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Women bishops, sacramental assurance, the mitre: debates continue

28 July 2010


From Fr Thomas Seville CR

Sir, — Stephen Barney (Letters, 26 July) makes some interesting points, but indicates the confusion that there is in the debate about the ordination of women in the Church of England, in particular over “sacramental assurance”. Although the term is recent, the concept has been around for a long time, both in the Church of England and in other Churches.

The idea of sacramental assurance belongs to what the Church believes about where the Church is to be found, the subjective side of the definition of the Church which we find in Article XIX of the Articles of Religion: “the visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacra­ments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.”

It expresses the confidence that members of the Church are owed in the sacraments, that they are celebrated rightly. It is not about ceremonial, but about the heart of the sacramental reality of the Church. The celebration, to be sure, involves the words and the elements used — the prayers have to be according to Christian faith and order and the elements those that are according to Christ’s gift, water for baptism, bread and wine for the eucharist. It is, however, also necessary that the minister has to be one ordained and, in the ministry of the Church of England, episcopally ordained.

This is where the problem arises for many. There are grounds for doubt that the criterion of episcopal ordination is fulfilled when the subject of ordination is female; and such doubts are legitimately held in the Church of England, as both the Lambeth Conference and the General Synod have clearly recognised. It has not been been shown that the introduction of the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate has been proved to be either licit or required by scripture or the ancient witnesses to whom the Church of England makes appeal in her teaching and in her prayer. Grounds for what is called “sacramental assurance” are lacking, and lacking because the norm of scripture and the ancient witnesses does not give it.

This is why many Anglicans argue that the Church of England is bound to provide a ministry such that confidence in the sacraments may continue to be had by all her loyal sons and daughters. It is not a concession that is looked for, an occasional teddy bear to a whining child, but something that is simply due, and due to those who have hitherto been valued members of the grown-up family.

The Community of the Resurrection
Mirfield WF14 0BN

From Susan Stead

Sir, — As a woman — who, by the way, has no desire to be a priest or bishop — I am angry with you at the Church Times (News, 16 July) for pushing the pity line that the poor old traditionalists are suffering. To be honest, it’s about time they did. Women have been suffering for a very, very long time — and over that time the Church and the country have lost out on the rich ministry that could have come their way.

The Revd Simon Tillotson (Letters, 16 July) claims that the issue is far more complex than simple sexism. From where I’m standing, it is simply sexism dressed up, just as apartheid was dressed up in theological terms. And it strikes me as extraordinarily simplistic for Sister Anne Williams CA (speaker at Synod) to say that, because the Lord took 12 male disciples for the institution of the Lord’s Supper, then all priests must be male.

Many of the people who are against women’s ordination and priesthood are members of Reform or Forward in Faith, groups that form the extreme edges of the Church of England, and are barely Anglican in their practice. The conservative Evangelical churches pay scant if any regard for the eucharist, let alone the accepted eucharistic prayers, and many Anglo-Catholics are more Catholic than the Roman Catholics. In my view, they are fighting for power — for the buildings and the money — or they’d have gone years ago to the Reformed Churches and the Roman Catholic Church.

If they’re so full of integrity, then why don’t they go, leave the properties, the money, and the fight for recompense, and for once in their lives suffer for what they say they believe in?

The Vicarage, 46 Quarry Road
Headington, Oxford OX3 8NU

From Mr Hugh Alford

Sir, — I am currently reading Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s brilliant 1016-page tome A History of Christianity, which was serialised by BBC TV. I have reached a section on “Charlemagne, Carolingians and a new Roman empire (800-1000 CE)”. On page 358, I read the following concerning Carolingian monasteries.

“Working with the conventions of the times they [women] played as great a part in the life of the Church at large as their male equivalents, the abbots, or indeed as bishops. In fact those abbesses presiding over the greater houses came to wear the headgear worn by abbots and bishops which symbolised authority in the Church: the mitre.”

Would it be too optimistic to hope that this precedent might help the dioceses in their deliberations on the drafting group’s proposals?

31 Park Close, Ilchester Place
London W14 8NH

From Mary Alexander

Sir, — I have only just read the comments on mitres (Letters, 2 July), but I must set the record straight.

Mitres were worn by all Western bishops and many abbots by the end of the 11th century (Janet Mayo, A History of Ecclesiastical Dress, 1984). The mitre started in perhaps the eighth century, as a soft white linen cap, tied round the head with a band, which is presumably where the lappets hanging down the back originate. The cap grew larger, and the soft linen sank in the middle to form two horn-like protusions.

This was rather unfortunate; so the mitre was turned through 90 degrees, and developed into the familiar shape of today, stiffened and embroidered.

The medieval mitre was quite low, but grew to a great height by the early 16th century. It fell out of favour after the Reformation, until it was revived in the 19th century. It was certainly worn a good deal in the Middle Ages, and was used to identify archbishops, bishops, and abbots in art and on seals. Some (all?) bishops were buried in their mitre, and a few such mitres survive.

Guildford Museum, Castle Arch
Guildford, Surrey GU1 3SX

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