Oswald Clark replies to Tom Sutcliffe's "Labour Pains"

MY FRIEND, Mr. Tom Sutcliffe tries to be helpful (Period Pains -- article Apr. 1997). I appreciate that - but may I respectfully suggest that he is seriously confused.

He rightly notes that in 1992 “the issue was whether to allow something previously untried, not whether to enforce it”. However, the “something previously untried” related not merely to the ordination of women as priests. There is more to the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure than its section 1. The synodical decision, as enacted by the Measure, not only made possible women priests but - equally - the freedom of those not wishing to avail themselves of the ministry of such priests to choose through their Parochial Church Councils to continue in their established and well tried ways.

The General Synod did not legislate for an authentic majority choice, subject to the temporary toleration within a “retained space” of a minority agglomeration of dissenting individual consciences held to be “uncomfortable” with the majority choice. What the General Synod did was deliberately to legislate for a divided Church of England in the sphere of ministerial order. Within the one Church so divided, the two positions have an equal legitimacy and each derives its particular status and authenticity from the same source. The whole situation is “untried”.

From the outset it was recognised by those involved in the initial formulation of a Measure enabling but not requiring the ordination of women as priests (the work of a committee made up equally of proponents and opponents) that if such a Measure were enacted, the Church of England would be divided. Indeed, much time was spent on whether there should be an “Opt-out from” or an “opt-in into” the new dispensation of women priests. That question was settled in favour of an “Opt-out”. Certainly no one then ever talked about enforcement, “the authentic popular will”, “seeing the light’’’’excommunication’’, “when the majority decide to declare the period of reception over” or “come sooner than some people currently think”. None of this is present or inherent in the legislation as passed. Apart from section 2, which is confined to diocesan bishops in office at the relevant date, there are no time limits in the Measure. It is baseless, reprehensible and injurious to the peace, stability and mission of the Church of England as a whole to indulge in minatory sabre-rattling and the language of spiritual blackmail.

Though a founder-member of Forward in Faith, I set no “great store” on the notion of a “period of reception”. In fact, while I fully accept the notion of “reception” in relation to matters of opinion, faith and doctrine, I find it difficult to relate the reception concept to an action which has been incontrovertibly and legally taken. Though a “conservative Anglican” (in Mr. Sutcliffe’s terms) I do not accept that the General Synod (subject to Parliament) “can do anything”; indeed, even of Parliament it was observed long since that “the law of man can give him no more than the law of nature and God will permit”. (Sir Henry Spelman, 1646).

For myself, as an Anglican (not an Anglo) Catholic, I hold that the Church of England, as an integral part of the one Holy Catholic Church, had no sufficient ecclesial authority to make unilaterally a significant alteration to the priestly ministry of that one Church. The Church of Rome may make a habit of acting unilaterally but I am no more impressed by distorted and unbiblical concepts of magisterium than I am by Mr. Sutcliffe’s arguments from “inculturation” and ‘‘valuable experience”.

None of this is to take an “inert” view of Authority. I believe profoundly in a Spirit-led Church with a dynamic tradition. Since I am not persuaded that Scripture offers an all-conclusive answer to the women priests’ issue, I conclude (I hope as a good Anglican) that this is a matter upon which the Church as a whole can pronounce. But it has to be the Church as a whole (not just some ultimate nod by the Bishop of Rome). Nor is the substance of this conclusion gainsaid or even affected by choleric protests as to the absence of a change “this side of Judgement Day”. We are dealing with God’s Church and His ministers and it is with His time-scale that we need to be concerned.

Significantly, the most recent report (July, 1996) of the Informal Conversations between the Methodist Church and the Church of England (GS Misc. 477) makes plain (para. 46) that the process of discernment concerning the development of women priests in the ordering of the ministry of the universal Church “is seen as continuing until all the churches reach a common mind”.

As matters currently stand in the Church of England, we have opted for a divided priesthood. We have now to live with it. There is no reason why that cannot be done with harmony and integrity, charity and mutual respect. Of course, there has to be fair play, and it is precisely that which appears so signally and scandalously absent from the senior ecclesiastical appointments of most diocesan bishops and from the discernible recommendations of the Crown Appointments Commission (as regards which latter the two archbishops as permanent central members of the Commission have much to answer for).

In a new situation of institutional division, not least at the altar, some older understandings will necessarily have to change. It may be ‘‘unhistorical’’ (though I doubt it) to talk about overlapping and “parallel jurisdictions”, but that is what a ministerially divided church requires. To dismiss such in soundbite terms as ‘‘lunacy’’, “nonsense” and an “entirely impossible notion” reveals only a naive inability or a perverse unwillingness to understand the essential nature of the situation as it now exists in fact and in law. A third province of the Church of England could be a convenient arrangement pastorally and administratively (certainly so if women bishops emerge) and it would be no more “another separate church” than are its potential constituent elements, as these are now dispersed within the Church of England today.

Likewise, PEVs remain necessary - not for anyone’s “comfort of mind” nor by grace and favour of a patronising majority, but because the ministerial division synodically decided upon requires them if justice is to be done. It may be difficult to reconcile PEVs with previous understandings of episcopacy; it is no less difficult to accept the existence of a Church of England which combines a continuing claim to be part of the one Church Catholic with a deliberate division as to the acceptability of its priesthood. But that is where we are.

The old categories will no longer do, particularly in our understandings of “communion” and being in “communion”. Though divided ministerially, we remain a single entity, the one Church of England, Catholic and Reformed, and there is no problem about being in “communion” jurisdictionally and formally. Sacramental communion, in relation to the Service of Holy Communion, is, however, a different matter. I have “excommunicated” no one but I cannot receive Communion when the celebrant is a bishop who voted in favour of the ordination of women as priests on 11th November 1992, or who has since so ordained them. That is not to deny the validity of the orders of such bishops or of the persons ordained by them - or the legality of those ordinations. Article 26 is a more than sufficient answer to accusations of “taint” and in any event arguments about “validity” of ministerial order in a Church as fragmented as the whole Church of God is today are as doubtfully profitable as they are seriously sustainable.

My action is a wholly personal and deeply painful protest as an Anglican and Scripturally Reformed Catholic against what I see as an irresponsible and flagrant violation of Catholic order and a misuse of authority by those whom the Church has ever taught me to regard as the custodians of her Order and Sacraments.

The present situation of the Church of England is anomalous and untidy and a long way from the Gospel imperative of unity. But that is not to say that it lacks honesty, integrity or staying power or that it is incompatible with the purposes of God for His Church or the discharge by the Church of her God-given mission. So long as it is possible - as it now is - to stay in good conscience within the Church which has ever nurtured us, “original” Anglican Catholics will continue to prefer that domicile. To move to another shore is not necessarily to enter a fuller light, particularly if it involves the denial of all that we have hitherto professed to hold and believe. Personally, I “affirm” no one and nothing but the Catholic Creeds.

Yes, we have to be steadfast, positive, joyous and co-operative. There is no place for a Ghetto mentality or for the whingeing and whining of those who appear to have an eternal chip on their shoulders.

The way forward will not be without pain. We have no right to expect otherwise. But it will be a labour of Love.

Oswald Clark was for many years Chairman of the House of Laity of the General Synod.

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