David Houlding reflects on the journey from 1992 and where we are today


So much has been achieved since the Act of Synod came into being in 1993, following on from the vote to ordain women to the priesthood on 11th November 1992. The thirtieth anniversary is equally an opportunity to recap on our history as a movement and how we attempted to guide the Catholic life of our Church over these years. Here I seek to outline some of the basic principles by which I think we must now strive to live the Catholic life, with all its contradictions, within the life of our Church of England. Bishop Martyn Jarrett has a useful phrase when he talks about ‘bearable anomaly’. How do we set about trying to live this life, when it so often seems to be in contradiction to the path that the rest of our beloved Church seems to be following? That is the challenge now set before us.

These past twenty years, of course, have seen the whole process begun to complete the ordination of women agenda by admitting them to the episcopate. The first debate in the Synod came in July 2000. Two amendments were tabled to the original motion: one by the late Dr Geoffrey Kirk to put down some parameters to the theological reflection being called for, and the other by me for ecumenical considerations to be taken into account Both were defeated. How could anyone vote against unity, but that was exactly what the Synod had done. So began the intense debates over the next twelve years to provide the right balance to enable all to flourish within the life of the Church. Time and space do not permit me to go through all the various amendments the Catholic Group tabled in order to secure this, to meet the vision of the Free Province which was the principle policy of this organization. One by one they were defeated. Archbishop Rowan Williams spoke time and again of the need for provision to be made as a mater of justice and theological conviction. He spoke famously of the call to obedience, both to the Lord’s own wish for his Church and to the tradition which had enshrined it over the centuries.

Only one amendment prevailed throughout. Again, it was the brainwave of Fr Kirk, and which as Chairman of the Catholic Group at the time I had to put it to the Synod in 2006. It echoed the words of the Lambeth Conference in 1998, that all those in favour as well as those opposed to the ordination of women to the episcopate and presbyterate were equally loyal Anglicans. It passed in all three Houses and the Synod could not undo the implications of such a boundary being laid down. It led to the defeat first time round of the Measure itself at final approval. Catholics were blamed and we suffered much abuse, but in actual fact it was defeated by the generous liberal middle ground (as opposed to the more mean-spirited liberals around) who simply recognised that the measure, as it then stood, in no way delivered this parity or guaranteed a sacramental life for loyal traditionalist Anglicans.

But time was running out. Threats about getting Parliament involved, of removing the Bishops from the House of Lords (which the bishops did not like), of not providing anything further, because now the Ordinariate had come about and that, we were told, was our provision. What a row that caused in the Revision Committee. So a new measure was put together by an enlarged group, which addressed our concerns, because quite simply the only way to have women bishops was to ensure those who could not in conscience accept such an innovation were to have an honoured place in the life of the Church. So the Five Guiding Principles came about, upon which the Measure rested, coupled at the same time with a Declaration from the House of Bishops to guarantee an honoured place for all. Principles 4/5 outline the theological understanding of the doctrine of ‘Reception’ which articulate our convictions of sacramental assurance and communion. 

Questions at this stage, however, must be put. Are these Principles being respected? How long will it be until we see them being undermined, if they are not already? When will the movement to rescind them begin? What does this mutual flourishing look like? Looking to the future, this must be one of Forward in Faith’s main concerns to keep a close eye on developments. And, I might add, it is the responsibility of all bishops too, properly and theologically understood to uphold the Church’s unity.

The one thing that has been achieved however, which from the outset of all the debates was our bottom line, was that this provision should be ‘secure’. It is secure as it can be, not least because the vote immediately after final approval had been given called for a two-thirds majority in all three Houses to be obtained before any undoing of these arrangements. They are therefore with us now for as long as they are required. And that is the challenge we now face: to hold on to our integrity with conviction and determination. 

