An open letter to Affirming Catholicism

Richard Norman, an ordinand, writes of his concerns for the future

 

I am twenty-two years old and an ordinand in the Church of England: this summer I have been taking the first tentative steps towards securing a curacy. I am also a

member of Forward in Faith, and this article is my, very personal, response to the events surrounding the moves to admit women to the episcopate, which came to a head earlier this summer at the session of General Synod in York.

I would like to take this opportunity to explain a few of the reasons why a modern and intelligent young man should continue to oppose the ordination of women, and why I believe that the current proposals in respect of provision for traditionalists in the event of female bishops are unsatisfactory.

Ecumenical relations

My conviction that the ordination of women has been, for the Church of England, deeply regrettable stems from my self-identity as a ‘catholic’

Anglican. For me, catholicity means recognizing that the Church of England is one part of the wider Church, and so acting responsibly towards the rest of that universal Church. What this translates to in practice is that we as Anglicans ought not to act in ways which do serious damage to our ecumenical relations.

It is irresponsible towards the rest of the Church of which we are a part to behave as if the ordained ministry was something that belonged to the Church of England alone, and not to the universal Church.

The universal Church

Indeed, whilst traditionalists are in a significant minority in the Church of England, nevertheless in the universal Church the normative view is that women may not be ordained: the majority view of Christians who recognize the importance of a common ministerial priesthood is that the ordination of women is impermissible. Any catholic Christian must surely look to the opinion of the universal Church when it comes to issues that impact upon the universal Church. Otherwise, we behave as if the ordained ministry exercised by Anglican clergy were peculiar to the Church of England, and not a common possession of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’.

The consequence of ordaining women is to forego conclusively the possibility of communion with our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, and – for catholics – is to step away from communion with the saints who have gone before us, who likewise believed the ordained ministry to be restricted to men.

This for me is the essential point in the matter: it is less a question of whether women can or cannot be ordained, as one of whether, in a Church which affirms its place within, and relationship to, the wider Church, they ought to be ordained.

There are no signs that the Roman Catholic Church will admit women to the ordained ministry in the future; thus, if we desire, as catholic Christians ought to do, the unity of the Church for which Jesus prayed [John 17.11], we must realize that this can only be achieved if there remains the possibility of a common priesthood and episcopate.

A ‘generous’ gift?

But General Synod has decided that the Church of England is to have women bishops, and that provision must be made for those who dissent from the majority view, and this is the situation with which we must deal constructively now. Following the recent debate in Synod, supporters of the ordination of women have consistently declared that the provision offered (a Code of Practice) is ‘generous’. With respect, it is not for the donor to gauge whether or not the gift proffered is generous – that is for the recipient to decide.

If this were a debate, say, over the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, I imagine members of Affirming Catholicism would insist that the voices of homosexual people should be listened to in order to ascertain what would be necessary for them to flourish in their identity. So too, the only provision for traditionalists in the women bishops debate that can be characterized as ‘generous’ is that which traditionalists themselves agree is such as will allow them to flourish in their identity.

Insufficient provision

A Code of Practice will suggest that a female bishop should appoint a male bishop to minister to those parishes which cannot accept her ministry. This is insufficient for the Anglo-Catholics amongst the traditionalists. This is because the debate is not about women and men, but about bishops. There would be nothing to prevent the appointment of a male bishop who had been consecrated (or ordained to the priesthood in the first instance) by a female bishop: in our eyes, he would be no bishop at all then, because we do not believe that a woman can be ordained as a priest or bishop, and thus she cannot be in a legitimate position to confer holy orders on others. We require that our bishops be to us unambiguously recognizable as bishops, i.e. that they be such as the rest of the wider Church, with whom the ordained ministry is our common possession, could recognize as bishops.

Furthermore, we ask that our bishops are men who do not ordain women to the priesthood. This is, to my mind, nothing to do with a risible theology of ‘taint’: a bishop does not lose his episcopal identity because he has ordained a woman – but what does happen is that a situation emerges where the presbyterium (the college of priests) which the bishop calls into communion around himself, and with which he exercises his ministry, becomes such as cannot be entered into by traditionalist priests, because they do not recognize the orders they exercise in some of the other members of the college (its female members). It is, again, not the case that we cannot accept the ministry of such a bishop, but that we ought not to do so, because we do not recognize a catholically-constituted presbyterium.

