What is a promise?

Geoffrey Kirk revisits the problems created by the rejection of proper provision and considers the serious implications for the Church of England of reneging on recent promises

When Alice reached the other side of the Looking Glass, she found that things became curiouser and curiouser. So it has been in the Church of England since the ordination of women to the priesthood. Perhaps the most curious development has been the outbreak of voluntary amnesia over the nature of the provisions made for opponents when women were ordained.

The frequently expressed view now is that those provisions were an act of generosity on the part of the proponents, that they were in no sense intended to be robust or permanent and that with the ordination of women to the episcopate they would be unsustainable.

None of this is true.

The provisions for opponents (both as they played out on the floor of the Synod and in the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament) were an act of necessity and not of grace. Quite simply they were the conditions on which the legislation finally received the Royal Assent. The recent failure of the Bill to ordain women to the episcopate in the Governing Body of the Church in Wales should have been a salutary reminder of that fact.

The provisions moreover were, at the time, intended to be permanent and enduring. Of course it is the case, constitutionally speaking, that a democratic body cannot bind its successors, any more than an individual can be held to a promise. Times and opinions change. But it does not follow that because a body can change its mind that it ought to; and an examination of the language used about the Act of Synod and its provisions indicates clearly that permanence was an important part of the assurances given.

This permanence sprang from the rationale of 'reception' which underlay both the Act itself and the Bonds of Peace document which preceded it. I like to think - but I cannot appeal to any extant text in support of the aspiration - that the bishops who developed the Act of Synod and proposed it had in mind those who would enter the ministry of the Church of England in good faith under its aegis and hope to serve it all their days.

It is true that some of the architects of the Act of Synod (not least John Habgood, then Archbishop of York) saw that the ordination of women to the episcopate would create problems with which the Act itself would be inadequate to deal. But they saw this as a restraint on such ordinations rather than as a reason for rescinding the Act. In a BBC interview Hapgood made it clear that, in his view, while the Act and the process of open reception were in place the Church should not go forward to the consecration of women bishops.

A part of the wilful amnesia which now surrounds the events of 1992-3 is a repudiation of that very doctrine of reception which was then so important a part

of the rationale of women's ordination. Now those ordinations are treated as a done deal; then there was about them a degree of dubiety, a sense that they were exploratory. Dr Mary Tanner, in this matter as in many others a pupil of Humpty Dumpty, held that though there was no provisionality to the orders of individual women ordained, there was a degree of provisionality to the whole development itself. (There's glory for you!)

The Act of Synod showed a slightly grudging acceptance of the logic of this notion of reception. If indeed the ordination of women to the priesthood was subject to such an extensive and potentially protracted process (only completed when agreement had been reached in the Church as a whole), then it followed logically and inevitably that those who could not accept the innovation must be enabled to continue to live an ecclesial life as though it had never happened. They needed to have secured for them all the essential elements of the status quo ante.

The creation of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors has to be seen, not as a gracious concession to opponents, but as the inevitable consequence of the reception principle. If reception was to be a reality, then it must be possible to live within the Church of England that sacramental life which the majority of Christians outside it still lived and enjoyed.

The Act of Synod did almost that, creatively making use of the anomalous situation which the ordination of women as priests, but not as bishops, had brought about. The fact that it worked - to the extent that many of those (the overwhelming majority of the Synod) who had voted for it began to seek its repeal -was attributable in no small way to the genuine desire of those opposed to women's ordination to remain within the Church of England and to make the doctrine of reception work.

Once the prevailing amnesia has been dispelled, and the real history of events thus far has been grasped, it is possible to see what it is that opponents of women bishops need and expect in the legislative package which will come before Synod - and why a code of practice, regardless of form and content, would be inadequate both for them and for the supporters of women bishops.

Prior to the drafting of such legislation, the Synod will need to decide the status of the development. Are women bishops seen by the Church of England as part of ('a 'contribution to') the process of reception? Or do they signify the effective end of that process and so of the ecumenical aspirations which it sought falteringly to express? Cardinal Kasper has put the matter plainly to the House of Bishops: the Church of England must decide whether to align itself with the churches of the first millennium or with the reformers of the sixteenth century. Crunch time has come.

If reception is to continue as a live concept (with its nostalgia for a warmer ecumenical climate), then it is obvious that the provisions of the Act of Synod need to be reinforced and extended. The principle must remain the same: that those within the Church of England opposed to the new ministries must be accorded the wherewithal to live ecclesial lives equivalent in sacramental integrity to those in other churches and other parts of the communion which have not embraced them. Nothing less makes sense of the doctrine of reception, and nothing less will supply its needs.

