The crucial canon

PaulBenfield summarizes what Canon A4 meant and the implications of its meaning in the future

In July 2006 the General Synod passed a motion approving the setting up of a legislative drafting group to prepare draft legislation to remove the legal obstacles to the consecration of women to the office of bishop and also 'a draft of possible additional provision consistent with Canon A4 to establish arrangements that would seek to maintain the highest possible degree of communion with those conscientiously unable to receive the ministry of women bishops'. The words 'consistent with Canon A4' were the result of an amendment, proposed by Canon Jane Sinclair, on which there has been much comment since the vote.

Canon A4

Of the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons,

The Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons annexed to The Book of Common Prayer and commonly known as the Ordinal, is not repugnant to the Word of God; and those who are so made, ordained, or consecrated bishops, priests, or deacons, according to the said Ordinal, are lawfully made, ordained, or consecrated, and ought to be accounted, both by themselves and others, to be truly bishops, priests, or deacons.

The Prayer Book

Writing in The Tablet immediately following the debate, Bishop Richard Harries said that the effect of the amendment was that there will be no question in the future of opponents arguing that priests ordained by a woman bishop are not really priests. But is this what Canon A4 means? The Forward in Faith Legal Working Party considered the matter over the summer and has produced a paper that has been submitted to the drafting group [and which can be downloaded from the Forward in Faith website].

To understand what Canon A4 is really about, it is necessary to consider the full text and its history. The canon makes clear in its heading that it is concerned with the form and manner of making ordaining and consecrating. It has nothing to say about who may be ordained but only about the way in which they are ordained.

At the Reformation the Church of England introduced its own rite of ordination, commonly called The Ordinal, which is now annexed to the Book of Common Prayer. There were doubts in some quarters as to whether the new English ordination rite was, in fact, a valid rite of ordination. So the Articles of Religion of 1571 provided that the 'Book of Consecration of Archbishops and Bishops and ordering of Priests and Deacons set forth in the Reign of King Edward VI' contained all things necessary to such consecration or ordination. From this provision concerning Cranmer's Ordinal has come down the modern Canon A4. It can be seen that it has relevance only to those bishops, priests and deacons ordained according to the Prayer Book Ordinal and nothing to say about those ordained according to the ASB or Common Worship rites.

Range of recognition

Much stress has been placed on the words that those ordained according to the Ordinal 'ought to be accounted, both by themselves and others, to be truly bishops, priest or deacons.' The language here is not the prescriptive 'shall,' but rather the exhortatory 'ought'. One of the few canons, like Canon A4, to use 'ought' is Canon B6.3 encouraging the observance of Days of Fasting ('whereof the 40 days of Lent, particularly Ash Wednesday and the Monday to Saturday before Easter, ought specially to be observed'). No one would suggest that it is mandatory for members of the Church of England to fast on Ash Wednesday and in Holy Week; its members are simply encouraged by the Canon to do so. It can be seen, therefore, that in the canons 'ought' is exhortatory and aspirational: not mandatory. Canon A4 has nothing to say about the status and quality of those who undergo a rite of ordination according to the Ordinal.

Before a person ought to be accounted truly a bishop, priest or deacon, certain other requirements must be satisfied. There are requirements in the canons concerning age, marital status, sex (no woman can at present be consecrated a bishop) and the number of consecrators for a bishop. Only if those requirements are satisfied ought the person ordained to be accounted a deacon, priest or bishop.

That being so, we can contemplate that if we were to have women bishops it would be perfectly possible to have arrangements which limited the operation or recognition of women ordained, or men ordained by women bishops, as the Legal Working Party suggested in Consecrated Women? It would be possible that, enabled by a Measure, the canons could provide that a woman priest or bishop, or a man ordained by a woman bishop, may not officiate in the province of X or the jurisdiction of Y. Such an arrangement would mean that all bishops, priests and deacons of the Provinces of Canterbury and York would be recognized as such within those provinces; and all bishops, priests and deacons of the additional province or jurisdiction would be recognized as such within that new province or jurisdiction.

Continued provisionality

If contrary to our view, Canon A4 does indeed concern the recognition of the validity or orders, then in our view it has been suspended by operation of statute. From the passing of the Submission of the Clergy Act 1533 to the present day no canon may be passed which contravenes a statute. Since the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 - which allows parishes not to accept the priestly ministry of women - possesses the same authority as a parliamentary statute, then Canon A4, if not rendered invalid, has at least been suspended.

This point has been argued many times in the pages of New Directions. But the Bishops of Guildford and Gloucester find this language too hard a pill to swallow. They do not take the view that Canon A4 was suspended, but rather that its 'practical outworking' has been 'qualified'. Whatever the semantics, the legal and practical reality is that, to the extent that the Canon may concern the recognition of orders, it is not operational.

We conclude that the words 'consistent with Canon A4' in the amended motion passed by the General Synod add nothing at all. But we are concerned about the interpretation likely to be placed on those words on the basis of a mistaken understanding of them. The result could be to drive out of the church of their birth and baptism, those who have been perfectly entitled to hold in question, during this continuing open process of reception, whether those ordained as a result of a provisional decision may indeed truly be accounted as such.

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