Wisdom from the east

Ian Falconer examines the contents of the most recent Anglican-Orthodox Agreed Statement and in particular the views expressed concerning women bishops and reception

Moscow 1976, Dublin 1984... Complete the sequence. No premium rate number to phone, but give yourself a prize if you got Cyprus 2006. These are the places where Anglican-Orthodox Agreed Statements were finalized and the years when they were published [paperback, 5-95].

The Cyprus 2006 Statement has theological, ecumenical and practical insights of considerable significance for Catholic Anglicans and for our Communion at large. As we look to our future within or beyond Anglicanism, we must keep not just the Roman but also the Orthodox tradition firmly in our sights. This Statement should encourage us in doing this.

The International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Theological Dialogue (ICAOTD) met several times from 1989. In June 2005, it completed the last chapter at the monastery of Kykkos in Cyprus, hence The Cyprus Agreed Statement. Co-chairmen were Bishop Mark Dyer (The Episcopal Church of America, retired Bishop of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) and Metropolitan John of Pergamon (Ecumenical Patriarchate). Members were set the task of looking at the doctrine of the Church, its unity and ministry, in the light of the Holy Trinity, hence The Church of the Triune God.

The cover illustrates this with an icon of the 'Hospitality of Abraham' (or 'Old Testament Trinity') from a Greek Orthodox Church in North Carolina. Inside is a well-presented document; some Greek words and theological terms are explained. The carefully reasoned theology is clearly set out. Where Anglican members of the International Commission have divergent views, these are generally fairly set out. In places, Anglo-Catholics will prefer the Orthodox viewpoint.

The starting point is a biblical word familiar from Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, koinonia. This fellowship or communion of the life of the Church reflects the divine life of the Trinity. God, as eternal communion of love, enables the fellowship of believers to be 'a real participation in the divine life, a theosis [Section I paragraph 4]. A survey of how the doctrine of the Trinity developed leads to an exploration of the relationship of Christ and the Spirit within the Trinity. Through this, a new humanity is moulded; 'humanity shaped by God's Spirit is defined by the humanity of Jesus Christ and him crucified.' A Christology (study of Christ) shaped by pneumatology (study of the Spirit) can help avoid misunderstandings about the filioque ('and the Son, added to the Nicene Creed by the Church in the West, but rejected by Orthodoxy). A right theology of the Trinity can 'witness to the inseparable connection between the work of the Son and the work of the Spirit in achieving our salvation, without having recourse to the filioque' [11.47].

Next, the Gospel and culture. These may interact, but the distinction must not become blurred. Always embodied in a specific culture, [the Gospel] transcends every culture' [111.26]. Engaging with human history and thought 'does not mean that the Gospel has to be relativized, and adapted to every current cultural achievement.' Anglicans, please note! But human thought and culture 'can prepare the way for the Gospel and interpret it' [111.24].

Inclusive language, especially about God, can be troublesome. The Statement affirms that God 'is neither male nor female nor any combination of the two.' But Jesus Christ is 'a perfect male person,' whose saving work extends equally to male and female' [IV.5]. To call Jesus 'Son' of the 'Father' is not to use gender language but to reveal his true identity within the Godhead that is a Trinity of persons. Such revelation 'can be truly understood only within the communion {koinonia) of the Church.' Here, 'Father' and 'Son are understood as 'neither analogous, metaphorical or symbolic' but 'iconic' in language [IV.8]. The eternal Son of God 'became man' for the salvation of all humanity, as a male, but in his human nature unites all people to God. Through the resurrection of Christ, the distinction between male and female 'is radically transformed'. 'The Fathers look forward, not to... a humanity stripped of the distinctive qualities of men and women, but to a perfect communion in which human diversity is affirmed and glorified' [IV. 14]. This bit may sound like something out of a local authority anti-discrimination policy, but the Commission is trying to express fundamental beliefs about God and humanity that merit further discussion and elucidation.

The role of bishops in both traditions is considered in its historical context. Apostolic succession is best regarded as a succession of communities represented by their bishops, rather than a succession of individuals with power and authority to confer grace apart from their communities' [V.15]. Both Orthodox and Anglicans 'understand themselves as communions of local churches'. The unity of local churches and the catholicity of faith are maintained by the bishops who represent those churches in wider councils. Ecumenical councils and synods relate both to local churches and to the issue of primacy, including the universal primacy of the see of Rome. Primacy and conciliar-ity are inseparable. The Statement cites what the first Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission (ARCIC I) stated about this. While both Orthodox and Anglicans explore this in their own dialogues with Rome, I should welcome further joint consideration.

Priesthood is derived from the one priesthood of Christ. The ordained priesthood is a charismatic gift within the priesthood of the whole Church, given in and expressed through the Eucharist. 'Ultimately the celebrant of the Eucharist is Christ himself, acting through the presiding bishop or presbyter and the community to build up the body of Christ' [VI.18]. Not all Catholic Anglicans might agree with the rejection of the notion of an irremovable 'indelible mark' bestowed on a priest. The Commission reckons that this would give the priest 'an autonomous power above the Church itself. It is unknown in patristic teaching. Those deposed or excommunicated have 'returned to the rank of layman [VI.22-3]. 'The distinction between a priest and a lay person is not one of legal status but of distribution of the gifts of the Spirit.'

