A cautionary tale
Michael Fisherexplains how parishes may face pressure to rescind the Resolutions, and suggests how they can resist it
Until recent pastoral
reorganization, two medieval churches – St Margaret’s and St Cecilia’s* – were part of a five-church Team Ministry. Though little more than a hundred yards apart in distance, they answered different needs in the centre of a busy town. Architecturally and numerically, St Margaret’s is the larger church, having a major civic role, and in terms of churchmanship it may be described as liberal/‘affirming’. St Cecilia’s has a long-established Catholic tradition, its smaller eclectic congregation being drawn from various parts of the town and the surrounding area.
Since 1994 St Margaret’s has had a succession of female curates, but St Cecilia’s adopted Resolutions A and B, the District Church Council having been allowed to debate and vote on them as an expression of their stance on the ordination of women. Furthermore, the Diocesan Bishop permitted St Cecilia’s to seek the episcopal oversight of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, thus creating two parallel jurisdictions within the one parish. Successive team rectors (who were not of the traditional integrity) agreed to support this arrangement, and – though not actually required to do so – the DCC of St Cecilia’s affirmed the Resolutions at each Annual General Meeting, and elected representatives to the Ebbsfleet Lay Congress and Lay Council. The day-to-day running of St Cecilia’s was in the hands of an experienced NSM who was a member of Forward in Faith and formally recognized by the PCC of the parish as priest-in-charge.
During this time three potential ordinands emerged, and two were eventually ordained, one to the permanent diaconate, and the other to the priesthood, both as OLMs. Thus the future of St Cecilia’s seemed secure as far as staffing was concerned, although, sadly, the deacon died within two years of his ordination. The arrangements seemed to work well, and they were sometimes cited by successive Bishops of Ebbsfleet as an example of how the two integrities could collaborate within a single team, and it was not unusual for the clergy of St Cecilia’s to take duty in other churches in the parish, or for the team rector to appear at St Cecilia’s.
So far, so good; but following a review of the Team Ministry in 2011–12 the team was dissolved, and St Margaret’s and St Cecilia’s reverted to their former (pre-1969) status as separate parish churches, each with its own PCC, but held as a plurality under a single Rector. One of the first tasks of the newly constituted PCC at St Cecilia’s was to discuss and vote upon the Resolutions,
bearing in mind that the current rector was shortly to retire, and the preliminaries to the appointment of his successor were already being set in motion. St Margaret’s PCC wanted to be free to appoint the best candidate regardless of gender, and viewed the Resolutions as a major obstacle should St Cecilia’s decide to retain them, as they would deter female applicants.
The situation was further complicated by the retirement of the NS priest-in-charge of St Cecilia’s at the end of May 2013. It was pointed out, however, that in the event of a female rector being appointed, the plurality would cease, and a stipendiary male priest from another parish would be placed in nominal charge of St Cecilia’s. This would enable both churches to retain their particular integrity.
A date was fixed in July 2013 for St Cecilia’s PCC to debate the Resolutions and take a vote. Prior to that there was a general meeting open to all members of St Cecilia’s who wished to attend. Selected members of St Margaret’s were also invited, and they spoke against the Resolutions. Fears were expressed about the divisions between the two town-centre churches which might ensue if the Resolutions were adopted, to the detriment of their common mission. It was also claimed that, under the forthcoming women bishops legislation, Resolutions A and B
were to be done away with, and that the Sees of Beverley, Ebbsfleet and Richborough would be abolished. Therefore, it was argued, there would be little point in St Cecilia’s passing the Resolutions.
Results of the vote
St Cecilia’s PCC met two weeks later, and after a discussion votes were taken on Resolutions A and B. Resolution A (no female celebrant) was defeated by 9 votes to 3, and Resolution B (no female incumbent) was defeated by 11 votes to 1. The so-called Resolution C, therefore, automatically lapsed. Considering that, previously, the Resolutions had been reaffirmed nem con at successive AGMs, this was a surprising and shocking turnaround. There were newcomers on the PCC who may not fully have understood the implications, but there were also some who had been particularly vociferous in their opposition to the ordination of women: one had done battle with a rector who had wished to allow a female deacon from St Margaret’s to preach a sermon at St Cecilia’s in Christian Unity Week, another had baulked even at the thought of women servers and Eucharistic ministers, let alone women priests, while yet another had joined St Cecilia’s precisely because the Resolutions were in force there.
