Called to obedience

Jonathan Baker listened carefully to the Archbishop of Canterbury during the General Synod debate in February and outlines the significance of what he said concerning obedience to the tradition of the Church


In a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper, published on 21 March this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury had this to say about his refusal to be tempted to the quick response or reach for the easy cliché. ‘I think the question I always find myself asking of myself,’ he told Alan Rushbridger, ‘is, "Will a pronouncement here or a statement there actually move things on, or is it something that makes me feel better and other people feel better, but doesn’t necessarily contribute very much?"’

Language (and this is a quality we would expect in a poet-Archbishop) is not to be used casually, recklessly, promiscuously: and in many circumstances (perhaps in most), it is better to be silent than to add to the din. No one could accuse this Archbishop of being as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. The press – while frustrated by the lack of sound bite or slogan – will wait in vain for the sort of verbal stake upon which Archbishop Rowan’s predecessor frequently impaled himself.

All of this means that we are entitled to take what this Archbishop of Canterbury does say very seriously. In his speech summing up the debate on the House of Bishops’ Women Bishops Group (otherwise known as the ‘Guildford Group’) on the Thursday of the February meeting of the General Synod, Archbishop Rowan made a comment which traditionalists in the matter of the ordination of women (and not just them) did indeed feel had ‘actually moved things on.’ In the penultimate paragraph of his speech, he said:

People have talked, at times, about differences of opinion and how the church can live with differences of opinion. I think that the problem is, for those who are not content with the idea that we should go forward ordaining women as bishops, the problem is not one of opinion, it’s rather of obedience. It’s one of obedience to Scripture, or obedience to the consensus of the Church Catholic. And, while that’s not a view I wholly share, I think we ought to recognize that that’s where it comes from, that those who hold that are not just thinking ‘this is a matter of opinion’ and therefore it is rightly and understandably a lot harder to deal with, if you’re talking what fundamentally comes down to a question of whether you obey God or human authority. That’s why it’s serious; that’s why it’s difficult; more than opinion.

‘Obedience’ is a foundational term for Christians. As Helen Oppenheimer has written, ‘Christian tradition glorifies obedience. In the Old Testament God’s people, often disobedient, are required to hear and obey. In the New Testament, obedient love is emphasised more, not less.’ The Fourth Gospel is especially illustrative of Oppenheimer’s dictum, in which the relationship between the Son’s loving obedience to the Father, and the same loving obedience owed by the disciples to the Son, is made explicit: If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my father’s commandments and abide in his love [John 10.15]. The obedience owed by the Son to the Father is fulfilled in the Son’s passion and death: And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross [Phil. 2.8]; Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered [Heb. 5.8].

Moreover, it is the Son’s obedience (substituted for our disobedience) which ensures that his sacrifice of himself on the Cross is indeed accomplished for the atonement of sins: For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous [Rom. 5.19]. Our Lord’s filial obedience is made fruitful in the lives of all the faithful through prayer; as Herbert McCabe puts it in section 172 of his short Catechism, The Teaching of the Catholic Church: ‘The first prayer is the sacrifice of Christ by which in his love for and obedience to the Father he accepted death on the cross as a prayer for our salvation and for the coming of the Kingdom. All our prayers are ways of sharing in that communication between the Son and the Father.’

For St Paul, patterns of obedience within the Christian family – the domestic church – and the household of God more generally, are important insofar as they are expressive of the obedience of the Son to the Father, and of the whole Church to the Son. St Peter addresses the exiles of the Dispersion as those ‘chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood’ [1 Pet. 1.2]. ‘As obedient children,’ he goes on to urge them, ‘do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct’ [1 Pet. 1.13].

What of our obedience? Tradition agrees that absolute obedience is due only to God; beyond this, the obedience owed by Christians to other men is limited both by the bounds of properly constituted authority, and the claims of (well-formed) conscience. Both of these qualifications to the concept of absolute obedience may be found in the well-known form of words used in the Oath of Canonical Obedience taken by a priest to his bishop at the time of his ordination, licensing or institution into a parish, in which obedience is promised to the bishop and his successors ‘in all things lawful and honest.’ That formula, in turn, of course, begs the question.

For Aquinas, obedience is a moral virtue which is liable to two kinds of error: the error of deficiency (namely, disobedience) and the error of excess – namely, false obedience, obedience to those who are not justly entitled to it. It might not be unfair to say that the whole story of Anglicanism has been to do with the search to answer the question: what are those things to which we justly owe obedience? To summarize brutally, the answer of the English reformers was: Scripture, certainly; but also, the doctrine and praxis of the authentic and primitive Catholic Church, including – quite deliberately – the ministry of the undivided Church.

