Spelling it out

Mark Stevens is once again exasperated by those bishops who cannot grasp the nature of their own office, what therefore is needed for Catholic Anglicans, and why TEA so singularly fails to understand them


You can bet your life that soon – immediately after the July Synod perhaps – an attempt will be made to make opponents of women bishops seem ungrateful in their response to the Guildford proposals. TEA, it will be said, was the best that could be managed in the circumstances, and we should have given most humble and hearty thanks for it. That predictable process has, indeed, already begun. One diocesan bishop has described the response of the Forward in Faith Legal Group to GS 1605 as ‘the longest suicide note in history’ (surpassing, we must assume, Michael Foot’s previous achievement in the field).

It will be as well, then, to explain in the simplest terms why TEA was unacceptable, and how it is difficult to see (taking into account the misunderstandings of those who produced it) that it could have been made better.

A natural solution

The basic problem with TEA is a twelve-letter word: RE-ORDINATION. In the murky world of ‘informal soundings’ in which TEA first saw the light, ‘re-ordination’ is an expletive. The idea that priests ordained by women bishops and their sympathizers would be unwelcome to minister in parishes opposed without some regularization of their orders, is routinely greeted with shock and horror. But why?

Consider the circumstances in which the question of re-ordination would arise. A young man, blamelessly reared in the gender-neutral CofE and ordained to the priesthood by a woman bishop, comes to the conclusion that the 1992 decision was wrong and that the Church has no authority thus to alter the ministry received from the Apostles. He doubts, in fact, the validity of his own ordination. This young man (let us call him Benedict) is aware that there are Anglican parishes and bishops who share his view. How is he to join them?

They, quite naturally, doubt that Benedict is a priest. He doubts it too. What could be more natural than that those doubts should be put to rest in an ordination service in which both Benedict and his new parish can place their confidence? And what could be more absurd than legislation which permitted those opposed to women’s ordination a continued life in the Church of England, but which drove Benedict into another communion for the sacramental assurance which he had come to see as essential to his life and ministry?

A common intention?

So let us say it again (since there is clearly a basic misunderstanding): our objection to female bishops is not that they are women, but that we doubt that they are bishops. We doubt, in consequence, the efficacy of their sacramental actions, and in particular their ordinations. We view a man ordained by a woman bishop precisely as we view a female priest. And, for the same reason, we doubt the orders of male priests ordained by male bishops who are in unimpaired communion with female colleagues.

The Guildford Report, naturally, makes much of the fact that even after the ordination of female bishops, all bishops in the Church of England will have a common intention, whether consecrating women or men, to do so to the ‘historic episcopate,’ to do just as the Church has always intended. But this, we believe, is ecclesiology Through the Looking Glass. (‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said in a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – not more or less.’) The Church of England cannot claim to be intending to ordain to the ‘historic episcopate’ those who have been historically excluded from it (and whom the historic Churches of the first millennium continue to exclude) – especially when those ordinations are said to have as their additional intention the righting of that perennial wrong. Clearly bishops who ordain with this intention are intending something else, however they choose to describe the something.

Ecclesial community

Let us also say clearly (for the misunderstanding appears to be deep-rooted and persistent): if the conditional ordination of those who have been ordained by women bishops is to be forbidden by or excluded from any legislation to provide PRBs, then there is no point in providing PRBs in the first place. They cannot and will not be the guarantors of orders within their own college of presbyters which we need and require.

The recent response to Guildford by the Forward in Faith Theological Working Party has put the matter succinctly:

‘The question…is not ‘how can I be shielded from the ministry of ordained women?’ but rather ‘where can I find that unimpaired collegiality of bishops, priests, deacons and faithful laity to which, as a Catholic Christian, I seek to belong?’ Understood in these terms, the matter of provision for traditionalists becomes not one of erecting fences, but of enabling an authentic ecclesial community to flourish in which clergy and people can live out their calling, preach the Gospel and witness to Christ. This need to be in authentic ecclesial relationship is not, for us, a trivial or merely churchy matter. Ecclesial relationships derive their authenticity from the ‘Being-in-Communion’ of the Blessed Trinity itself, from the interpenetration of the divine with the human which is effected through the incarnation, resurrection and return to glory of the Son of the Father. To fracture those ecclesial relationships is thus to impair the very relationship between the individual and God.’


It is easy to see how hard it is for the proponents of consecrated women (basking in the warm glow of their own enlightenment) to grasp what our needs are: the a priori ethical arguments for women’s ordination, after all, make almost totalitarian demands. But the failure to grasp that re-ordination is not peripheral but central to our concerns is the clearest indicator yet that there has been no meeting of minds.

What the TEA proposals offer – a cordon sanitaire separating opponents from women ministers – is not only offensive to the women themselves, but offensive to opponents. What we need is not protection but the essential structures of a Catholic ecclesial life.

The TEA proposals are inadequate to our needs, not because they do not go far enough, but because they are fundamentally ill-conceived in the first place. It is as though they were written by someone to whom Catholic ecclesiology – the ecclesiology of collegiality and sacramental assurance – was a closed book.

Return to Home Page of This Issue

Return to Trushare Home Page