ECUMENICAL COURTESY

Rodney Schofield re-asserts the requirements of Canon A1

 

IT IS RIGHT that alleged instances of bullying and harassment experienced by the clergy' should be reported and investigated further, as the Venerable Gordon Kurht has promised to do. Ours should be a Church in which there is proper respect for each person, in which even-handedness of treatment occurs, and in which the courtesy of Christ himself abounds. If any of us has been guilty of anything less, we should be ready with an apology and the readiness to make amends. Brushing complaints aside or ridiculing those who feel threatened only makes matters worse, intensifying the feeling of being abused.

But of course, given that the MSF referred exclusively to women priests as potential victims, the matter needs to be set in context. Rudeness in any shape or form is cause for shame, and in so far as the traditional integrity may wittingly or unwittingly have provoked it, sincere contrition must be our first response. Let us not suppose however that only traditionalist male priests are capable of insensitivity towards their fellow human beings, nor that discriminatory behaviour is not more widespread. A o us, women included, will lapse at times, and therefore all of us will suffer. Whether we choose to give a public account of our pain is another matter. On the whole I c me to set great store by our Lord's own example who when reviled did not retaliate and who bore his indignity in silence. Indeed, we must remember that he prayed the Father to forgive those who used him wrongfully "for they know not what they do. "

Briefly though, for the record, let me state that I know those of our persuasion who continue to be ostracised by other clergy, made uncomfortable at chapter meetings, even to the point of being told to go and pack our bags by colleagues, discriminated against at all levels of appointments... to the extent that I can well believe some of the stories in the MSF report are true.

The difference is, however, crucially this. many of the imperfections of the Church of England arise from our fallen human nature: we have so much yet to learn about coping in a Christian way with our most passionately held differences of conviction. I do not seek to discredit those who disagree with me by imputing to them all the worst flaws of character. I have no need to use such unworthy methods, knowing that God's truth will in the end be vindicated by its own integrity. The MSF report by contrast has been seized upon by some as ammunition to further their political ends. For them it blackens the reputation of traditionalist Anglicans sufficiently to call for our entire abolition. "The Act of Synod must be revoked", they say. "Women bishops must be hastened on". With signally impaired logic and a woeful lack of insight into our theological position the Church Times argued thus: "Nothing would improve a male priest's behaviour towards the rank and file of women priests like the possibility of one of them becoming his boss."

Statements like that also forget the raison d'tre for the present arrangements. When the Church of England took the steps it did in I992 - I994, it was against the background of canon law which sets out, among other things, the fundamental perspective from which all matters of faith and order have to be viewed. Canon Al comes first, because it wants us to understand that we are no independent sect, nor a wholly autonomous body of Christians: The Church of England, established according to the laws of this realm under the Queen's Majesty, belongs to the true and apostolic Church of Christ. In that very statement lies the source of our present tensions. If, on the one hand, we are "under the Queen's Majesty" then we are bound to seek her, or her government's, sanction for the ordering of our affairs. But, on the other hand, so long as we also claim to belong "to the true and apostolic Church of Christ" we are not free to order our affairs so as to violate our apostolicity. There may, as the following Canons spell out, be local uses but only such as are "agreeable to the Word of God" (A3). Likewise doctrine, although it needs to be articulated afresh in each generation, yet it remains "grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures" (A5). The government of our Church, which includes the offices of those ordained, must not be "repugnant to the Word of God" (A6). In what therefore becomes the litmus test of our ecclesiological credentials the interpretation of the Bible is crucial: can we solely by due legal process within these islands determine its meaning, or must we defer to the judgement of the wider Church? Since it is clear that "the true and apostolic Church of Christ" is that one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that we profess in the creeds the latter is inevitably the case, which makes legislation for the ordination of women to the priesthood something that itself is inevitably provisional.

I stress the word "inevitable" because this provisionality is in serious danger of being forgotten. There are some who imagine that the repeal of the I993 Act of Synod would remove all ambiguity. Certainly that Act spoke in paragraph 3(a) of the "discernment in the wider Church of the rightness or otherwise of the Church of England's decision to ordain women to the priesthood", and by "the wider Church" is clearly meant what Bonds of Peace in its 2nd paragraph glossed as "the Universal Church". It went on, ",The Church of England needs to understand itself as a communion in dialogue, committed to remaining together in the ongoing process of the discernment of truth within the wider fellowship of the Christian Church." Those words confirm my interpretation of canon law and the foundational claims of our Church, but even if they had never been written or if they were now to be cancelled the logic of the situation would remain: we are inevitably in a kind of limbo so long as the Roman Catholic Church in particular - on the grounds of its undoubted apostolicity and its sheer numerical strength - questions the appropriateness of our recent moves. If we are impatient of this uncertainty, by all means cancel the Act of Synod, but couple with it Canon Al and abandon any sense of being more than a national sect.