So where are we now? Is it all over? Where are we going? For some, what has been ‘bearable’ in the past has become ‘unbearable’ and they have had to move into full communion with Rome; we must respect that. For by its very nature the must recognise that the Church of England is provisional in the great scheme of things and our Catholic movement within it even more so. Communion with the See of Peter must remain our ultimate goal. Cardinal Hume said to us back in 1994 that a weakened Church of England was not in the interests of Catholicism or of the mission of the Church in this country. Cardinal Kasper once said to me when I met him in Rome and again in London that any Church with a Catholic movement was not in fact a Catholic Church, that we must therefore never give up working for that unity, which is the will of the Lord whose Church it is. Cardinal Hume did not expect everyone to get on the train, but as time passes, and as we now see the chasm opening up wider and wider with orders of men, as well as women, we are unable to recognise, and with the divisions we now have between jurisdiction and sacramental assurance, these questions will continue to confront us more and more. When does this anomaly become truly unbearable? We will all have slightly different answers to that question, depending on our circumstances, but it is one that increasingly we will not be able to avoid. We must always respect each other’s decisions and support one another, however painful we may find it. We are after all first and foremost Catholic Christians and union with Peter must be our ultimate destination, however long it takes. 

That leaves me to highlight three things in particular: principles which guided all our debates and our life over the last 30 years. First, the need for theology. We must ensure that all our arguments are theologically based – otherwise we have no integrity. It is easy to sink into misogyny and prejudice without even realizing it. Our theology must begin with the incarnation and the atonement. What does it mean to understand that the second person of the Trinity became incarnate as a man, suffered on the cross for our salvation, and that through his priesthood pleads our cause before his Heavenly Father and ours. These are fundamental questions, which must remain at the forefront of our all our theological reflection. Only with careful and thorough theological underpinning will our integrity have any validity. 

Secondly, the need for ecumenism must continue. As we see a Church of England and Anglican Communion increasingly disengaged from ecumenical relationships, except perhaps with the more Protestant denominations, we must work for that greater Catholic identity which gives meaning and purpose to our ecclesial life and which is after all in accordance with our Lord’s own will. 

Thirdly, and in a very basic way, we are called to keep the show on the road. If our churches are to survive then they must be Catholic – or they are nothing and they will close. We only exist, as we have always done; as the Oxford Movement came into being in the first place to remind the Church of England that it is Catholic before anything else. However much it may have departed from Catholic norms and discipline, it remains part of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church. The Church of England needs its Catholic movement to remind the whole Church of its identity and purpose. We need to come to terms with the possibility that the Church may be smaller, that there may well be fewer clergy, but small is beautiful and God is faithful. Who is the Lord of the Church? For it is him in whom we place our trust.

The challenges that lie ahead are daunting and immense. We have to learn to work together much more closely. If we could pool some of our extensive resources then we could be much more effective, instead of the inherent tendency to plough our own furrows. Do we really need all of our Catholic societies, as we have inherited them? Has the time perhaps come to look at our differing agendas and see how they can come under the one agenda of The Society, true to the principle of being episcopally led? I am not suggesting that we lose the individual charisms of our different societies, but rather to pool some of our financial resources so as to make all the difference; the difference between survival rather than extinction, it must be said.

Forward in Faith is a great rallying force and can match its agenda and goals with what we are all trying to achieve now as we live out this new way of being Church. This year we had the last of our National Assemblies of Forward in Faith, as we have known them over the last 30 years. Of course, we had not been able to hold such gatherings during the pandemic, and during this time much work has been done to redo the Constitution to bring the organization to where we now find ourselves within the Church of England. It no longer needs the large Council, meeting three times a year. The need now is to be more streamlined, but certainly to keep a close eye on the pollical agenda of our Church. What a mistake it would be to presume Forward in faith is no longer needed – simply because we now have the provision given to us by the House of Bishops. That is, for a Declaration to be made by Parochial Church Councils, by majority vote, accompanied by a statement of theological conviction, in order that our ecclesial like might be overseen by Episcopal Visitors and the introduction by our Traditionalist Bishops of a new Society, to enable us to live in full communion with one another. This now has become our new way of being Church – just as we had to make the Act of Synod our own back in the 1990s, so ‘The Society’ has come into being, to enable us to be the Church. It is not just another society which we may wish to belong to but the Church – the only expression of Church, with which we can now identify. We resemble a church within a Church. That’s the way it is now. 