So to the current big issue, Women and Men, Ministries and the Church. An uncontroversial survey of lay ministries in both traditions is followed by a look at the diaconate. The Ecumenical Patriarch is quoted: 'The ordination of women deacons is an undeniable part of the tradition coming from the early church.' He seems to support the restoration of the order. The Statement maintains that the Anglican history of women's ordination to the presbyterate and the episcopate must be seen against the background of their ordination to the diaconate. There is no mention of this as a lost opportunity of developing the permanent diaconate, nor of the view of many opponents that this was the thin end of the wedge that would lead to women priests. But Anglican and Orthodox members of our dialogue do not disagree with regard to the ordination of women as deacons and deaconesses' [VII.19].

The Statement acknowledges that 'although the priestly ministry of women in the Anglican Communion is now widely accepted... a significant minority within the Communion opposes the ordination of women as presbyters and bishops,' both whole provinces and also within provinces that do ordain women [VII.20]. I think 'minority' might be inaccurate in respect of the Anglican Communion as a whole, particularly as regards bishops, but the divisive nature of the issue is recognized. The theological arguments 'for and against the inclusion of women in the presbyterate and episcopate are identical'

The Commission revisits the matter of the humanity of Christ and the equality of women and men in the baptized community. This is renewed in the Eucharist as 'the community of the reign of God'. It participates in both the mission of Christ to the world and in God's 'future reign. The Statement asserts that it is in the light of'the transformation of gender in the new life of the kingdom' that 'many Anglicans hold that there are compelling theological grounds for ordaining women as well as men or at least no compelling reasons against [VII.35-6]. I do not know how many Anglicans that is, or whether this is the jargon they use when justifying their position.

An Orthodox member of our dialogue has reminded us that some of the most persuasive arguments against the ordination of women have come from Anglican writers' [VII.20]. The Orthodox objections correspond very much to those of Anglican opponents. The Orthodox see no convincing theological reason for deviating from the tradition of reserving the ministry of eucharistic presidency to male members. That president acts in the person of Christ, whose maleness is part of his identity. While the Church must listen to society, sociological concerns are not in themselves sufficient to justify innovations pertaining to the ministry of the Church, particularly in its eucharistic form.' No injustice is done to women by not ordaining them, 'since ordination does not involve the exercise of some kind of power. ..but is a specific service to the community' Women's ministry is in no way inferior to the ordained ministry. 'In the context of the ongoing ecumenical dialogue,' say the Orthodox, 'profound theological examination' is required. 'The cost of schism or the perpetuation of division is too high to outweigh any pastoral benefits that may result from such innovation [VII.37]. The Commission wishes further reflection to take place. Will our General Synod heed such a plea?

The Commission tackles the subject of heresy from its root meaning of 'personal choice', pertinent considering much contemporary opinion. Schism in the Church does not necessarily imply heresy. We are out of eucharistic communion with one another, despite 'a common recognition of the basic and central dogmas of the Church' and being able 'to proclaim the Scriptures and recite the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed together.' We are in the 'abnormal situation' of a 'disrupted Christian people seeking to restore our unity' [VIII. 13].

Since 1992, the Church of England is supposed to have been in a period of reception regarding the ordination of women, something many advocates of women bishops seek to ignore or deny. The Statement's final section, Reception in Communion, is therefore particularly important. Reception begins in the Trinity. 'God gives his Son to us in the Holy Spirit' [IX. 12]. Reception takes place in concrete Church communities and within the context of the Eucharist. Classically, decisions of the bishops in council had to be received by the community. 'If the community could do nothing without the bishop, the bishop had to receive the Amen' of the community' [IX. 13]. For universal communion, universal reception must take place through an episcopal head of a local church. 'This ministry should be sought in the Bishop of Rome', says the Commission. Some evangelical Anglicans might dissent, as they did from ARCIC's conclusions on primacy. With regard to Scripture and Tradition, 'receiving and re-receiving is a process which is never finished' [1X15].

Protagonists of women's ordination should note: 'While the process of reception continues, the theological debate remains open.' Two things need to be kept in mind: 'all must seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and submit to it' and, crucially, 'no one should claim the authority of the Holy Spirit for accepting or rejecting any new doctrine or practice until the process of reception is completed' [1X19]. The Statement differentiates between innovations, e.g. monasticism, which do not affect the Church's basic structure and those, e.g. the papal ministry and non-episcopal communities, which do. 'The recognition and reception of the ministry of women presbyters and bishops is a question which concerns the practical life of the ecclesial communities involved, including sacramental communion.' Such practical matters affect reception immediately. This is particularly true of the ordination of women to the episcopate, 'for the churches receive one another at the level of structure through the bishop' [1X29].

The Orthodox are major partners in ecumenism. If our synodical representatives are serious about it, they should consider the implications of the Cyprus Statement, particularly regarding women bishops and reception.

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