Provincial obduracy

No one has yet put forward a satisfactory structural solution to solve the present impasse other than a new province. Stuart Seaton takes the House of Bishops to task for its apparent unwillingness properly to consider this option

 

It is becoming clear that the kind of division that would occur without a new province would undermine the ecclesial life of the whole Church of England. So why are so many bishops opposed to the new province solution? Intriguingly, Rochester cites only two theological objections to the new province:

(i) ‘It would be wrong in principle to establish a province which excluded women from the priesthood and the episcopate’ [7.354]. Unfortunately, this argument is inadmissible (not just because it would seem our Lord and the apostles fall foul of it!) for until women’s ordination has been proved to be right ‘in principle,’ it can hardly be wrong ‘in principle’ to exclude women from the apostolic ministry. So the argument is either muddled, or simply assumes the point the Church of England admits is yet to be proved.

(ii) Rochester’s second theological objection to the new province is that ‘One of the important features of the Church of England is that it models an ability to live with difference in a creative rather than a destructive fashion’ [7.3.55]. The problem with this objection is that it fails to take into account that without a new province, traditionalists will have to leave the Church of England. In which case ‘difference’ would disappear and acceptance of women’s ordination would effectively be imposed as a condition (arguably the only condition) of membership of the Church of England. So this argument would seem to count in favour of a new province, not against it.

Opting out

Why should the bishops accept that without a new province traditionalists will have to leave? Rochester itself warns that ‘the place of bishops within Anglican ecclesiology means that if women were ordained as bishops it would be difficult to see how those opposed to women’s ordination could continue to exist within the Church of England’ [4.3.17]. Why? Rochester goes on to explain that if traditionalists are legally, and in good conscience, to remain members of the Church of England, there must be provision for them ‘to opt out from having to accept the ministry of a woman bishop or recognize the validity of her episcopal actions’ [7.3.17].

It is hard to see how Anglican traditionalists can ‘opt out’ from women bishops in these ways without a new province. If traditionalists are to opt out, then traditionalist bishops could not belong to a college of bishops that includes women. Traditionalists would also not be able to accept the validity of decisions, teachings or judgments emanating from a house of bishops which includes women – to do so would be to recognize the validity of women bishops’ episcopal actions.

So traditionalists would not just need to be able to opt out from the ordinary and sacramental authority of women bishops (and those ordained by them); presumably they would also need to be able to opt out from accepting a number of authoritative decisions of General Synod. It is hard to see how the provinces of Canterbury and York could operate if a substantial minority within them were allowed to pick and choose their way through the episcopal actions of those provinces. But if traditionalists have no provision to ‘opt out from having to accept the ministry of a woman bishop or recognize the validity of her episcopal actions’ then Rochester says they must ‘leave the Church of England’ [7.3.17 – my emphasis].

Other groups

So why do not more bishops support a new province? One suggestion is that, given the situation in the Church of England, if traditionalists get a new province then everyone will want one. Of course, there is probably some truth in this, but if the unity and common life of the Church of England really are so fragile, then it is hard to see how something as divisive and uncertain as ordaining women to the episcopate can be justified.

But it matters little if everyone will want a new province for their particular interest group. We do not ask for a new province because it is what we want, but because it is what we need if we are to remain members of the Church of England. Without it, either we will be forced to accept an innovation which has not been proved from Scripture (contra Article VI), or we will have to leave. If there are other interest groups being oppressed by similarly unproven innovations then they too need new provinces – but it is hard to think of anyone else who fits into that category.

Maintaining unity

It may be that many other bishops think they do not need to provide a new province, because they consider that with a compromise solution, only a small number of traditionalists would believe they have to leave. This seems an irresponsibly risky position to take. After all, since there has been no discussion on the question of provision, how can anyone know what traditionalists will do? Besides, if the only way for a traditionalist to stay within the Church of England is to perjure his conscience, then the very kind of common ecclesial life of mutual love and communion that such bishops might be hoping to preserve would be destroyed anyway.

Bishops exist to defend the consciences of the faithful in the unity of the faith. To do violence to the consciences of traditionalists on an uncertain matter would not only be to go beyond the authority the bishops have received, but flatly to go against that authority. On the other hand, why would it be a good episcopal boast if only a small number of traditionalists left the Church of England? Jesus teaches that true shepherds are not so much concerned about losing the smallest number of sheep. True shepherds are concerned that they lose not a single sheep.

Actually, I too am against the Church of England having a new province. A new province can only mean greater separation from each other. But the new province would only be the symptom of the ailment. The cause would be women bishops. If women are made bishops, I do not see how any traditionalist could, legally and in good conscience, remain a member of the Church of England unless there is a new province. Paradoxically, the new province appears to be the only way to retain the last vestiges of unity amongst those who are currently members of the Church of England.

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