How does one account for this remarkable volte-face? There is no doubt that some were influenced, if not actually intimidated, by the arguments advanced by ‘opposition’ voices from St Margaret’s at the open meeting. Significantly, perhaps, no representative of the See of Ebbsfleet was invited to either of the meetings. The inaccurate and false information given about the future of the Resolutions and alternative episcopal oversight also played a major part. Others thought that a pragmatic approach was preferable to facing possible closure, and that finding a priest of the Catholic persuasion might not be easy. Wouldn’t it be sufficient just to find someone who would maintain the outward forms of worship? The survival of the building appeared to be more important than the maintenance of the faith.
After the vote had been taken in July 2013, the truth gradually dawned that the consequences would involve much more than the loss of the Bishop of Ebbsfleet. The OLM priest left, barely two years after his ordination by Bishop Lindsay Urwin – the first priestly ordination known ever to have taken place at St Cecilia’s in its 900-year history. Retired priests of the traditional integrity who might willingly have helped now declined to do so, and clergy who were unfamiliar with Catholic liturgy and practice had to be brought in to fill some of the gaps. Several prominent laypeople left as the liturgy began to shift in a less Catholic direction; there was no Requiem on All Souls’ Day, no Masses for the Ascension or Corpus Christi, and the word ‘Mass’ itself soon disappeared as St Cecilia’s was brought more ‘in line’ with St Margaret’s. As for the appointment of a new rector, despite the rescinding of the Resolutions having been trumpeted from the roof-tops, the only applicant who was called for interview fell at the first hurdle, and so the interregnum continues.
St Cecilia’s will certainly not be the only church to find itself in similar circumstances, either presently or in time to come. I would therefore like to offer a few suggestions to wardens and PCCs as to how they might resist pressures – both internal and external – to rescind the Resolutions, and indeed how to strengthen their position. This becomes especially critical when pastoral reorganizations – which are becoming more widespread – are used as the occasion for challenging the traditional integrity.
Make sure that you obtain accurate information about the present status of the Resolutions, and the future provisions proposed under the Women Bishops’ Measure which are in some ways better than what we have now.
If only A and B are in place, give serious consideration to adopting Resolution C, which will greatly strengthen your hand. Moreover, the PEVs, along with the other Catholic bishops, have set a shining example to clergy and laity alike of what episcopal oversight is all about.
Keep in regular contact with Forward in Faith/The Society. They are there to help! Also, make sure that your PEV is kept informed of any developments, and that he or his representative is invited to any relevant meetings.
When meetings are called to consider the Resolutions, make sure that they are under your control and no one else’s. Beware of any attempt by senior clergy from the Diocese to take the chair. This is not permissible.
Do not be intimidated by those who would portray you as an obstacle in the way of appointing a new incumbent. Remember that you are seeking to preserve and to perpetuate Holy Order as the Universal Church has received it, and that you stand on the sure grounds of Scripture and Tradition.
Do not be swayed by the ‘pragmatic’ argument. Remember Esau (Genesis 25.24–34) who sold his birthright for a bowl of scouse, and then spent the rest of his life trying to get it back.
Remember that Integrity means just that. There is much more to it than the issue of women’s ordination and who the bishop is. It extends into such matters as liturgy and worship, teaching and pastoral care. This is as true for Evangelicals as well as Catholics, but Catholics need to be particularly wary of the ‘gilt-gingerbread’ fraternity (or sorority); it’s not just about costume and liturgical choreography.
Finally, keep praying – for those who oppose us as well as for those who support us. Remember too that if we take warning from the story of Esau who ‘showed how little he valued his birthright’, we should also take encouragement from the words of the Holy One which were the inspiration for the homily given at the funeral of the late Bishop John Richards, first Bishop of Ebbsfleet: ‘Hold fast to what you have, and let no one rob you of your crown’ (Revelation 3.11).
* To preserve a degree of anonymity, the names of the two churches have been altered.ND
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