Listening to friends

John Macquarrie, Lady Margaret Professor -Emeritus of Divinity, gives his response to the Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops' response to the Rochester Report just before it is to be debated in General Synod this month

This Roman Catholic response deserves full and careful consideration. The Roman Catholic commentators have gone to great trouble in considering the Rochester Report. Their comments have been given in response to a request from the Church of England side, and how Anglicans reply to their ecumenical partners must show the same care and sympathy.

The question of women bishops (or women priests) cannot be isolated, but must be seen in relation to the entirety of belief and practice. The fact that the Church of England has sought the opinion of Roman Catholic and other Christian traditions on the subject is an acknowledgement that this question cannot be discussed, still less answered, without due consideration of how it impinges on the question of inter-church relations.

It would be a sorry state of affairs were the CofE to make a decision simply on the grounds of women’s place in and contribution to the life of the Church, or on the basis of sexual equality, without at least as much attention to the consequences for ecumenical relations.

The Elizabethan Settlement was, I think it would be generally agreed, a wise arrangement at that stage in our history, providing for a broad church in which Catholics, Middle-of-the-Roaders, and even Puritans could find a home, unless they were quite intractable. But there is a danger that the unity of the past may now disintegrate, if one group or another tries to impose its will on the whole. Although the Churc6

 is not a democracy (and should not be), it would be interesting to know just how strong are the various groups in the Church and just what damage might be done by such a move as accepting women bishops. I do not think that the votes in the General Synod are truly representative of the mind of the Church of England.

Is it reversible?

I agree that the decision to admit women to the priesthood would seem to imply that they might thereby qualify to be consecrated bishops [para.7]. But I must also agree with the view that there is a contradiction in the claim that ordaining women to priesthood is a provisional matter that can await ‘reception’ by the whole Church before we can know whether it was right to proceed with such ordination.

I think the Catholic comments are correct at this point and must be taken with the utmost seriousness: ‘There seems to us to be a tremendous and intolerable ecclesiological risk involved in taking such a step without an assurance that it is right and irreversible.’ [para.8] The Church of England (it seems) wants to eat its cake and have it. But it must be doubted whether those who talk about reception really mean it.

Is it conceivable that a day might come when it was decided that there had been rejection, rather than reception? Is it conceivable that women, ordained in good faith, would be told that their ordination had been a mistake, and that they had never really been priests? As the Catholic commentators say, we cannot ‘experiment’ with sacraments, nor think of ordinations as ‘hypothetically reversible.’ This is one of the strongest points in the Roman Catholic response.

Common humanity

The matters discussed in paras.10-13 are less controversial. There is agreement that more fundamental than sexual difference is a common humanity, and as human beings men and women are equally in the image and likeness of God, though potentially rather than actually. It is equally important, however, to acknowledge that men and women also have differences, and especially differences in function. What common humanity, embodied in sexual difference, means within the Church, is something still needing exploration and not likely to be settled for a long time.

This is recognized both by those who talk about reception and provisionality, and those who while opposing the appointment of women bishops, would admit that a time might come when the Church would decide that women bishops were the will of God for his Church. It would be wrong to consecrate women bishops as if the question were already settled, just as it would also be wrong to say that it would be impossible ever for a woman to become a bishop.

Here we come to the difficult question of the development of doctrine (and practice) in the Church. These were not given once for all in unchangeable form at the beginning. They have developed, over the past two thousand years, and will develop in the future. Cardinal Newman drew attention to the importance of development in his famous book on the subject (1846).

Catholics, on the whole, have believed that such development can be seen as the unfolding of what was already implicitly present in the original revelation. Protestants, though they would not deny that the development must show continuity with what has gone before, would also want to stress new discoveries in secular knowledge, especially the sciences, as having a place in the development of doctrine. An example is the need to rethink the doctrine of creation in the light of evolutionary theory.

What is an Anglican?

Serious questions are raised for the Church of England in para.15 (‘What is a bishop?’). Is the Church of England as uncertain about episcopacy as the Catholic commentators seem to think? The Book of Common Prayer is quite clear that the threefold ministry is of the essence of the Church, and the same holds of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which has been basic in all Anglican approaches to the ecumenical question. If some Anglicans have become lax on such matters, to that extent they have ceased to be Anglicans. It is significant that in Scotland and the USA, the word ‘Anglican’ is not generally used, and these provinces use the expression Episcopal Church, indicating that it is the episcopate that is the distinguishing characteristic.

One can only conclude that any move to consecrate women as bishops at this time in the Church of England would be premature. Much more study and reflection is needed. Otherwise, we may find ourselves embarked on a journey that will create schism within the Church of England, and will widen the distance already separating us from the great Catholic Churches of both East and West, and reduce Anglicanism to being only another vaguely Christian sect.

Return to Home Page of This Issue

Return to Trushare Home Page