The minimum requirement, then, is bishops with jurisdiction - bishops, that is, who in all essential respects act independently of women bishops and those in communion with them. No arrangement of delegated authority will or can suffice: and that for two simple and cogent reasons.

The first reason is that for a bishop (call him 'complementary', call him 'super-suffragan, call him what you will) to act on behalf of a woman bishop, or of a male bishop in unimpaired communion with her, would be to accept that she was a bishop and to 'extend' her ministry and authority to those who could not in conscience receive it. (The pragmatic concomitant is that it would be impossible to find opponents who would accept or execute such a role.)

The second reason is that it would be offensive to women to require them, as bishops, to delegate important functions of their episcopate to men who would for those purposes impersonate them. (The pragmatic concomitant would be the difficulty of finding women who would accept episcopal appointment on terms which demeaned both them and their office.)

Once it is grasped that jurisdiction is of the essence, it can easily be seen that dioceses are the solution. The objection so frequently raised against the provisions of the Act of Synod and against the PEV system was that it created ecclesial entities previously unknown to the Catholic Church. Rich as such an objection is (coming as it does from those who have brought about a far more telling novelty), it has a certain force.

Opponents of women's ordination did not invent PEVs, and do not accept responsibility for their creation. They were fabricated by the supporters of women priests in order to secure their ordination. Easier by far to deal with known quantities and recognised offices. Why tread on eggshells when firm and recognised legal frameworks already exist?

There is much talk of 'special provision' for those opposed to the new ministries. It has to be grasped that nothing 'special' will, or could, suffice. What is required is a Church of England solution to what is an essentially Church of England problem. We need, therefore to apply the ecclesiological principles which the church has formerly adopted to the new circumstances.

It is sometimes asked, for example, whether those ordained or consecrated by women bishops would need to be re-ordained or 'conditionally ordained' were they to seek entry to the new diocese. The question is posed, perhaps, as a trick question. But there is an easy and straightforward answer. The Church would need to continue whatever, in such and like circumstances, had been its practice heretofore. What is needed is the continuance of historic provisions, not something new or 'special'.

The creation of new dioceses is nothing new. The creation of new dioceses for those opposed to women priests and bishops would guarantee to both integrities a recognised legal structure and an established way of working together. The Lambeth Conference is proof enough that women bishops and their opponents can meet together to mutual benefit and without compromising their respective positions.

It is true that that gathering is undergoing a fundamental change of direction under Dr Williams' leadership (the 2008 Conference, said Williams, was not to be 'a formal synod or council of the bishops of the Communion). But factors other than the ordination of women have largely influenced that decision, and will probably have the same effect in the Church of England.

The legislation for the ordination of women in the Church of England will be a deciding moment in its history and its self-identity Walter Kasper is more right than perhaps even he knows. The decision itself will not only affect relations with the greater part of Christendom (Rome and Orthodoxy) for centuries to come, separating Anglicans definitively from communions which are themselves drawing closer together; the manner in which the decision is made will mirror in the most graphic way our church's theological and the ethical seriousness (or lack of it).

Was the high-flown language of reception merely a ploy to secure a desired end, or was it engaged with rigour and integrity? Were the undertakings given, in the Manchester Statement of the House of Bishops, in the preamble to the Act of Synod and in the decision of the 1998 Lambeth Conference (reiterated in the General Synod's brief to the Legislative Drafting Group) expressions of firm intent? Or were they cynical manoeuvres intended merely to secure the necessary majorities?

Much hangs on the answer to those questions.

The decline in theological and moral seriousness is one of the major problems facing the Anglican Communion. The willingness of leaders of whole provinces to agree one thing and do another (as Frank Gris-wold did in the matter of the consecration of Gene Robinson) not only frays the 'bonds of affection', but renders the Communion as a whole untrustworthy as an ecumenical partner. Why solemnly negotiate agreements with those who will not keep them?

An inability to abide by undertakings given, upon which men and women have conscientiously based decisions affecting their ministry and livelihood, shows a degree of moral levity unworthy of the Church of Jesus Christ. Who would waste their devotion on an institution so callous and so specious?

Those in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate have made trust their strong suit. Christians, they say, should trust one another: the calls by opponents for legal safeguards are said to be unwarranted and unworthy. But proponents must learn that trust is a commodity that needs to be earned. And the way to earn it is by consistency in both word and conduct. They are dangerously close to showing themselves severely lacking in both.

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