The fallout from the General Synod vote of 30 years ago is woven into the DNA of our movement, even for those who are too young to remember it or who were not even born at that time. For us it represented – and indeed still represents – an unwelcome unilateral decision by the Church of England on the nature of the sacrament of Holy Orders, placing our corner of Christendom outside of the practice of the great Churches of the West and of the East. Three sets of points spring to mind in this context.
Firstly, we should acknowledge that for some seeking ordination the decision taken was momentous and affirming. However painful we have found the aftermath, it would be lacking in generosity not to record the joy it has brought for some. And more than that, we know that a decent proportion of those welcoming the decision, and going on to become incumbents in Church of England parishes on the back of it, would have been inspired to do so at least in part by the worship which they had experienced in churches in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Further, we know that the Five Guiding Principles, developed well after the vote but devised in a welcome spirit of conciliation, cannot be a one-way street in either direction.
Secondly, we need to take stock and politely ask if the measure introduced has brought the Church the gains it sought and expected. This is far from straightforward as any analysis has to factor in the marked decline in church attendances over the last three decades across all denominations.
Dr Rowan Williams was quoted in the Catholic Herald – when still Archbishop of Canterbury in 2006 – as saying, on the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood, that he didn’t ‘think it has transformed or renewed the Church of England in spectacular ways’. This was not intended to be a criticism of the reform but merely a statement of his experience of its working out in the Church.
Dr Williams’s predecessor, Dr George Carey, said during the debate immediately preceding the vote in 1992 that to refuse to ordain women as priests would be for the Church to turn its back on society. And has society in any way demonstrated its appreciation that the Church has sought to embrace its agenda ever since? I think we know the answer to that.
It is worth reflecting that we are currently being told society will only take the Church of England seriously once there is unilateral action to change the character of one of the other sacraments, matrimony, so as to allow same-sex marriage in church. Perhaps our emerging reflection should be that a highly secularised society will only be truly happy once the Church of England has ditched the last vestiges of what is recognisably Christian.
Thirdly, we should ask where we go from here. The statisticians report that, on current trends, the Church of England will cease to be during the 2060s. That would seem to signal the end of this particular debate and of any other debate. There will be nothing left to discuss.
The end-times maybe, and what better season to consider those than Advent But before the Second Coming there is still our outworking of the First, and the incarnational imperative of Christ’s mission entrusted to us in the here and now. That means hope rather than despair, meeting people where they are and trusting in God. We trust that life may not be easy but that it has purpose now and at the last, and we shall not be abandoned. We know that eventually the gates of hell will never prevail; that whatever the shortcomings of our own lives and even the Church at times, Dominical truth will triumph.
We have the duty and the joy of being part of eucharistic communities Sunday by Sunday and on other occasions too. We should fulfil our Christian calling, whether lay or ordained, to participate fully in those eucharistic communities and give thanks to God for that opportunity.
Elsewhere in this edition we report hugely encouraging news about the appointment of the Bishop of Beverley. We expect similarly good progress soon about the appointment of the Bishop of Oswestry. So there remains a Catholic witness to be lived out in the Church of England and, thirty years on, the lamps still burn brightly in our Holy House and our parish churches. It is our privilege to be called to keep that flame burning.