Mistresses of the Church

John Shepley continues his historical review of the fatal flaws in the Anglican Communion that hastened its imminent collapse

 

When the Windsor Report cited the process leading up to women’s ordination as an exemplum of the workings of the Instruments of Unity, it was with a culpable lack of irony. Two of those Instruments had been created, in part at least, in response to the crisis. They had not worked well. They had been adeptly outmanoeuvred by the proponents of the innovation. But the irony lay elsewhere: in the fact that the very means by which women had been admitted to Holy Orders had fatally compromised the orders themselves.

In 1990 (long after the damage had been done) the Cameron Report to the General Synod of the Church of England gave a classic account of the purpose and function of Orders. The bishop, the Report claimed, operates as both the focus and agent of unity on three planes: the local (in the diocese), the universal (across the worldwide Church), and the diachronic (across the Christian ages).

 

Never before

All this was destroyed with the ordination of women. In the diocese the unity of the college of priests gathered around their bishop had been fatally compromised. Bishops were no longer in unimpaired communion with their colleagues world-wide. By doing what the Church had never done (and oftentimes claiming thereby to have corrected the errors of the past) they had turned themselves into icons of discontinuity.

But, disruptive as these developments were, they were as nothing beside the effects of the doctrine of reception. In a vain attempt to shore up the crumbling ‘bonds of affection’, the Grindrod Report articulated the notion that women’s orders were in some sense experimental or ‘provisional’, deferring to the Greek Kalends a final decision on the rightness or wrongness of the development. What no one at the time seemed to notice, in the hecticpursuit of novelty, was the effect of all this on sacramental assurance.

Another function of Orders had traditionally been to guarantee the validity and authenticity of the sacraments which they ministered. The principle had been long established that, where the sacraments were concerned, the Church should always take the least doubtful course. This time-honoured principle of caution had now been cast to the four winds: Anglicans were ordaining to the sacred priesthood those of whose orders the best they could say was that they might one day be assured of their validity!

It was ironic that the wise men of Windsor saw this process as exemplary; ironic because the very process they were lauding had largely contributed to the crisis they were seeking to address. Politically it had confirmed the proponents of change in the techniques of the pre-emptive strike. Theologically it had opened up a vacuum which nature would rush to fill. The doctrines of provincial autonomy and reception had stripped Holy Orders of the greater part of their meaning and purpose: it remained therefore for those who had brought about this change to fill the gaps.

 

The new irony

The role of orders in expressing and effecting sacramental and structural unity was slowly replaced by a notion of ‘gracious conversation’ and of ‘the highest possible degree of communion’, whilst frankly abandoning within the Communion that ‘full visible unity’ which had previously been the goal of Anglican ecumenism.

The role of orders in assuring thefaithful of the authenticity and efficacy of sacraments was replaced with a new function – as a vehicle of social and moral change in secular society. A major factor in the ordination of women to the priesthood had been its (somewhat improbable) part in the wider feminist agenda. ‘If God is male, not female, then men are intrinsically better than women. It follows then, that until the emphasis on maleness in the image of God is redressed the women of the world cannot be entirely liberated. For if god is thought of as simply and exclusively male, then the very cosmos seems sexist’ wrote Bishop Paul Moore of New York (whose simultaneous commitment to the gay agenda has more recently emerged).

 

The femininity of God

He went on: ‘God as Father and God as Son invoked by a male minister during worship creates in the unconscious, the intuitive, the emotive part of your belief an unmistakable male God. However, when women begin to read the Scripture, when they preside at the Eucharist, when they wear the symbolic robes of Christ, this unconscious perception will begin to be redressed and the femininity of God will begin to be felt.’

Women’s ordination, in short, was seen as a weapon in the struggle to alter deep-seated attitudes and ‘prejudices’. Orders in the Church, which had been stripped of their primary purpose, had simultaneously gained another – albeit one which the Christian centuries had not envisaged and to which they did not lead. This, in turn, accorded with another set of basic liberal assumptions: elevating functionality (what priests and bishops do) over ontology (what they are and exist to be).

The lesbigay agenda succeeded logically and naturally to the feminist agenda. Grindrod had effectively made Windsor inevitable, and at the same time ensured that it would be ineffectual.

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