November seems to be the month for the Church of England (or at least its General Synod) to make momentous decisions. By the end of the day we shall probably have heard that its members have voted in sufficient majority to proceed to the ordination of women to the office of bishop in the Church of England. It has been pointed out many times that the C of E, in ordaining women to the priesthood after 1994, did not produce a clear theological statement of what this priesthood was. Perhaps it did not dare to do so, for it would have revealed only that the C of E has some who believe their priests offer the Mass for the living and the dead (and there are some women clerics who believe this) and others who believe their vicar is leader, preacher, and teacher. (And indeed, very many who think he is a state official living in a large house, doing very little but available to marry them, christen their children, and press the button at their funeral).
The Bishop of Rochester, speaking to the Today programme this morning, remarked that ‘ a bishop is a bishop is a bishop.’ Well, yes, but it does not tell us what a bishop is. The British State which appoints the bishops of the Church of England regularly appoints bishops who disagree fundamentally with their predecessors (as in the case of the Bishop of Rochester) and does so because it keeps the National Church indefinite and arguing among itself. Thus it poses no challenge to the political establishment. The one thing the Bishop did make himself clear about was jurisdiction: women bishops must exercise it without challenge throughout their dioceses. Now whether jurisdiction is more important than the teaching ministry of the bishop, or as the centre of unity, is questionable. The Bishops of the Church of England do not in fact have very much jurisdiction, for they are limited by Parliament above them, and by the independence of the parochial clergy below them. If we are to understand jurisdiction as the power to make people do things, then C of E bishops have had little of it. Would it be unfair to say that the male bishops want more jurisdiction and now see a way to get it? Certainly many of them think the C of E would be a more successful church if they had the power to organise their dioceses. The evidence of the last fifty years does not support their view.
In fact, the C of E has, by default, worked out the answers to a number of fundamental questions about its life, notably whether it is Catholic or Reformed, where it stands in relation to the State, and what pattern of ordained ministry it holds.
Looking back to 1992 it is clear now that the Synod rejected a Catholic understanding of ordained ministry. For some this vote was deliberate; others had no idea that they were playing with theological fire. They felt that somehow it was only right that women should do all the things men did. They had been told that the only thing that was being ‘denied’ to women was the ‘right’ to ‘say the magic words’ in the Communion Service. Well, if that was all, then surely …
Now I don’t mean for one moment that there are not people in the C of E (including my women priest friends) who hold a Catholic understanding of priesthood. But in the aftermath of 1992 vote it was clear that we were going to submit what we had done to the judgement of the wider Church, for what was called ‘reception’. Such reception never came, and both the Pope speaking for the Catholic Church, and the Ecumenical Patriarch, speaking for the Orthodox world, gave their clear reasons why the priesthood could only be conferred on men. This was the judgement of the whole Church on what a ‘part of the … Catholic Church’ (which is what the C of E claims to be) had done. For those who had believed that the C of E ordained deacons, priests and bishops of the Church of God and within the historical succession there was now a major crisis of conscience. (I guess it’s why so little objection was raised to the decision of the Holy See to ordain unconditionally those who entered the Catholic Church through the Ordinariate) For those who believe that the C of E has always had its own ministry (and that a Reformed one) there was no problem. The C of E was now ordaining (and had always done so) ‘Church of England priests’. And increasingly the word ‘priest’ was dropping out of C of E vocabulary, even in its official reports on ministry, with ‘ordained ministers’ being preferred. The C of E was now coming into line with what most people thought when they told us, ‘I thought priests were Catholic and we had vicars in the C of E.’
Although the question of the ordained ministry had not been tackled head on it now became an inevitable choice. Like it or not – and many on both sides of the argument about women’s ordination did not want to make this choice – the Church of England was choosing its Reformed heritage over its Catholic roots, and to have ministers of the word, not priests celebrating the sacraments. Having distanced itself from the great Communions of East and West, the C of E has moved rapidly to align itself with the Lutheran churches of Northern Europe, and with the liberal Protestant bodies in this country. Local ecumenical projects and co-celebration at Holy Communion services, and the breakdown of any discipline regarding the sharing of communion, make this the practical conclusion for most Anglicans who do not read Synod reports!
Finally over the last twenty years we have seen the C of E arguing for its continuing position as the ‘established’ church of the nation. On the Sunday programme, the spokesman for ‘Watch’ said that we must remember that the nation as a whole, not just the church, was looking forward to women bishops. And in part the haste to bring forward this new legislation has been in deference to the hostile reaction of MP’s last year: reaction from what someone naughtily called ‘the shallow end of Parliament’. It is important to remind ourselves that it is this risky business of embracing the political establishment which has put the dampers on re-union with the Catholic (and Orthodox) Church, at least as much as the ordination of women. The Church of Sweden, established like the C of E, gave way to a Parliamentary command to ordain women, saw itself weakened by secular control, then dis-established any way: as a force for the evangelisation of Sweden it is effectively dead.
In the aftermath of the 1992 vote, when many Anglo-Catholics were distressed and bitter against the church of their baptism, a wise Catholic priest said this to me: ‘It is of no advantage to us Catholics to see the Church of England collapse: we could not take its place in the life of this country.’ I believe he is right in the first half of his advice. There is absolutely no place for spiteful remarks or crowing about ‘We told you so.’ Certainly the history of the last twenty years must not be re-written, and we may insistently point this out. (The Watch spokesman needs reminding that the 1992 compromise – priests, not bishops – was the only way of getting the change through). Those who made promises that these changes in our National Church would bring the people of England back to Christianity must be held accountable. But I believe the second half of his sentence cannot any longer be true. Those of us in the Ordinariate have come to the Catholic Church, and one of the things we bring is a sense of mission to the people of this land: primary evangelism, not just the recovery of the lapsed. The Ordinariate is at the moment much too small to launch such a campaign. But perhaps we may do something to inspire and give confidence to the Catholic Church in our country to speak the fullness of the Gospel, without fear or compromise, so that men and women may be brought to repentance, forgiveness and new life.