This is not about justice and equality. We agree on those

26 May 2011

The Catholic nature of our Church is at stake, says Jonathan Baker

THERE is still a sense of different parts of the Church of England simply talking past one another rather than engaging in a genuine dialogue and a search for the best way forward for all.

The question of whether women should be ordained as bishops in the Church of England is seen all too often as one of equality, justice, and inclusion. No Christian can doubt the equality of all humanity, male and female, in the eyes of God.

Those of us who struggle with the Church of England’s move towards the ordination of women as bishops are not against equality, justice, or inclusion. That simple point cannot be overstated. On what grounds do we take our stand? If we are to be heard — really heard — at this late stage of the process, it is vital that everyone taking part in the debate understands the nature of the argu­ment.

IN FEBRUARY 2006, the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out to mem­bers of the General Synod that, “for those who are not content with the idea that we should go forward or­daining women as bishops, the prob­lem is not one of opinion, it’s rather of obedience.”

That helpful phrase, which reminds us all that far more is involved here than a mere casual conservatism, let alone an unthinking hostility towards women, is one that all would do well to hold in mind over the coming months.

The Archbishop spoke of obedi­ence to scripture. Many Evangelicals (and, indeed, many Anglo-Catholics) find there clear teaching on the ordering of the Christian household that suggests patterns of comple­men-tarity rather than simple inter­change-ability, between the sexes.

When it is more deeply explored — and space does not permit me to do this now — such an understand­ing of the domestic church finds a consonance with Catholic teaching on the bishop (or priest) in his special position as chief minister of the eucharist, the one who presides at the holy table of the Lord, and acts in the person of Christ, the head of the Church.

Then there is obedience to the consensus of the Church Catholic. Here we touch on the vital issue for all members of the Church of Eng­land who believe that there are limits to the direction in which An­glicanism can develop without refer­ence to the wider Church.

The Church of England is part of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church, as the preface to the Dec­laration of Assent tells us; or, in the words of Canon A1, the Church of England belongs to the true and apostolic Church of Christ.

In either text, the meaning is plain. While the Church of England may possess all that it needs in order to be a part of, or belong to, the Catholic Church, it is not simply coterminous with the Catholic Church: there is something bigger than itself, within whose wider life its own identity is to be found.

The historic episcopate is one of the hallmarks of that greater Church from which Anglican identity de­rives. In a phrase that the Bishop in Europe, Dr Geoffrey Rowell, has used, bishops are “knots in the net”, holding the Church together, guaranteeing relationships of com­munion, and enabling an assured sacramental life.

Thus it was that Cardinal Walter Kasper, the then President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, addressed the bishops of the Church of England in June 2006, on the theme of the mutual recognition of ministries, especially episcopal ministry, and the unity of the Church.

We need to be clear here. Cardinal Kasper was not attempting to con­vert the bishops to a distinctively “Roman Catholic” approach. (Indeed, it is important to em­phasise that Anglicans who hesitate over the ordination of women do not do so out of a sense of obedi­ence to Rome, or Constantinople, but because of the ancient com-mon tradition of the whole Church, the Church of the first millennium.)

Rather, he was setting out an ecclesiology shared by the great Churches of East and West, and espoused by the House of Bishops of the Church of England as re­cently as 2000 (Bishops in Com­munion: Collegiality in the service of the Koinonia of the Church, GS Misc 580, CHP, 2000).

Bishops are instruments of unity in two essential ways. First, each bishop is the source of communion for the local church (the diocese); second, the bishops guarantee com­munion between dioceses by their communion one with another. When these “planes” of communion are threatened or impaired, there is good reason to say that there no longer exists a Church in that classical sense to which Cardinal Kasper referred.

This is why the question of ordaining women to the episcopate is a more far-reaching one than it might at first appear. It raises deeper questions than those posed by the ordination of women to the pres­byterate.

For those who will be unable to receive the ministry of bishops who are women, because such a develop­ment does not enjoy that wider consent of the whole Church Catholic, there is a breakdown in communion.

Not only will they have difficul­ties with the sacramental ministry of bishops who are women, but also with that of the priests — male and female — whom these women have ordained. Doubt will have replaced that assured sacramental life which I referred to earlier. And where assured sacraments are in doubt, as we have seen, the nature of the Church is seriously impaired, too.

IF, THEN, as looks likely, the Church of England is to move ahead with the ordination of women as bishops, much more is needed than what the present legis­lation proposes, in order to safe­guard the life in communion of those who cannot agree.

The draft Measure simply does not address this problem, but, rather, paves the way for any male bishop to be the delegate of a female bishop, should a parish so request it. Nothing is said about the relation­ships of communion with that male bishop; nor is that male bishop to be given authority (jurisdiction) in his own right to equip him for mission: the “tools of the trade” are not there.

A final point: at various times here I have used words such as “doubt” and “uncertainty”. It is important to stress that those on this side of the argument are far from certain that women cannot be priests. Indeed, most of us would say that we do not know, but that, until such a development enjoys wider consent, we cannot be sure.

We are clear that God has blessed, and continues to bless, the ministry of women and men, lay and or­dained, in the Church of England, and that this continues to be a Church that legitimately finds a place within that greater whole which is the Church Catholic.

What we ask is for space to con­tinue to be able to live the Chris-tian life, the sacramental life, as we have received it — as we believe the Church of England has received it from the Church of the Apostles.

Supporters of the ordination of women as bishops must ask them­selves whether this draft legislation is truly mindful of those others who, obedient as they understand it to scripture and tradition, need proper arrangements to allow a continuing ecclesial life in the Church of England which will enable them not simply to survive but to flourish and grow.

For those who cannot assent to the ordination of women as bishops, the answer to that question must be, alas, no.

The Revd Jonathan Baker is Principal of Pusey House and Bishop-designate of Ebbsfleet.

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