Stop, look, listen

Jonathan Baker has been reading the ecumenical response offered by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales to the Rochester Report, and has found it the best summary of the issues involved

 

Time plays tricks with the processes of synodical government. The report of the House of Bishops’ Working Party on Women in the Episcopate (the ‘Rochester Report’) was published a year ago; debated by the General Synod in February, and welcomed by it; and then quietly set to one side only five months later in July, when the Synod voted to take the decision in principle in favour of implementing legislation to ordain women as bishops.

‘Rochester,’ characterized by both historical and theological learning, and careful in its even-handed presentation of all sides of the debate, had (so all parties conceded) received scarcely any attention in the dioceses, deaneries and parishes of the land; neither had there yet been any substantial ecumenical reaction for the General Synod, or members of the Church of England more widely, to digest and to weigh. The November Group of Sessions of the new Synod (just concluded) returned to Rochester, with a seminar on the Episcopate (and not specifically on the question of whether women can be ordained bishop). Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church had issued its response shortly before the new Synod was inaugurated, and every member of the Synod was circulated with a copy, bound together in booklet form with the only other two ecumenical responses to have been published thus far, those from the Methodist and United Reformed Churches.

The Roman Catholic response to Women Bishops in the Church of England? is at last, therefore, in the public domain. It must earnestly be hoped that in the short time which remains before the next stage of the process towards legislation (the presentation to Synod in February of the report of the ‘Guildford Group’ on what shape draft legislation should take), the text will be widely read, studied and pondered. Theology needs to catch up with process. Is it too late for the Church of England to allow the measured comments – and warnings – of her largest ecumenical partner, and (in a familiar phrase), the rock from which she was hewn, to be heard?

The Roman Catholic Response is a substantial document. Of the 39-page A5 booklet (GS Misc 807) which contains all the ecumenical responses, that from the Methodist church numbers 11 pages, and that of the URC four-and-a-half; the rest is from Rome, specifically from the Department of Dialogue and Unity of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. The very size of the RC Response is indicative of its seriousness – you do not spend over twenty pages analysing a process about whose outcome you feel entirely indifferent. Our Roman Catholic friends have given the Church of England, in producing so thorough a response to Rochester, the respect she still has the time and opportunity to deserve.

So to the detail. In their Introductory Remarks, the Catholic bishops make the customary commitment to maintaining ‘as much unity as possible’ with the Church of England, and, putting down a marker for a theme which will be developed at the conclusion of the text, they offer the prayers of the whole Catholic Church for ‘as full a communion as possible within the Church of England and within the Anglican Communion as a whole.’ It is quickly clear, however, that this document will be no merely courteous but anodyne composition. The ordination of women bishops in the Church of England would, we read in these opening paragraphs, ‘undoubtedly create a major additional obstacle to any future full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and might further impair the degree of communion already existing.’

Self-effacing about the scope of their response, the Catholic Bishops note that Rochester is a ‘long, comprehensive and closely-argued document;’ and their reply will concentrate on what Rochester itself calls ‘objective and universally accessible criteria’ for judging the rightness or otherwise of consecrating women. They agree with the authors of Rochester – but not, alas, with so many of the speakers in the recent Synod debates – that little weight can be placed upon arguments which derive from the convictions of individuals, from the experience of women’s ministry, from the evident professionalism or holiness of women ministers, or from widespread expressions of support for the ordination of women. Here, as in so many other places in their Response, it is the job of the Catholic Bishops to remind the Church of England (or perhaps to point out to many of her members for the very first time), quite what it is that the authors of her own report have said.

It is the unity of the Church of England which gives the Catholic Bishops their first cause for concern. They note that Rochester admits that the Church of England is very far from having reached a common mind about the ordination of women to the priesthood, and that opposition to that development has not shown any indications of dying away. They point out that, while women priests naturally imply, within a Catholic understanding of Holy Orders, that there should be women bishops as well, the manner in which the Church of England has set about admitting women to the presbyterate makes this highly problematic.

The issue is, of course, that of reception. How can you have ‘provisional bishops?’ How can there possibly be doubt about episcopal orders? How can the Church of England proceed to ordain women as bishops when one of her own criteria for discerning how far women priests have been ‘received’ – that is, how far the Church Universal shows signs of moving in the same direction – can in no way be said to have been met? In what sense could one ever speak of a decision to ordain women as bishops as being ‘hypothetically reversible?’ We know the questions well, and have been living with them for far too long; but it is good to see the problem stated so crisply and succinctly in the words of the Catholic Bishops: ‘Catholic teaching about the Church and sacraments cannot cater for ‘living with provisionality’ when it comes to the validity of ordination and the Eucharist… Catholic ecclesiology requires that the orders of our bishops and priests are not in doubt.’

