Hard Questions

Geoffrey Kirk wonders if the Rochester Commission can ever hope for agreement.

What are bishops for? The question is one which many a reader of New Directions will have asked herself, probably in a moment of exasperation with a particular practitioner. But it is an important, indeed a fundamental question – one which, as Simon Killwick pointed out in a recent contribution to the debate on the Rochester Commission’s presentation at the York Synod, is logically prior to any consideration of women bishops.

The ‘planes’ of Cameron

The response of the Commission to Killwick’s reasonable request for clarification of the bishop’s role was to wave a copy of the Cameron Report (1990) in the air and to claim to be giving the matter further consideration. But will Cameron come to the rescue? It is hard to see how it could. The Report speaks of the local church, the Church throughout the world and the Church through the ages as the three ‘planes’ of the Church’s life. The bishop has a particular role in each ‘plane’.

‘In the local church the bishops focuses and nurtures the unity of his people, in his sharing in the collegiality of bishops the local church is bound together with other local churches; and through the succession of bishops the local community is linked to the Church through the ages. Thus the bishop in his own person in his diocese; and in his collegial relations in the wider church, and in his place in the succession of bishops in their communities in faithfulness to the gospel, is a sign and focus of the unity of the Church’ (p160, para 351).

A sign and focus?

It is very difficult indeed to see how a woman could be ‘a sign and focus of unity’ on any of these planes.

Her orders would be rejected by some in her diocese. In the Church of England, moreover, those who rejected her ministry would do so on the understanding that their rights in the matter had already been recognized by the Church at large and enshrined in statute law. Those rights were indeed one of the terms and conditions agreed in order to facilitate the ordination of women to the priesthood in the first place. It would hardly be fair or reasonable to allow parishes and individuals to refuse the ministry of women priests, but to impose upon them that of women bishops.

Her orders would be rejected by others in the college of bishops. Orders are no longer the shared and common possession of Anglicans throughout the world. There is no longer a straight-forward reciprocal equivalence between them. Nor, in the view of Rome and Constantinople, do all the bishops of the Communion share the same status and relationship vis-à-vis the bishops of those two great communions.

She would, ‘in the succession of bishops in their communities’, be an anomaly – a new beginning rather than a faithful continuation. Wild and unsubstantiated claims about women bishops in the first three centuries notwithstanding, it can scarcely be doubted that the reservation of the priestly and episcopal office to men is co-terminous with the evidence for the existence of those offices, and that from the earliest times reference has been made to the practice of Jesus in the appointment of the Twelve as determinative.

All this must be obvious to every member of the Commission. But they will by now have stubbed their toes on other realities too.

The Wisdom of Wooster

The Bishop of Worcester, in a transparent ploy, drew the Synod’s attention to the radical divisions amongst the Commission’s own members. Their differences of opinion are such, he suggested, that it is virtually inconceivable that they should arrive at a unanimous conclusion. Just so. I well remember the presentation of GS829 by Alec Graham, in the cribbed confines of St Matthew’s Westminster in 1989. ‘This Report’, said Alec, with less than conviction, ‘is unanimous’. ‘That’, said Clifford Longley, from the back of the room, ‘is a very Anglican use of the word.’

Among those differences of opinion are differences, of course, about what bishops are for, and what the sacred ministry is. It would be difficult to imagine, in all of Christendom, an ecclesial body less likely than the Church of England to come to a unanimous conclusion on such matters. There is no agreement among Anglicans about whether Holy Order is a sacrament; about whether the threefold ministry is of the esse or merely the bene esse of the Church; or about whether the sacred ministry has a ‘representative’ function (and if so about what is represented thereby). More remarkably there is no agreement on these matters even amongst those who advocate and those who resist the ordination and consecration of women.

Off with the Head!

In a contribution to Women in Episcopacy (a publication of WATCH recently circulated to members of the Synod) Professor John Barton chanced his arm: ‘I do not believe that orders are one of the sacraments ordained by Christ, or that they are confined to those ordained in a supposed Apostolic Succession, but that they are one method (a very good one, but still one method) of organizing the Church of God … A bishop is a senior minister of the Gospel … the Church has authorized him to exercise a limited authority in pastoral matters …Where is the problem in episcopacy so conceived being exercised by a woman, even on Evangelical principles? She will not be claiming to be ‘head’ of anything (if she is wise); she will claim only to be exercising a necessary but limited ministry for and on behalf of the whole Church.’

One wonders if the Professor has been listening all this time. Quite apart from the fact that a significantly large number of women priests, in terms of the self-selecting categories of the recent Cost of Conscience survey, called themselves ‘Catholic’ or ‘Anglo-catholic’, the arguments used by the most ardent advocates of women’s ordination have consistently employed a ‘higher’ view of orders than Barton’s.

