Disorderly conduct?

Andrew Burnham reviews the case for the prosecution


IS HOLY ORDER divisible or not? Recent Roman Catholic sacramental theology suggests not but one of the tasks the Rochester Report set itself was to look at the distinctive role of the bishop as focus of unity throughout the tradition and throughout the world. One argument adduced is that no bishop should be appointed who would not have been acceptable to the church in past ages. 1 Timothy 3 suggests that the celibacy of bishops is merely a matter of convention and discipline; that passage and, pre-eminently, the maleness of the apostolic college, the Twelve, has meant, for most people and most of the time, that bishops should be male.

What is true of bishops is probably true of priests, but I have found myself persuaded in the past that women may image the Spirit in the diaconate – as found for instance in the didascalia of third-century Syria – and that that is a part of the tradition that needs to be recovered for the universal church (and has been lost for a time by its inflation into a general struggle for women’s rights). Most of the Eastern Orthodox Churches have declared an interest in recent years in the recovery of the female diaconate: Rome, most recently through the CDF, has continued to maintain the unity of holy order and its maleness.

The Call for Women Bishops (ed Harriet Harris and Jane Shaw, SPCK, 2004) does not take on the male arguments – I suppose the method of Baker’s Consecrated Women? as well as the conclusions could fairly be described as male – so much as gather together a number of contributions to reflect on ‘the call’. It is certainly a major presumption here that a sense of call is evidence of a call – and that is indeed one of the indicators whereby the church traditionally has tested (male) vocations to ordained ministry and (male and female) vocations to the religious life.

It might be fair to describe the methodology of this book, ably edited by Harriet Harris and Jane Shaw, as ‘female’. There are no knockdown arguments for women’s ordination to the episcopate here, indeed not too many attempts systematically to develop any such arguments. Instead, we have layer upon layer of comment and reflection on what would be a new experience for the Church of England but on what has been desired and experienced here and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion.

I confess that I not only enjoyed reading the book – there is the usual unevenness when many contribute essays, yet most of them write well – but that I found myself in agreement with quite a bit of what it said. Its main thesis – that you cannot deny episcopal ordination to experienced and qualified women priests – is not particularly controversial in contemporary Anglicanism and in the contemporary world, for it is not feasible or just, in this day and age, to have glass ceilings, whether stained glass or plate glass. As we have often heard, were Roman Catholics, for instance, to have women clergy, they would begin by agreeing that women may serve as bishops, successors to the apostolic college. All else would flow from that.

I was not persuaded by Professor Rebecca Lyman’s essay that ‘the episcopacy of women is a piece of the restoration of that ancient catholic dream of all races and countries held together’ (page 47). Though I am open to the possibility that, amidst the uncertainties of the second and third centuries, about which we know so little, there were women in leadership roles, I believe that to accept so much speculation as a basis for church order would be, a bit like the Da Vinci Code, to build upon sand. As it is, the classical understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit guiding the church is that what does not become generally received is not authentic development. That leaves the advocates of women’s ordination to the presbyterate and episcopate with nearly two millennia – nearly the whole of Christian history – of denial and discrimination. Is that something the Holy Spirit would allow in the leadership, local and international, of an indefectible church? Well, yes, if you press into service other social issues – democracy, racism, slavery – and see progress in general as the Spirit at work. It must all come down to justice: history won’t quite do the trick for us. As Professor McCord Adams says in her Afterword (page 193), picking up what Carolyn Tanner Irish says in her essay, ‘misogyny is a sin.’ We are back to Bishop Roy Williamson’s intervention in the 1992 General Synod debate.

Two-thirds of the 24 contributors – like two-thirds of those in Church of England congregations – are women. Carrie Pemberton tells us that ‘two-thirds of people leaving the churches in Scotland between 1994 and 2002’ were women, and half in the 20–45 age-group (page 178). It is suggested, to be fair not just by her but also by some of the Cambridgeshire Sunday congregation that she polled, that this haemorrhaging is a reaction against sexual discrimination. If that were so, why have the churches that look to the PEVs not fared much worse? I cannot imagine that a sociologist, faced with church statistics for the 1990s, would easily conclude either that women priests or the lack of women bishops had hastened church decline. Pemberton is as cavalier with her remarks about ‘conscience money’, the pay-offs to those male priests who left after 1992. She is scandalized that some could return ‘without refunding any of that money’ (page 181). I had always thought that the money was in lieu of a stipend and, like any other stipend, would be spent on subsistence, not hoarded as a refundable pay-off. Any returning priests who had any of the money left would not have needed the money in the first place. Where she is undoubtedly right is in her comments about women priests having to be non-stipendiary. One of the most shameful episodes in the church’s recent history was when it tried to replace the cheap labour of the parson’s wife with the cheap labour of the non-stipendiary woman priest without apparently realizing that that was what was going on.

