Less like a Church

John Richardson offers an evangelical perspective on the impact of the Manchester Report 'single clause' option and is in no way encouraged by the prospect

For those, such as Watch, advocating the Manchester Reports 'Single Clause, Code of Practice' option as the way ahead on the consecration of women bishops, there is just one question that should be asked: 'Do you accept that men opposed to women's ordination will continue to be consecrated as bishops in the Church of England?'

The answer must surely be 'No.' Indeed, given the tiny handful of such consecrations which have taken place in the last few years, despite the 1993 Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod, any other answer would have to be seen as reflecting either self-delusion or the intention to delude others.

Exclusion

That Act established that 'no person or body shall discriminate against candidates...for appointment to senior office in the Church of England on the grounds of their views or positions about the ordination of women to the priesthood.' Yet there is no doubt that it has been consciously and deliberately ignored.

This being the case, the abolition of the Act of Synod, and the other legislation established in the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure, must spell the end of an episcopate which includes the 'two integrities' established by the Act. And this would entirely change the nature of the Church of England. In C.S. Lewis's words, the body which resulted would be 'much more rational 'but not near so much like a Church."

A key feature of a church is surely that no one should be excluded whose views are consistent with its understanding of the faith. And in the Church of England, this has hitherto been defined as a faith consistent with Scripture - consistent in the sense that nothing which contradicts Scripture is required to be believed or practised.

Widening divisions

As is well known, however, opponents of women's ordination generally believe that this indeed contradicts, or at least bends close to acceptable limits, our understanding and application of Scripture. Equally, there are those who, whilst holding identical views on Scripture's authority, do not find the same difficul-

ties. That this is recognized is part of what it means to acknowledge two 'integrities'. This being the case, it should be obvious that, at very least, the church should continue to include people of both integrities at every level.

Resolution J6, for example, passed at the 1977 National Evangelical Anglican Congress, whilst acknowledging the failure to give women 'their rightful place as partners in mission with men' nevertheless continued, 'Leadership in the Church should be plural and mixed, ultimate responsibility normally singular and male.'

Thirty years later, such a view would be held by a minority even within Evangelicalism. Yet this change seems to have been driven by sociological rather than theological considerations. Indeed, the letter written by Watch and others, and signed by several hundred women clergy, speaks explicitly of the need to eliminate 'discrimination against women. When pressed, it is clear that advocates of this approach are deeply uncomfortable with the Bible's own language and with its traditional understanding and application.

Lack of diversity

Again, the divisions between the Church of England and other churches are being widened. But for those who respond that this has not previously been a problem (for example, during the Reformation), it should be pointed out that, in the process, those other churches are not being subjected to the same analysis as the Church of England. Hence whilst the Church of England 'must' have women bishops because to do otherwise would be to perpetuate discrimination and render our mission to the nation hopeless, few voices are (yet) being raised saying the Church of Rome must do the same if it is to be taken seriously.

The Church of England has been torn by the ordination of women and will be further torn by their consecration as bishops. A degree of tearing is inevitable because ordination is not an opinion but an action, and a church which tries to accommodate those acting in mutually incompatible ways is always bound to experience some tension. Nevertheless, the one advantage of the traditional Anglican 'fudge' is that a remarkable degree of co-existence has hitherto been achieved.

As the Manchester Report itself points out, however, the single clause approach would spell the end of such accommodation, at least in this regard: 'The Church of England that emerged at the end of the process might possibly be more cohesive. It would undoubtedly be less theologically diverse.'

However, a key feature of that lack of diversity would be the inevitable absence of episcopal representation by those who continue to hold the traditional, historical and (in their understanding) biblical view of the church's leadership. And an episcopal church which excludes from the episcopate those who hold certain views has thereby enshrined opposition to those same views.