Classical Anglican apologetic was to have, at its heart, conservation not innovation, and to express a chastening sense of the limits of her authority as bound both by Scripture and Tradition. As Bishop Van Mildert, then Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford and later Bishop of Durham, wrote in his Bampton Lectures of 1814: ‘While our Church is thus careful not to set up her authority as an unerring standard of truth, she omits not to testify her deference for the judgement of the Church Catholic, when it can be duly obtained. [italics mine.] She everywhere shows her readiness to abide by that judgement, and to reverence it in proportion to the evidence of its antiquity and uninterrupted continuance. She assumes to herself no more than to be regarded as a true branch of the Universal Church…’

Could those in the Church of England who are ‘not content with ordaining women as bishops’ be exercising a false obedience either to Scripture or to the consensus of the Church Catholic? The answer must surely be ‘no.’ And, to return to the Synod debate in February, it is clear from the Archbishop’s remarks that he understands the answer to be ‘no.’ And that understanding, in turn, rules out any possibility that those who, with a proper obedience, hold the beliefs which they do, can be excluded. The Archbishop said earlier in his speech:

It may look attractive superficially to say ‘We are content to be a smaller group in which women are unequivocally and universally recognized,’ but that…does mean that we have put ourselves further apart from some other Christians – including some who are historically part of our fellowship.

So can traditionalists, in the matter of the ordination of women to the episcopate, take wholehearted comfort from Archbishop Rowan’s acknowledgement that ours is a conviction rooted in obedience, and therefore necessarily deserving of a legitimate, secure, and indefinite future in the Church of England? Almost – but not quite. We need to consider briefly two more passages (or rather, one passage, and one phrase) in the Archbishop’s speech.

The first is to look at what are very nearly the Archbishop’s last words, as he looks ahead to the further consideration of the Guildford proposals. Can a way be found, he wonders, to hold together the sense of justice felt on the one side with that of obedience on the other? Yet is the making of that distinction, that opposition, between justice and obedience (which would have been unknown to St Thomas) precisely something which traditionalists would want to resist?

If it is a matter of justice that women should be ordained as bishops and priests, then, as we have consistently argued, no Christian could possibly oppose such a development – even at the cost of the unity of the Church. It is surely critical to the way in which the process of discussing the possible ordination of women to the episcopate unfolds (both in principle and in practice), that we continue to insist that there is not simply one side in the argument which has the monopoly on ‘justice.’

What, then, is the phrase in Archbishop Rowan’s speech which prompts second thoughts? It is there in the first passage which I quoted above, which speaks of ‘obedience to Scripture, or obedience to the consensus of the Catholic Church.’ And, while that’s not a view I wholly share he continues, I think we ought to recognize that that’s where it comes from. Are we entitled to ask, which part of this view is it which the Archbishop does not share? And which part, therefore, does he share – and what are the consequences of the answer to each? We know that the question of the consensus, the collective mind, of the Church weighs with a proper heaviness on how the Archbishop discerns the limits of where the Church might go and what departures from the Tradition she might accommodate. How, ultimately, will those concerns play out in this debate?

We need to end on a distinctly positive note, and to be very grateful to Archbishop Rowan for a speech – a contribution – which accords the orthodox constituency a degree of theological seriousness and integrity which (it must frankly be acknowledged) it has sometimes struggled to acquire thus far. It is a speech which poses far more questions, and poses them more sharply, of those who wish to press for the admission of women to the episcopate, for it implicitly requires of them to clarify to what it is that they are seeking to be obedient – what understanding of Scripture, what sense of the Church? I am reminded of the comments made by Stephen Sykes in his essay ‘Foundations of an Anglican Ecclesiology,’ reprinted in his Unashamed Anglicanism, and taken up in Consecrated Women? (p.86). Sykes sets out, thoroughly, the ecclesiological arguments which should inhibit the Anglican Communion from proceeding with the ordination of women in the face of a lack of Catholic consensus, yet concludes that she is right to go ahead as an act of ‘eschatological obedience.’

In the context of Archbishop Rowan’s speech which returns, almost at its conclusion, to the wider ecumenical landscape, Sykes’ approach takes on a new resonance. The Church may indeed, ultimately, be provisional: and ministry and sacrament shall pass away in the heavenly Jerusalem. Yet the marks of the Catholic Church are also visible and trustworthy: the Church is not only (or even primarily) an eschatological possibility, but a present reality.

Finally, and more pragmatically, the Archbishop’s speech (taking up the Archdeacon of Berkshire’s point in his July amendment) clearly acknowledges that any legislation which permits the ordination of women as bishops must also be ‘theologically, spiritually and canonically adequate’ for those who remain convinced – in all obedience – that such a development cannot, assuredly, be of God.

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