaflets, pamphlets, on the lips of energetic and earnest pioneers. The soul of the Church of England is at stake. It is being driven by straplines that profoundly mis-understand the relationship of gospel and culture. Instead of a healthy critique of the individualism, tribalism, the sentimentalism and emotionalism of contemporary culture, the church offers the gospel packaged for the consumerist individual, wrapped in feel-good and easy, so-called accessible language. We have ended up marketing holiness. Except it isn’t, of course.
Luther talked of faith as a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. For all the current talk of following Jesus and discipleship, I perceive a real lack of confidence in God’s grace in the Church today. We’re sinking into a justification-by-works culture, where we need to be successful and purposeful, utilitarian and instrumental, performing to measurable outcomes – well on the way to that peculiarly British heresy.
Now I happen to believe that the traditional Anglican model is a particularly good one – that Hooker gave us an everlasting gift. The Church polity he commended has been honed over centuries, discussed and debated and put into law: it is episcopally led and synodically governed. It fulfils a role within the political economy of the nation that is unique and valuable. It has geographical presence and a reach through the parish structure, through schools and communities. With a sacramental understanding of itself as the Body of Christ, the means of grace, it is a profound and broad incarnation, enabling a living, daring, confident response of the people to God’s grace. It is an ecclesia that is deeply complex and cannot be grasped easily, but which enables the Church to serve the world in a number of ways – in the political realm, in local communities, through pastoral encounter. It is a broad Church, allowing different models of correlation between the gospel and culture to be played out, experimented with, tried, developed or discarded. All this is in danger of being sacrificed to an idea of ‘being church’ that seems only to serve itself by promoting growth in response to a perceived crisis, but which is untried, untested, and which drains precious resources that would be better employed through the parish system.
That understanding of ‘being church’ is not Anglican ecclesiology. Instead, may the Church offer mission through tradition – for Anglo-Catholics know how to do mission. Catholic traditions are all about introducing a world-weary, change-fatigued society to the living God, offering opportunities and encounters that form us in holiness and devotion, in self-sacrificial lifelong service. They know that serious engagement with holiness offers something profound that gives meaning and reason, emotional and moral knowledge. They know how to belong to something bigger than themselves that isn’t tribal, but transcends identity and group loyalties into a more satisfying corporal life that frames and forms the human person into Christ, from glory into glory.
The biggest regret I have is that the traditions of Anglo-Catholicism divided over the ordination of women, for the door opened to an alternative, oh-so-destructive ecclesiology. To be Anglo-Catholic today is to heal those wounds and to work together to keep alive the Catholic life of the Church of England, and its peculiar genius as it witnesses to the One, Holy, Apostolic Church of God, incarnating Christ in the world, inspired by the Holy Spirit.
An acclaimed author, the Very Revd Dr Frances Ward is Priest-in-Charge of St Michael’s and St John’s, Workington, and a former Dean of St Edmundsbury.