Rowan in reception


Bishop Andrew Burnham considers the notion of reception in the light of Dr Rowan Williams' interview last November and the generally misinformed press coverage it provoked

In a press release on Thursday, 16 November 2006, we heard that 'the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams has dismissed as 'wilfully misleading' newspaper reports that he is doubtful over the ordination of women to the priesthood, has ever felt that the ordination of women priests had been 'wrong' or believes that a revisiting of the question is likely, necessary or desirable.' This row followed an interview with the Catholic Herald, in which, according to headlines in The Daily Telegraph, the Church 'could think again over women.'

As always, it is as well to go back to the sources. What he said to the Catholic Herald was that he 'could just about envisage a situation in which over a very long period the Anglican Church thought again about it.' Thus far we have the ability of the able academic to see all sides of a question and the sensitivity of the pastor with responsibility for those of different views. Dr Williams went on, 'I would need to see what the theological reason for that would be and I don't see it at the moment. I don't think, practically, there's going back. It is a matter of containing and managing the diversity'

News stories develop a life of their own and, in the event, it was not the Archbishop's apparent equivocation over the ordination of women as priests that proved controversial, so much as his alleged lack of enthusiasm about the contribution of women clergy. He quickly apologized for having given that impression and, to be fair, those who know him know that he is a warm supporter of women priests, in theory and in practice.

Those who know their ecclesiology know that the Archbishop was trying to give expression to the delicate doctrine of reception, a doctrine not easily or widely understood. Moreover, he was alluding to this doctrine in a context - a press interview - where there is little scope for nuance.

'Reception was the subject of a conference held at St George's House, Windsor Castle, 10-12 April, 2000. So divisive was the subject that though a document 'Reception and Communion in the context of the Ordination of Women and the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993' was produced, the work was incomplete. The sequel - a conference on 'Communion - never took place. For the conference, there was a preparatory paper drawn up by the Revd Preb. Dr Paul Avis and the Revd Canon Laurence Gunner.

I think I can best draw out the complexity of the doctrine of reception by laying out nine principles:

  1. 'Reception is a permanent feature of the life of the Church.'
  2. 'Reception is a neutral, technical term: despite a common misunderstanding to the contrary, it does not imply that a development in the life of the Church will ultimately be positively accepted as God's will for the Church.'
  3. 'Reception entails a process of study and evaluation in which the truth, or otherwise, of a development may be spiritually and theologically discerned. It takes place both before and after any decision of the Church has been taken.'
  4. 'Reception is not a political device but an ecclesiological reality. The process of the reception of the ordination of women should, therefore, be related to ecclesiological principles, especially those enshrined in the four credal notes or attributes of the Christian Church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic'
  5. 'Reception is not the concern of a single church or communion but should be seen in a fully ecumenical context.'
  6. 'Without prejudice to the personal convictions of individuals, the ultimate outcome of a process of reception is known only to God. To participate actively in an open process of reception with regard to the ordination of women is therefore an act of faith. Integrity and maturity are required in order to handle contentious issues'
  7. 'The decisions of the Church of England with regard to the ordination of women in a divided universal Church presuppose that an ecumenical process of reception is required. This wider context suggests that not only boldness but restraint may be called for. The ultimate context of reception is the reunion of the Christian Church, which is currently divided on a number of beliefs and practices.'
  8. 'There will be different perceptions of what is occurring in a process of reception.'
  9. As an expression of the organic vitality of the Body of Christ, reception belongs at the centre of the Church's life.'

These nine principles are themselves an elucidation not only of aspects of ecumenical ecclesiology as it has been developing over the years, but also of the Church of England's own commitments in the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod (1993). Here we read, for instance: 3. The General Synod regards it as desirable that: a) all concerned should endeavour to ensure that i) discernment of the Tightness or otherwise of the decision to ordain women to the priesthood should be as open a process as possible; ii) the highest possible degree of communion should be maintained within each diocese; and iii) the integrity of differing beliefs and positions concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood should be mutually recognised and respected.

In the consequent House of Bishops document, Bonds of Peace, we read that ' now to be seen with a much broader and longer process of discernment within the whole Church under the Spirits guidance' and that all positions are legitimate 'while the whole Church seeks to come to a common mind.' After all, the Church of England is 'a communion in dialogue, committed to remaining together in the ongoing process of the discernment of truth within the wider fellowship of the Christian Church' and must be open and in communion insofar as possible 'as we strive to be open to the insights of the wider Christian community.'

It is against this complex doctrinal background that Dr Williams' refutation of the newspapers' spin must be viewed. If anything, an objective observer - and here is a matter where an objective observer must be particularly hard to encounter or even envisage - might think that, far from undermining women's ministry, it is the position of traditionalists that the Archbishop was selling short.

'I made it clear in the interview with the Catholic Herald and will continue to do so,' he said, 'that I see no theological justification for any revisiting of this question and indicated in the interview three times that I had no wish to reopen it, whatever technical possibilities might theoretically exist.'

To be fair to the Archbishop, nothing less than an emphatic statement of this kind would have done the trick. He was being portrayed as rethinking his position on women priests and bishops. This is clearly not the case. To be fair to the traditionalists, there are a number of theological justifications for revisiting the question of women's ordination, even if, theologically, the revisiting leads to no different conclusions.

One theological justification might be the sheer weight of Scripture and Tradition. (Neither of these supports a developed and 'received' priestly and episcopal ministry of ordained women, though both, in my view, would support the revival of a female diaconal ministry in the ancient churches.)

Another might be the ecumenical dimension, the teaching of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, as well as the teaching of many of the most vigorous evangelical ecclesial communities. (The ecumenical argument, contrary to what is sometimes alleged, is, of course, itself a theological argument.)

A third might arise from the more profound study of anthropology that everyone routinely says is still necessary. (Such a study, say liberals, would confirm the emancipation of women for ordained ministry. Such a study, say traditionalists, would realize how trivial the understanding modernity has of the complementarity of the sexes.)

A fourth might be that, over a period of time, women's priestly and episcopal ministry is not 'received' into the mainstream of the Church. (The unlikeliness of this eventuality does not rule it out.)

What the Archbishop's remarks do confirm is that, whatever the theological justification or the technical possibilities, the Anglican Communion is unlikely to discontinue ordaining women to the priesthood and episcopate. More than that, the Communion will have to struggle if it is to maintain those who do not accept such ordinations as Catholic and apostolic in its midst.

There is a question of whether it would be healthy to maintain dissent on such a fundamental matter within the ranks. It seems to me that there are two answers and that the Church of England, at least, has so far picked the wrong one. The right answer is that it would not be healthy to maintain dissent on the matter of who is and who is not properly and rightly ordained.

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