In last year's Church of England Year Book David Edwards suggested that the time might be approaching when the Act of Synod should be "reviewed". He referred to the present arrangements as necessary in the I990's for charitable and pastoral reasons, but otherwise anomalous. Although the disclaimer is made that these views are those of the author alone, it is disturbing that an official publication of the Church should print them, representing as they do a serious misunderstanding of the continuing provisionality of both integrities. They may have contributed to the growing chorus of voices now heard that want the I993 Act rescinded, under the mistaken impression that "reception" is an internal process for our own Church, which can now be concluded. I have even spoken to Catholic Ordinands and clergy with this erroneous view of the matter!

There is however something to be said for the Act of Synod being reviewed if it could spell out more clearly the criteria by which a Christian consensus might be adjudicated. This may be asking rather a lot, of course, but without such indications it is perfectly possible to argue that since the Measure was enacted in I994 his Holiness the Pope has pronounced definitively, if not infallibly, on the subject and that therefore the wider reference has now been determined negatively. Those who resist this conclusion can only do so by pinning their hopes on a change of mind on his part, or by one of his successors, presumably responding to a groundswell of support for women's priesting throughout the whole Roman Catholic Church. Given that there are still considerable parts of the Anglican Communion (in Asia and Africa especially) who take a different view from the liberal West, this seems something of a pipe dream. But of course, it remains technically a long-term possibility and therefore places the traditionalist integrity, in the absence of any more realistic criteria, in a no-win situation.

When John Hapgood was Archbishop of York he used the phrase "creating appropriate distance without separation." In the interests of Christian unity that endeavour remains important. No doubt we all measure the "appropriate distance" a little differently, but it is always within the bounds of charity. Given the uncertain status of women priests in these provisional times, I co-exist with many for whom my reservations seem mere pedantry (indeed, this was an episcopal phrase tossed in my direction on one occasion when we were, as I thought, seriously grappling with the guidelines offered in Bonds of Peace). It means that I cannot in conscience receive the sacrament when a woman is the celebrant. And is conscience not to be respected? (There is a telling exchange in A Man for All Seasons when William Roper is trying to persuade Thomas More to change his mind, if only for "companionship". And More replies along these lines: when I go to hell for acting against my conscience, will you come with me then for "companionship" sake?) Sometimes it may be misinterpreted, and our detractors will accuse us of maligning women priests, but we can only continue patiently explaining how it derives from that ecumenical perspective which is at the root of Anglicanism. In practice, I endeavour to extend to women priests the same co-operation and courtesy that are offered to ministers of other churches, so that of course one can worship and pray with them, and share various non-eucharistic events together.

But the implications of Canon Al are not yet exhausted. The ecumenical import of belonging "to the true and apostolic Church of Christ" is that we must strive to make visible the bonds of unity. Indeed, it is far more certain that our Lord prayed, for us all to be one than that it is his will for women to be numbered among the priests of his Church. Whether the latter will ever satisfactorily be decided remains unclear, but it does mean that church unity is a far more important goal. Proposals to legislate for women bishops, now a serious subject of debate, may be theologically coherent with women priests, but to my mind would be completely inopportune because they would harden the breach with the Roman Catholic Church. If we are seriously pursuing the process of reception let us allow it all the time it needs (once we have clarified a little better how long that might be cf. my argument above) without causing further obstacles, and without acting unilaterally again. If we are serious about Canon Al, then we shall be serious about our relationship with the Pope and all that he represents. I recognise that the advent of women bishops would advance the cause of the Third Province movement, which is a different form of Anglican coexistence with undoubted attractions: but would the unity for which Jesus prayed have come any closer? It is only an option that traditionalist Anglicans should contemplate if the other integrity has completely abandoned its commitment to dialogue and to "the ongoing process of the discernment of truth within the wider fellowship of the Christian Church".

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