Women bishops – cutting the knot

John Richardson tries to unravel the issues in the current debate

What did the Anglican Reformers think they were doing when they subscribed to the notion that the monarch was more entitled to rule the Church than was the Pope? Personally, I believe that the ‘settlement’ achieved under Henry VIII was the uniquely Anglican contribution to the Reformation itself. Certainly it was not a viewpoint shared by Martin Luther, who wrote about Henry in strong terms to the Elector John Frederick in 1539,

‘Away, away with this head and defender! Gold and money make him so cocky as to think that he should be worshipped, and that God could not get along without him’ (LW 50:206).

Nor, despite a ‘high’ view of secular authority, amongst some of the ‘magisterial’ Reformers, did others come to quite the same view about the Church’s relationship with the state.

Cranmer’s view

Yet it is often forgotten that the affirmations made about the monarch required corresponding denials to be made about the Church’s ministers. The most obvious of these is in Article XXXVII: ‘The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.’ But that was, as it were, the tip of the iceberg, for it was not just the Bishop of Rome who lacked jurisdiction over the Church.

A necessary plank of the English Reformation was the assertion that, in the absence of the monarch, none of the clergy had such jurisdiction’. According to Cranmer himself, prior to the advent of a godly monarch, the arrangement for the oversight of the churches relied on a kind of voluntarism:

‘In the apostles’ time, when there was [sic] no christian princes, by whose authority ministers of God’s word might be appointed, nor sins by the sword corrected, there was no remedy then for the correction of vice, or appointing of ministers, but only the consent of christian multitude [sic] among themselves, by an uniform consent to follow the advice and persuasion of such persons whom God had most endued with the spirit of counsel and wisdom. And at that time, forasmuch as the christian people had no sword nor governor amongst them, they were constrained of necessity to take such curates and priests as either they knew themselves to be meet thereunto, or else as were commended unto them by other that were so replete with the Spirit of God, with such knowledge in the profession of Christ, such wisdom, such conversation and counsel, that they ought even of very conscience to give credit unto them, and to accept such as by them were presented: and so sometime the apostles, and other, unto whom God had given abundantly his Spirit, sent or appointed ministers of God’s word; sometime the people did choose such as they thought meet thereunto; and when any were appointed or sent by the apostles or other, the people of their own voluntary will with thanks did accept them; not for the supremity, impery [sic], or dominion that the apostles had over them to command, as their princes or masters; but as good people, ready to obey the advice of good counsellors, and to accept any thing that was necessary for their edification and benefit’ (Questions Concerning the Sacraments and the Appointment and Powers of Bishops and Priests, Cox, John Edmund.

Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer, 1999).

Law and Gospel

Notice that Cranmer twins the ‘authoritative’ appointment of ministers with the correction of sins by the sword, thus joining together what Luther strove to separate — the two ‘kingdoms’ of law and gospel. Although he saw them as both deriving from God himself, Luther endeavoured to keep these apart as antithetical to one another.

But for Cranmer the development of ‘christian princes’ meant they could safely be combined. Indeed, this would be to the advantage of ‘christian people’, since the ‘sword’ would restrain vice and the ‘governor’ would secure the appointments process.

And this is particularly pertinent to our present situation, for it is a reminder that, according to the Anglican understanding of the Church, all the clergy – as shown by the reference to ‘curates and priests’ above – are ‘crown appointments’.

A view of society

Even at the time of the Reformation, it was only the senior clergy who were a matter of direct appointment by the monarch. Nevertheless, Cranmer was quite clear that the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy, from top to bottom, paralleled the secular administration, so that the most humble parish priest (he referred to ‘the parson of Winwick’) was as much an agent of the king as ‘the Bishop of Duresme’ on the one hand or the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the other.

The legal establishment of the Church of England thus reflects a particular view of society as ‘one nation under God’, expressed in Article XXXVII, that there is a prerogative, ‘which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.’

‘Lawfully called’

To this end, however, the Prince (or indeed Princess) must have suitable ministers, both ‘Ecclesiastical and Temporal’, who operate under and through his or her authority. And so in the Church we no longer rely on the ‘good advice’ of those ‘replete with the Spirit of God, with such knowledge in the profession of Christ, such wisdom, such conversation and counsel’, nor do we ourselves choose such as we think ‘meet thereunto’. Instead, we abide by the principle of Article XXIII:

‘It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same.

And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.’

Source of the authority

Notice, however, the careful choice of words, particularly the fact that the Article does not refer to bishops, as we might have expected. What is at issue here is not who may ordain (though Cranmer clearly envisaged that the congregation could previously have done this themselves). Rather, it is a question of whom we should judge to be lawfully appointed, and therefore who has the right to ‘call and send’ such ministers. The answer to the latter (which determines the answer to the former) is those ‘who have publick authority given unto them’. This is indeed the bishops, but from whence comes their authority to impose such appointments or to render them ‘lawful’?

