LETTER FROM AMERICA DECEMBER 1997
OUR GENERAL CONVENTION being over, the moment of decision for conservatives has been pushed back to next year's Lambeth Conference, at which conservatives hope that the African, Asian, and South American bishops will decisively rule against the moral and doctrinal innovations of western liberals. Some conservatives here actually believe that a definite statement from the Lambeth Conference will stop the American revisionists. I don't see that there is any reason to think this, our liberals being convinced of the righteousness of their cause and believing themselves not to be bound by the decision of a body that is only consultative and advisory.
Many bishops here agree with the Bp Spong's recent letter to Abp Carey, though most would never be so crass and tactless as to say it publicly, as he did. They prefer to speak communally and act (when they get home, and with ten years till the next meeting) independently. Other conservatives, more realistic, hope that a definite statement will give them claim to be "the real Anglicans" in the United States and therefore a better legal claim to the buildings and endowments should (or when) the Church divides. They also believe that such a declaration would move the "moderates" or "the sleeping middle" to commitment and political involvement.
I think this almost as unlikely. American laws being what they are, the appeal that one is in communion with the Archbishop of Nigeria will not convince a judge that one ought to keep the building to which the Episcopal Church has a legal claim. And there is, I am afraid, no "sleeping middle" to be awakened, or rather, those who still sleep after thirty years of theological warfare do not want to be awakened, especially by people trying to recruit them into the army.
An un-Anglican act
The conservative resistance is a funny, and unstable, coalition of very different people, certainly compared with FiF and Reform. This greatly reduces its effectiveness, but on the other hand we find friends and allies where we did not expect them.
As you know, Convention voted by a very large margin to require every Episcopalian to accept, or at least to act as if they accept, the ordination of women.
Before it began, a group of 90 clergywomen issued an open letter urging the defeat of this measure. I don't think the statement was widely reported in England. Though they believed that the ordination of women was "the work of the Holy Spirit" and that "in the fullness of time, God will move the universal church wholeheartedly to embrace the ordination of women," they believed the measure "precipitate, coercive [and] un-Anglican."
These ordained women almost all Evangelicals, and almost one-third from the dioceses of Pittsburgh and Virginia argued that "the process of 'reception' of such a sweeping change as the admission of women into the presbyterate and episcopate will take at least two generations" and that to pass the canon "would be to indulge in the sin of impatience toward those who clearly differ from us," in violation of St Paul's instructions in I Corinthians 13.4. They declared that "The integrity of General Convention's leadership is at stake in this vote," and called on the Convention "to be faithful to the promises made at the time the ordination of women was passed [in 1976], namely that during the process of reception the ordination of women would be permissive, not mandatory."
These women received, as you will guess, a goodly amount of abuse, and some of them lost friends. A friend of mine who spoke for the group at an open hearing heard a woman say of her, as she walked back to her seat, "She seems nice," and another respond, with open distaste, "She's a devil in angel's clothing." (It's rather clericalist, you know, to describe a clerical collar as angel's clothing.) Thus, even while having unavoidable doubts about their vocational choices, we admired and were grateful for an act of some courage and charity.
A difficult time
Even twenty years after the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women, conservative women clergy - the 90 who signed the open letter may be about all there are - have a difficult time. Their theology divides them from the other ordained women and their ordination from more traditional Episcopalians, and even many men who "accept" the ordination of women do not really believe in it, a fact of which ordained women are aware.
Over the last ten years, dozens of priests (literally dozens) have told me privately that they believed the innovation unbiblical or had deep doubts about it, but that it "is not a Gospel issue" or "is not a hill I'm going to die on" or (winner of the Vicar of Bray award) "my Church has approved it so I must accept it."
A few months ago, in a discussion of sexual morality, a priest whose wife was ordained argued that St Paul's command that the bishop be the husband of one wife implicitly ruled out the acceptance of homosexuality. The supporters of women's ordination round the table all agreed, several remarking on how clever the argument was, and how useful. When they finished, I said, "You know, that verse does have one more implication, read the way you've just read it." Someone asked me what it was, and I said, "That the bishop ought to be male." "Touché," he said, to general laughter. That the Bible requires priests to be men follows, and follows inevitably, from their own way of reading Scripture, and yet they do not accept the conclusion.
This is why such ordained women and Synod members both view these men with some concern. Yet we, our disagreement openly admitted, can find in each other allies and even friends.
David Mills is the director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, where he edits the magazine Mission & Ministry, and also the editor of The Evangelical Catholic, the journal of the Episcopal Synod of America.
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