Holding steady

Tony Davies offers a simple and dear response from his long experience as a parish priest to the appalling result of the July Synod debate and vote

Those who have a concern for the Church of England will have been shocked and dismayed at the debate in General Synod on Monday, 7 July, irrespective of their views on the consecration of women as bishops. That debate illustrated a wilful lack of both charity and Christian grace on the part of those who are in favour of women's consecration, and showed that they feel they have no need of the catholic tradition within the Church of England and indeed do not want us.

In speech after speech, they showed a wilful misrepresentation of our views, and if not that, then a lack of concern even to listen to those views. If, that is, they have misunderstood the views they have heard.

Bad experiences

Perhaps they have experience of churches where women aren't allowed in the sanctuary, because the sanctuary would be polluted and made unclean by their monthly periods. If so, they're quite right to condemn such a practice as sexist.

Perhaps they have experience of churches where women aren't allowed to serve at the altar, for the same reason. Again, they'd be quite right to condemn such a practice as being sexist.

Or maybe some have claimed that women cannot read the lessons in church although lay men can, or that women cannot administer the already-consecrated wine, although lay men can. Again, such practices are sexist and they would be rightly condemned.

And maybe they think we just don't want to be told what to do by a woman; that we don't like women being in positions of responsibility. As they rightly point out, there are lots of women GPs, JPs, MPs, and so on. Woman are taking on more roles of authority, and to try and deny them is sexism.

Not sexism but revelation

If these are the arguments against the consecration of women as bishops, it is no surprise that our opponents do not wish to enshrine such sexist prejudice in law. And quite right they would be, too. Because if we were ever to use any of these arguments to bolster our case, we would fatally undermine that case.

The truth, as you will know, is that our case is founded not on sexism, nor prejudice, nor even 'what we are used to', but on our understanding of the nature of God the Trinity as we believe he has revealed himself to us; it is based on the practice of the Church, led and inspired by the Holy Spirit over the last two thousand years; and it is based on our understanding of the Church of England as part of the Universal Church.

As Christians we believe that God has revealed himself most fully in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, who himself taught us to address Almighty God as Father. When Jesus was born in Roman-occupied Palestine, we believe that God did not make a mistake or that the time was chosen at random: God chose that time, that situation, that society deliberately.

We believe that Jesus, God-incarnate, was far from constrained by the norms of that society. Indeed, the Gospels show time and time again that he challenged and broke those norms. Yet he chose only men as his Apostles.

What we share in the Church

As Jesus is the bridegroom of the Church, his bride, so the Apostles - and their successors, the bishops - represent Christ the bridegroom to his Church today. The unbroken practice of the Church has been for males to exercise the ministry of priests and bishops within the Church, and the threefold ministry of deacons, priest, and bishops was maintained by the Church of England at the time of the Reformation. This three-fold ministry is not ours, but is something we share with the Universal Church, to which we have always claimed to belong.

Through priests and bishops the Lord Jesus imparts his grace to his people through the Sacraments - 'outward and visible signs of inner and spiritual grace' [The Catechism]. And here, really, is the immediate nub of the matter. The ordained ministry belongs, not to the Church of England, but to the Universal Church.

Even if it were to be God's will that the ordained ministry be opened up to females as well, then it would apply to the ordained ministry throughout the Universal Church. At the moment we are far from any sort of common mind. At the very least it is uncertain whether or not God wishes women to be ordained priest or consecrated bishops in his Church. And this uncertainty strikes at the heart of our sacraments.

If we take the risk, as the Church of England seems set on doing, that women be consecrated as bishops and it is not in fact God's will, what happens to the inner spiritual grace we expect to receive through the sacraments? Nothing. If God does not intend women to be priests or bishops they are not priests or bishops, and the sacraments they perform will have no effect.

The Holy Spirit will not transform the bread and wine into the saving Body and Blood of Christ, even though the correct words will have been said over them: we will receive just bread and wine. The Holy Spirit will not impart the charism of ordination or confirmation to those upon whose heads a woman bishop places her hands, any more than he would if you or I were to do it. And in the case of priests she ordains, male or female, they will not be priests, and their sacraments will have no effect.

A code would be pointless

This is why we need a structural provision, because we need sacramental certainty until the Universal Church comes to a common mind, in God's good time, one way or the other. A woman bishop cannot share some of her functions with a male bishop under a Code of Practice, because it is doubtful that she is a bishop and so will not have any functions to share.

There is still time, within the next four or five years, for the provision we need to be provided for us. In the meantime we need to continue praying: not least for those bishops who understand our need for adequate provision even if they disagree with us on the central issue.

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