The answer (according to Cranmer at least) is, from the monarch – the one who, with respect to the ‘christian people’, holds the power ‘to command, as their princes or masters’, unlike the Apostles or anyone else.

Further evidence

Now my guess is that there will be those who will dismiss this as an aberration of Cranmer’s own personal views (as did the author of Vox Ecclesiae: or, The doctrine of the Protestant Episcopal Church on episcopacy and apostolical succession, embracing a refutation of the work known as ‘Goode on orders’, published in the United States in 1866). However, the same principle is also found, and somewhat more authoritatively, in the Homilie against Disobedience and Wilfull Rebellion, where we read:

‘It is euident that men of the Cleargie, and Ecclesiasticall ministers, as their successours ought both themselues specially, and before other, to bee obedient vnto their Princes, and also to exhort all others vnto the same (Romans 13.1, 1 Timothy 2.1–2, 1 Peter 2.13). Our Sauiour Christ likewise teaching by his doctrine that his Kingdome was not of this world (Matthew 27.11, Luke 23.3), did by his example in fleeing from those that would haue made him king, confirme the same (John 6.15, 18, 36): expresly also forbidding his Apostles, and by them the whole Cleargie, all princely dominion ouer people and Nations, and hee and his holy Apostles likewise, namely Peter and Paul, did forbid vnto all Ecclesiasticall ministers, dominion ouer the Church of Christ (Matthew 20.25, Mark 10.42, Luke 22.25).’

Reassessing the hierarchy

Furthermore, it is a necessary part of the argument whereby at the time of the Reformation the Church of England separated itself from the Church of Rome (that italicization is always used in the Book of Common Prayer, where the Church of England is an instance of ‘a particular or national church’).

Those who wish to argue that the people and clergy ought, simply by merit of a bishop’s orders, to be subject to his (or her) authority (rather

than merely attentive to their advice as Cranmer argues), need to ask on what grounds the authority of the Church’s chief pastor was suddenly rejected within these islands (having been acknowledged before) in the sixteenth century – I refer of course to the assertion above that ‘the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England’.

The truth is that all of us in the Church of England are ‘rebels’ against ecclesiastical authority if that authority derives from the orders of the minister. That is why the recognition of the Pope as the ‘Holy Father’ is so important for an Anglican thinking of joining the Church of Rome, involving as it does a ‘re-acknowledgement’ of a rejected authority and a reassessment of the Church’s hierarchy.

Complex options

The point is not that the Church’s orders have no existence or validity outwith the authority of the monarch, but that, according to the principles on which the Anglican Reformation was founded, they do not include the authority to command, and enforce by means of statutes, rather than advise.

What, then, of the issue regarding women bishops? According to most recent document from the House of Bishops itself, we are on the ‘final legislative lap’ (GS Misc 1033). Yet one of the hurdles that must be cleared is ‘the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament’. Furthermore, in its attempts to appease one side and satisfy the other over the phrasing of the now infamous Clause 5(1)c, the document offers a variety of alternatives, each of a labyrinthine complexity, since the final result will be the ‘law of the land’, not just the principles of the Church.

Grace and goodwill

Some of those most opposed to the insertion of the Clause in the first place, however, have been most vocal in suggesting that it should all be left to ‘grace and goodwill’ and

the Code of Practice. Those who most want something like Clause 5(1)c, on the other hand, are motivated to keep it (or something like it) in place, precisely because they doubt the reality of the ‘grace and goodwill’ that will actually be enforced.

But might it not be time to question the whole enterprise? We are, after all, ‘not under law but under grace’ (Rom. 6.14). Our being under the ‘law of the land’ regarding the implementation of our theology, then, is an anomaly, brought about by the peculiarities of Anglican history and theology, but hardly intrinsic to the nature of the gospel.

Moreover, the arrangement under which that operates is increasingly dysfunctional. The Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament clearly thinks it has a right to hold the Church to account regarding its ministry. Would that Committee be equally willing to convey to Parliament the Church’s reproofs and rebukes — for that is what the Henrician settlement would envisage?

A way forward

Our difficulty constructing a satisfactory law to cover the present need is perhaps an argument in itself that the whole enterprise is reaching its ‘sell by’ date. Perhaps the opponents of Clause 5(1)c are more right than they realize – perhaps it is time to let grace and goodwill be the rule itself.

But in that case, let Cranmer’s principle apply to the ministry today as he asserted it did in the time of the Apostles, when ‘sometime the people did choose such as they thought meet thereunto; and when any were appointed or sent by the apostles or other, the people of their own voluntary will with thanks did accept them’.

Those, then, who wanted women bishops (or any other bishop) could have them, and those who did not, need not. And if grace and goodwill indeed underpin these choices, then it should overcome our differences as well. ND

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