What is the agenda of the Church Union now? As its President, I know we still need to ask hard questions. We need teaching material and publications as never before, so here is a role for it which must be put at the disposal of the whole church. We have seen this recently in the distribution of their leaflets on the seven sacraments. Fr Kevin Smith from Walsingham reminds us how essential it is for us to keep an eye on the issue of the Seal of the Confessional. If that is to be qualified in any way, then that too will greatly undermine the office of the priest, possibly even more so than admitting women to the order. But how might considerable financial resources of the CU be made more widely available? What is true here can well be asked of CBS, SOM, in particular of SSC and the various Catholic charities. 

ACS already is having requests for assisting with whole stipends, rather than just expenses for curates, in order to keep the parochial ministry going in some places. These sorts of requests will only increase as the financial pressures escalate. The need is pressing, and we can all work together if the vision is there along with the determination to see it through. 

The Lord does presumably know why he has called us to serve him and placed us where we are, and he will lead us into all truth. The challenge of faith and to remain faithful remain, as before, so now. We may have fought the good fight, but the battle is not won. Ever vigilant and engaged, we are all called to be messengers, watchmen and stewards, in the footsteps of all those who went before us – over these past 30 years and throughout time.

Bishop Brian Masters, of blessed memory, would say ‘success is not a New Testament word’ but faithfulness is both a Biblical concept and a challenge. Faithful and steadfast, it is our challenge to embrace and own – pressing on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3.14) – ever onwards and upwards. 


Michaelmas term, 1992. I was in my final year at St Stephen’s House. There were perhaps 35 ordinands in the college at that time. We had not dwelt on the decisions coming down the track; friendships had prospered across the divide, although there was little doubt that the student community was divided between those supportive of, and those opposed to, the ordination of women to the priesthood.  

The 11th November was a Wednesday, the day of the week when the afternoon was given over to House duties: gardening and the like. I had a flat in Moberly Close. Early in the morning, the telephone rang: Fr William Davage (then serving his Title), of this parish. ‘We are ready with bottle of champagne and revolver.’ I busied myself about domestic tasks. The television was on in the Common Room. Some watched; some could not bear to do so.

When the result was announced, Fr Philip Ursell, then Principal of Pusey House, was on television in an interviewee’s chair alongside a prominent campaigner. Jean Mayland grasped his hand: ‘Father, don’t leave us!’ Father’s face was a picture. As the result of the vote became known, those at the House who were celebrating melted away to private parties: today’s deans and residentiary canons among them. The rest of us were numb. The principal at the time, Fr Edwin Barnes, then a Proctor in Convocation (and subsequently the first Bishop of Richborough) returned to the House in the early evening and called together those unhappy about the result. He, and not only he, was in tears. For students to see their Father in God (whatever the disagreements we had had along in the way) in such distress was deeply emotional, overwhelming.

On Wednesday evenings the House kept Compline and Benediction. On this night, Deacon Elaine Bardwell (as she then was) abandoned the usual programme in favour of a time of silence before the Blessed Sacrament exposed. Into that silence were poured many prayers, petitions, hopes, thoughts, fears for the future. 

When the result of the vote was announced, Fr Davage had phoned again: ‘Whatever we must do, we must do it together.’ That admonition both has, and has not, been fulfilled. Dear friends have departed – some setting aside their priestly ministry, others pursuing it in a larger room within the one Church of Jesus Christ. Some, may they Rest in Peace, the Lord has called to Glory. But many others have persisted, across these thirty years, counting among their number bishops, archdeacons, theological college principals and faithful priests who have served Holy Church resolutely in the place where God has called them.

Has it all been folly? ‘But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong’ (1 Cor 1.27).

I thank God for those bonds of fellowship forged in Oxford for me, thirty years ago, when the Church of England resolved upon a new path, but the faith remained unchanged.

+Jonathan Fulham