High, Low and indifferent

It is not hard to see why. At the heart of the feminist critique of Christianity (on which the whole women’s ordination movement is ultimately dependent for its ideological backing) is a rooted objection to the patriarchalism of the religion’s basic imagery. The rebellion is against the Fatherhood of God; and it is easy to see how an exalted Ignatian view of episcopacy offers a helping hand to such a campaign.

A frontal assault on biblical and traditional language (for example, in the naming of the Trinity in baptism) was never likely to be successful – though it was tried. But the offensive imagery might be mitigated, it was thought, if some of those who ‘represent’ the Father and/or his incarnate Son were to be female. To Mary Daly’s slogan ‘Since God is male, the Male is God’ (1979), Bishop Paul Moore of New York responded in the same year:

‘God as Father and God as Son invoked by a male minister during worship creates in the unconscious, the intuitive, the emotive part of your belief an unmistakable male God. However, when women … wear the symbolic robes of Christ, this unconscious perception will begin to be redressed and the femininity of God will begin to be felt.’

The more so one might add with regard to the episcopate, if (in Ignatius’s words) ‘it is clear that we should look upon the bishop just as we would look upon the Lord himself’ (Ephesians 4)!

But if there are those (perhaps a majority) who argue for women’s ordination and consecration from an understanding of orders radically different from Professor Barton, there are also those who share his ecclesiology and oppose women’s ordination. And needless to say, there are those who see the ordination of women as an illegitimate use of Holy Order to subvert the basic image patterns of Christianity, and so oppose the innovation from the same ecclesiology as many of its most ardent proponents.

Antecedent questions

What is the Rochester Commission to make of all this? Can it untangle the threads and suggest a way forward?

Frankly, I doubt it. Women’s ordination is an innovation with its ideological roots in a post-enlightenment egalitarianism which is incompatible with traditional Christianity (as the unfolding agenda in other areas of human sexuality is increasingly showing). Its thought patterns are alien. It can only be imposed upon Christian Faith; it cannot develop organically out of it.

The Rochester Commission’s interim report to the Synod asks a series of questions which it proposes to address and resolve. But to each of them there is an antecedent question or questions:

How should a Christian understanding of the relationship between men and women be reflected in the way the Church is ordered?

ANTECEDENT QUESTION: What is a Christian understanding of the relationship between women and men?

Is it appropriate to use the language of representation as a way of understanding the role of the ordained ministry within the Church, or does the use of such language tend to focus attention on the minister rather than on the activity of God?

ANTECEDENT QUESTION: If such language were to be used, who would be representing what to whom?

If it is appropriate to use the language of representation, do arguments about inclusiveness in terms of representing both the Church and Christ as the risen and ascended Lord apply to all the ordained, priests as well as bishops?


What is distinctive about episcopal ministry? Is a bishop more than just the president of the presbyteral council? What is there in the apostolic and prophetic aspects of episcopal ministry which affects women becoming bishops?

ANTECEDENT QUESTION: Is this a question which the Church of England is equipped or entitled to resolve a) independently of other provinces of the Communion b) independently of other Episcopal churches?

If there is a significant element within the Church which does not accept women bishops, what would be the implications for (a) the bishop’s role as a promoter of unity in the local Church, (b) the collegiality of the House of Bishops, (c) relationships in the worldwide Anglican Communion, especially with partner dioceses, if the Church of England decided to proceed in this direction? In addition, what would be the implications for the consciences of those in favour of ordaining women as bishops if the Church decided not to do so?

ANTECEDENT QUESTIONS: What constitutes ‘full’ or ‘unimpaired’ communion? Did the Church of England or the Anglican Communion ever enjoy it? If so, is it recoverable?

Ecumenically, some churches will not go further in terms of visible unity if the Church of England excludes women from certain positions of oversight. For others, women bishops may be a more serious obstacle to unity than women priests. What are there implications here for our ecumenical priorities?

ANTECEDENT QUESTIONS: What should be our ecumenical priorities? To what extent has the ordination of women to the priesthood already predetermined them?

An issue that divides

Probably Peter Selby is right. It is highly unlikely that a consensus can be reached on any of these antecedent questions either in the Commission itself or in the Church of England as a whole. What the women’s movement has done is to expose the intellectual incoherence of Anglicanism. A time bomb has been placed under the fragile structures of co-existence. Two (perhaps even three) different religions have rubbed along together in something approaching amity. But like sugar to a rotten tooth, women’s ordination has sought out the weaknesses of this ramshackle arrangement. It could have been otherwise; but there it is. And a return to the status quo ante is not on the cards.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham, in the Diocese of Southwark

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