Most of the men’s essays are shorter. The English diocesan bishops are offering support rather than detailed argument. +John Chelmsford holds it self-evident that there can be no gender barriers in Anglicanism between one order and another. +Bill Truro bases his support of women’s ordination on the notion of complementarity: women are different from men. + David Sarum quotes at length the moving contribution of Sue Hope to the 1992 debate. Bonds of affection within the House of Bishops prevent me from commenting specifically on these contributions beyond saying that, had I been coming at things as a charismatic evangelical, I should agree with them. As it is, the Rochester Report has been looking precisely at whether what seems so self-evident is indeed self-evident. Von Balthasar’s prescription for a church replete with the complementary gifts of the sexes is profounder than what is offered here in quotations from Taylor (page 173) and Wignall (page 174), unless we are going to say that all keen Christians should be ordained. And everyone would have understood if the embattled church in the Sudan had looked at what was going on elsewhere and taken a bit longer than a couple of hours to make a decision about women’s ordination. After all, the ordination of women is the biggest upheaval the ordained ministry of the church has faced since Luther, opposed by Henry VIII’s Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, taught that order is not a sacrament.

There are some essays from an ecumenical direction. Tina Beattie (RC) gives us Mary of Magdala as a foundational apostle and an intratextual ‘struggle for meaning whose method is authenticated by the practices of the past, and whose relevance must be formulated by the demands of the present’ (page 77). The hierarchy of her church, meanwhile, is ‘preserving a position that strikes many inside and outside the church as unethical – a position … that cannot be clearly defended even by the Vatican’s own biblical scholars’ (page 75). Clearly, she should become an Anglican or, better, a Methodist: Christina Le Moignan reassures us that ‘Methodists…. know [her emphasis] from experience that in the ministry of women in episcopal roles they have a gift from God’ (page 84). Myra Blyth gives us the Baptist experience of women’s ministry – the debate has been freer but less profound than the Anglican one. Robin Gibbons, who admits to no difficulty in remaining in communions and communities that have no women’s ordination, sees nonetheless that ‘the ordination of women to the episcopacy … can only be part of [a] renewal of hope’ (page 155).

Vincent Strudwick, after a fascinating tour through the Elizabethan Settlement and Hooker, wants another ‘parting of friends’, though he does not say whether we ought to be offered a further round of financial assistance as we pack our bags (page 63). John Barton, by contrast, tells us that ‘the desire for a "third province’ is growing".’ ‘Would it be a disaster if this came about?’ he asks. His answer: ‘I cannot see that it would’ (page 24). John Barton is not here writing in an academic way, though he is the contributor who most clearly takes on the traditionalist arguments – and does so very eirenically – he rather turns them into Aunt Sallies. I welcome his generosity but look forward to the conversation with him in which I explain that there is a bit more to it for me than gut reaction or dislike of the soprano register for the sursum corda. (In fact I am pleased nowadays if priests bother to learn to sing it at whatever pitch.)

There is no space to comment on all the essays – some of them are quite thin and some rather tendentious – nor to speculate on why other big names in the debate have not contributed to this book. I finish with saluting the editors again: I should have preferred separate essays from Harriet Harris and Jane Shaw, both of whom, like John Barton, are distinguished scholars, but who, here, are content to set the scene. In a reversal of common traditionalist rhetoric they claim that it is the liberals who can break free of cultural forces where traditionalists are culturally enslaved, points which the African material was intended to back up. This is a brilliant debating point, which either of them, to my sure knowledge, could have developed persuasively, but it is one which this introductory essay – indeed this book – does not really follow through. They have drawn together an interesting collection of essays which, cumulatively, I find persuasive that the Church of England should proceed to ordain women as bishops. They do not persuade me, however, that the move would be that of the catholic church, to which I have always believed I belong. Perhaps, in the end, the evangelical diocesan – not a contributor to this volume – who said to me that in 1992 the Church of England had finally decided that it was a protestant church hit the nail on the head. A protestant church is one, in my view, which does its best to sit faithfully under scripture but in the end reserves the right to order its life under God as it pleases. The introduction to the Ordinal attached to the BCP tells me that I was not born into such a church and I pray that neither I nor those who look to me for oversight will die in such a church.


Andrew Burnham is the Bishop of Ebbsfleet.

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