Uniformity of ministry

Supporters of the ordination of women have argued with much justification that the ministry exercised by women must be the same as that exercised by male priests and bishops: in just the same way, traditionalists insist that the presbyteria to which they belong must demonstrate to them a uniformity of priestly ministry – the admission of women to these colleges of priests makes that impossible to achieve, from our perspective. Because priests exercise their ministry in collaboration with their bishop and his other clergy, they need to recognize the ministry of those other clergy in order fully to exercise their own. No priest exercises his ministry in isolation from his bishop and his brother-priests.

As things stand, it would be very difficult for traditionalist priests or parishes to avoid the sacramental ministry of women bishops in future. I personally have less of a problem with acknowledging their juridical authority. This is because in the Church of England we have a prime example of a woman with ‘ordinary’ (i.e. jurisdictional) authority, namely the Queen, who is ordinary of the royal peculiars. So too there are examples of laypeople possessing ordinary authority, e.g. head-teachers in relation to some school chapels.

The next best solution

I believe that, if the Church of England desires to avoid the option of additional dioceses or a Third Province (which would at least not have undermined the authority of women bishops in their own dioceses!), the next best solution is the creation of a society for traditionalist priests, with its own male bishop who was not ordained by, nor who ordains, women.

Admittedly the Revision Committee rejected this suggestion, but I believe evidence from the Roman Catholic Church suggests that diocesan bishops can cooperate fruitfully with, e.g. religious orders and congregations possessing their own bishops. In the General Synod debate the Archdeacon of Plymouth gave the example of military chaplains. (After all, the ministry and authority a bishop (or priest) exercises belong to Christ in the end: there is but one ministry (Christ’s ministry), and so talk of threats to authority in the proposed scenario of shared jurisdiction are theological red-herrings.)

For theological and moral reasons it is incumbent upon the Church of England to find a way to accommodate traditionalists as we go forward together. Theologically, it is not of the Anglican way to ask of people to assent to more than is proved by Scripture and the understanding of the primitive or patristic Church. We are not dogmatists. No one on either side of this debate ought to claim that the ordination of women is, beyond doubt, either affirmed or denied by these witnesses of Scripture and Tradition, and so it ought not to be incumbent upon Anglicans to have to assent to the ordination of women (which is what will, in effect, be required if acceptable provision is not forthcoming) in order to remain members of the Church of England.

There are two moral reasons to seek this accommodation: firstly, the Church cannot on the one hand promise, as it did in the 1990s, an honoured place to traditionalists, and on the other act so as to force them from the Church of their baptism. Hundreds of clergy, and thousands of laity, remained in the Church of England after the admission of women to the priesthood and persevered in the work of the Gospel, because they believed the Church was committed to making room for them to flourish.

I offered myself for ordination (and continue to follow the necessary programme of study and formation, and to seek a title parish) because I believed that, in affirming my vocation to ordained ministry, the Church was at the same time pledging to support me in my future ministry. I do not want to leave the Church of England. I do not believe it is consonant with the insights of Anglo-Catholicism to abandon a catholic witness to the Church of England, until continuing such a witness becomes impossible.

The second moral issue concerns inclusivity, on a commitment to which many supporters of the ordination of women pride themselves. Inclusion can never mean just including those with whom one agrees. ‘For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?’ [Matt. 5.46]. Inclusivity means acknowledging that real differences exist between us, but that these differences are not greater than the love we bear for one another.

Dialogue in diversity

There is, of course, more that could be said on this matter, and doubtless there are those who will question some of the arguments I have put forward here. I welcome that, and I affirm my commitment to dialogue in diversity. Such dialogue is only ultimately possible if the interlocutors are standing on secure ground and communicating in love and friendship.

Please remember that no women clergy, or their supporters, are facing the prospect of expulsion from their own Church. I do not underestimate the hardships that many women priests must feel in the face of a Church which does not value their ministry as unambiguously as it might. But I wish to remain an Anglican as much as anyone else, and, as Resolution 111.2 of the Lambeth Conference 1998 affirmed, my position is as authentically Anglican as those with whom I disagree over the ordination of women. I struggle to understand why I should be ejected from the Church of England, especially as there remain other provinces of the Anglican Communion which do not ordain women, including the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, which in all other respects is a cause célèbre for liberal members of the Church of England. Will you pledge solidarity with them whilst refusing to do so with me?

But let me end on a more gracious note. It is because we are the Church that we have the ability to make it through these difficulties: as the Church we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, the Spirit of ‘unity, peace and concord’. We have shown that, despite our disagreements, we can still pray together. So let us pray for the gift of the Spirit. ND

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