Thus, whilst the Church of England undoubtedly includes many who are essentially 'Baptists' on the issue of infant baptism, it would be unlikely to consecrate an anti-paedo-baptist to the episcopate. Being a covert (or even overt) Baptist does not exclude one from the Anglican Church, but this is an issue on which the Church has decided views. Adopting the single clause option would put women's ordination on a par with infant baptism.

Anglican anathemas

We might instructively contrast this, however, with things which evidently do not exclude one from being a candidate for the ministry: sitting light to the physical resurrection of Jesus, reserving or adoring the sacrament, being in a non-celibate same-sex relationship, being divorced and remarried, and so on. All of these are things which, though varying in moral and theological significance, are either contrary to Scripture or to the church's Articles and Formularies. Yet all are held or practised by people currently in ordained ministry. By contrast, not agreeing to the ordination of women will join the relatively select list of Anglican 'anathemas'.

The difference, of course, is that with respect to the above list of functional adiaphora the church either remains formally committed to the alternative view or at least does not exclude those who hold it.

Thus a person may believe that remarriage after divorce is forbidden in the Bible (indeed, given the words of both Jesus and the Apostle Paul, it is hard to see how they could think otherwise), despite the Church of England's recent officially libertarian stance and frequent turning of a blind eye. But they would know that whilst they might be deemed old-fashioned' or 'hard-line', they would not be formally excluded from the episcopal ministry.

By contrast, disagreement with the ordination and consecration of women will, henceforth, mean being increasingly limited to the margins of the church. Thus, on a matter on which tradition is unequivocal and Scripture at best open to interpretation, the Church of England will, remarkably, have found the rare ability to narrow its theological views to the point of exclusivity.

Worrying consequences

The fallout, in every sense, is to some extent unpredictable. The following, though, at least seems likely.

First, and perhaps most importantly, adherence to Scripture will have been deemed a secondary consideration in determining fundamental policy and practice. Not all supporters of women's 

ordination sit light to what the Bible has to say, but many do, and their views will have been privileged. That they will regard themselves as having won the day must have clear implications for the future development of the Church of England.

Secondly, those who continue to hold the traditional view, whether Catholic or Evangelical, will have to decide a course of action. Resolution C parishes and clergy will be faced with the prospect of

the most likely result for Evangelicals is compromise and assimilation

losing their current bishops, something virtually all will regard as unacceptable.

This will lead, thirdly, to the internecine wrangling that history shows high-handed and ill-conceived actions inevitably produce. The church will thus find itself holed below the waterline in terms of evangelistic effectiveness for the next decade or so. Instead of getting on with mission, its members will inevitably get on with arguing and tearing one another apart.

Fourthly, in the rump which remains, a counter-Scriptural, egalitarian feminist agenda will have gained the centre ground. Those Evangelical supporters (and, perhaps, opponents) of women's ordination who endorse or accept the new arrangements will find themselves faced with a triumphant liberalism 

whose next aim will undoubtedly be the inclusion of same-sex relationships and the modification of our concept of God (the latter is clearly stated on the Watch website).

Radical shift

The most likely result for Evangelicals, therefore, is compromise and assimilation, theologically and functionally. With 'hard-line' Conservatives no longer coming forward for ordination, the Evangelical leadership in the middle ground will broaden even further. Many who were previously unpersuaded about homosexuality will soften their opposition, whilst some of their continuing traditionalist friends seek to maintain fellowship with them and others drift further apart.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of women appointed as bishops, very few of whom will be recognizably Evangelical, will understandably make the necessary changes in policy and appointments to reflect their own theological dispositions.

Decisive shift

Ultimately, the ethos of Anglicanism will have shifted decisively, not just because of what was decided, but because of how it was decided, by excluding people from the episcopate on the grounds of their faithfulness to Scripture, whilst allowing those who are demonstrably less faithful to Scripture and the church's Articles and Formularies to continue unchallenged. As a consequence, we may in the future wonder if the Church of England will be not merely less like a Church, but less like a Christian body at all. \ND\

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