Having counselled the Church of England against pressing ahead in the face of internal division, and having cautioned against any extension of a doctrine of provisionality in the matter of Holy Orders, the Catholic Bishops turn next to some of the underlying issues in the theology of the human person raised by the possible ordination of women as bishops. They re-affirm, naturally, the essential dignity and equality of women and men. They share the concern raised in Rochester that the current emphasis on the equality between men and women prejudices the biblical principle of the distinctiveness and complementarity of the sexes, and that much more work needs to be done in giving expression to a genuinely Christian anthropology which will elucidate the way in which men and women relate one to another as members of the community of the redeemed. Once again, the Catholic bishops credit Rochester with having raised just the right questions; their implicit challenge to the Church of England is simply that of asking whether we have begun, together, to think about the answers?

Now the list of difficulties and inconsistencies which the RC Response points out lengthens swiftly. The advocates of the ordination of women to the Episcopate confuse enabling women to exercise leadership in the Church with consecrating them, and, in Rochester, the two become conflated. The historical evidence for the women exercising ordained ministry in the early Church is far too thin to be used in the way proponents use it; the Catholic bishops pull no punches in writing that ‘many of the conclusions drawn by such writers are open to serious challenge on purely scholarly grounds, sometimes involving creative speculation based on a paucity of evidence.’ Ordaining women as bishops would be a radical evolutionary step, rather than an expression of authentic development, and it would call into question commitments made by the representatives of the Church of England in the ARCIC Statements on Authority.

It is when they come to address questions of sacramental symbolism, and of the consequences of the maleness of Christ for the right ordering of the apostolic ministry, however, that the Catholic bishops issue their strongest plea to the Church of England to turn aside from the path towards the ordination of women to the Episcopate. Alongside the unbroken historical continuity of the tradition, ‘the central arguments for Roman Catholic teaching,’ the bishops write, ‘are the sacramental or iconic representational nature of ordained ministry, intimately linked with the symbolic significance of the maleness of Christ.’ Given the perpetual struggle to persuade Anglicans of the importance of such arguments in sacramental symbolism, and given the frequency with which they are misrepresented and caricatured, it is most encouraging to find the Catholic bishops articulating the tradition, and defending it robustly, on such grounds.

Only in one respect do the authors of the Roman Catholic response seek to distance themselves from those whom they, and Rochester, identify as ‘Catholic Anglicans,’ and that is in their refusal to associate the Roman Catholic Church with ‘any suggestion that human society or the church are by nature patriarchal.’ I doubt that by that aside the Catholic bishops really mean to suggest that the foundational themes of the Hebrew Scriptures do not indeed turn on a meta-narrative which is rootedly patriarchal, nor that the passion and death of Jesus can be understood without reference to that Old Testament context; nor, I suspect, would they disagree with the plain fact that there has never been a truly matriarchal society at any moment of human history. Might they take another look at chapter 3, in particular, of Consecrated Women?, and especially at our work on the notion of ‘gracious patriarchy,’ or (in the neologism coined by our Roman Catholic observer, Fr Aidan Nichols op), ‘paterology:’ that redemption of sinful patterns of male headship, power and authority, transformed and renewed by Christ the servant, whose headship is exercised when he kneels with towel and bowl to wash the disciples feet, and which reaches its ultimate fulfilment on the Cross?

In its final paragraphs, the Roman Catholic response to Rochester returns to questions of sacramental assurance and ecclesiological fracture. The Catholic bishops quote David Houlding approvingly (in his paper submitted to the Rochester Group and which forms Appendix 3 to Consecrated Women?) for pointing out the grave dangers in ‘trying out,’ or experimenting with, the sacraments. Crucially, their challenge to the Church of England is, in these concluding sections, not only to do with the potential for further disunity within Anglicanism, but that the ordination of women to the Episcopate would necessitate a re-appraisal of how Roman Catholics assess Anglican bishops’ understanding of their own place within the worldwide episcopal college. If the bishops of the Church of England accept women among their number, then, the Catholic bishops ask, what does it really mean for Anglican bishops to belong to a wider college? ‘Should not decisions which radically affect the nature of that wider college be made in solidum?

What of the future? The Catholic bishops have some hard things to say about any possible third (or new) province of the Church of England, consequent upon their wholly proper desire not to see fragmentation and further impairment of communion in any Christian denomination. The problems, ambiguities and inconsistencies which will inevitably inhere in the ecclesiological framework of a province which is in communion with the See of Canterbury, but not with her bishops, to which the Catholic bishops point, will come as no shock to anyone who has been involved in drafting the ‘new province’ proposals. The Roman Catholic Church, in this Response, urges – of course – that the Church of England avoids these pitfalls by desisting from the path on which she is set. We know how unlikely such a reversal must now be; and we must hope that the Catholic bishops will be ready to deal graciously and imaginatively with those Anglicans who readily assent to what they have argued, but who find themselves on the wrong side of the Church of England’s decision when it comes.

Full text of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference Response at <www.catholic-ew.org.uk>

Return to Home Page of This Issue

Return to Trushare Home Page