WHEN the Church of England General Synod debates its wish for women to be admitted to the episcopate, the ministry being discussed is not that of the Church of England, nor that of the Anglican Communion, but the ministry of the Universal Church.
This has always been fundamental in our Anglican understanding of ministry — a position we have maintained consistently with ecumenical partners.
The Bishops at the 1988 Lambeth Conference approached the matter with this broad perspective in mind. The Conference made no attempt to state whether it was right, or not, to ordain women. If a province were persuaded by compelling doctrinal reasons, by the experience of women in ordained ministry, by the demands of mission in its region, and if it had the overwhelming support of its dioceses, then a step to consecrate women should be offered for reception in the province concerned, in the Anglican Communion, and in the Universal Church.
The matter of women’s ordination could not be declared to be settled, beyond any shadow of doubt, until it was received by the whole Church. Anglicans on both sides were urged to go on respecting each other’s deeply held convictions, respecting the integrity of one another, in an open process of discernment, and remaining in the highest degree of communion possible. This was described as a “process of open reception”.
This understanding led the college of bishops in the Episcopal Church in the United States to put forward a scheme of episcopal visitors to care for those who, being opposed to women priests, were fearful that the efficacy of the sacraments would be endangered. It was assumed that all had to recognise that women had been canonically ordained.
This nuanced position, taken by the bishops at Lambeth 1988, was hailed by some as “typical Anglican fudge”, or more crudely as “suck-it-and-see theology”. Others believed that it followed the Gamaliel principle (Acts 5.33ff).
WHEN THE Church of England moved to ordain women after 1992, our legislative provisions for those opposed were drafted with the same principles of “open reception” in the Universal Church, and with the understanding of provisionality — not about the ministry of any women so ordained, but provisionality in the development in the ordering of the ministry of the Universal Church. Only in this way could faith be kept with the Anglican understanding of itself as part of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.
During the 1998 Lambeth Conference, some of the 12 women bishops from the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, with some of those opposed to the consecration of women as bishops, produced a Resolution calling on provinces to uphold the principle of “open reception”, and noting that reception “is a long and spiritual process”.
They affirmed that those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to, the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate are all loyal Anglicans, and asked that provinces make provision, “including appropriate episcopal ministry . . . recognising that there should be no compulsion on any bishop in matters concerning ordination or licensing”.
As at Lambeth 1988, stress was laid on the qualities needed to live in the highest degree of communion: courtesy, tolerance, mutual respect, a willingness to think the best of one another, and a commitment to pray for one another. There was generosity and genuine mutual support, in spite of difference.
If we are to live into the future in the highest degree of communion, in spite of difference, then it will require of all of us — those in favour and those opposed — respect, generosity, and mutual trust. We shall have to give space to one another to live with confidence, while at the same time finding ways not to seal ourselves off from one another in watertight compartments. Interaction is essential for open reception.
SYNOD MEMBERS will need to consider whether replacing the existing legal provisions with a simple code of practice or building on them in new legislation is the right way to give confidence to one another that we really do want to live in the highest degree of communion within the Church of England, the Anglican Communion, and the Universal Church.
When the Synod made decisions over women and the priesthood, the bishops talked of making space for those of differing views, believing that both held legitimate positions, while the Universal Church comes to a common mind. They talked of the importance of recognising the integrity of those who hold different positions.
This led us to pass legislation rather than a code of practice. We still need secure and generous legislation that will not damage what we believe about the communion of the Church, and that makes sense in a Church of England where the majority supports and rejoices in the ordination of women.
We need legislation that will encourage us to maintain contact, and to go on explaining to one another why it is gospel truth for some that women should be ordained, and why it is gospel truth for others that women should not be ordained. The discussion is about the possibility we each see for proclaiming the wholeness of the gospel of the Kingdom of God’s righteousness.
This is a matter of mission. To quote the bishops again: how we live with difference “has significance not only for ourselves but also for the wider Church and for a world, which desperately needs to learn the art of living together generously with difference”.
Dame Mary Tanner is a former General Secretary of the Council for Christian Unity, and a President of the World Council of Churches.